Like most people in the hoops (or gambling) industry, I don’t think the 2014-15 Lakers will be a playoff team, for a variety of reasons. I can’t, for example, definitively answer the question, “Who is the second best player on the Lakers?”, but can say definitively that all of the potential answers point to trouble. The Western Conference is stacked too deep. Phoenix missed the postseason last year, despite winning 48 games. None of the teams ahead of them are obvious candidates to fall out, and meanwhile Denver, who won 57 games two seasons ago but was decimated by injuries last year, should be healthier and added Arron Afflalo. Anthony Davis leads a New Orleans team potentially capable of breaking out (though they have injury issues as well).
The Lakers on paper aren’t better than any of them, unless a line of things play out very favorably. String enough “ifs” together and anything is possible.
But all “if’s” are not created equally, whether in importance or likelihood of occurring. So below, I present a (not completely comprehensive) list of things that would lead to the Lakers winning more games than expected, perhaps many more, and the chances of them actually happening. A Degree of “Ifficulty,” so to speak.
1. If Kobe Bryant stays healthy and produces…
On a 1-10 scale of importance, where 10 signifies “most important,” this rates at eleventybillion. Nothing is more important to the fortunes of the Lakers than a healthy Kobe. Last year, he played six games, and we saw how that went. And that was on a team featuring Pau Gasol, who while no longer a star is still a player capable of opening space for others. If Kobe sustains some sort of long-term injury, their already long playoff odds almost surely grow insurmountable.
The good news? I’ve long maintained that if Kobe plays, he’ll play well. He’ll score, he’ll rebound, he’ll grease the wheels for others. He can’t be expected to be a defensive force anymore, but that’s not new. The difference in pre- and post-Achilles/knee Kobe won’t be drastic, but a continuation of the evolution his game has undergone for a few years. To his credit, Monday at Media Day Byron Scott said his job isn’t just to keep Kobe healthy for the season, but to make sure he’s able to play comfortably with his girls once Bryant hangs up his sneakers. Kobe says he understands the need to monitor his minutes, and I don’t think he’ll chafe until it looks like Plan Preservation might impact Plan Playoffs, which given the strength of the Western Conference could come sooner than people think.
The bad? No matter how Kobe feels now — excellent, he says — there’s no way to predict what the season will do to him. The time off hasn’t erased nearly two decades worth of wear and tear, and as soon as the season cranks up all the old infirmities will rear their heads. 70+ games feels like a realistic possibility, but as noted here, Kobe isn’t trying to cheat time this season, he’s trying to cheat time again. At some point, things break down, and when it happens, it can come quickly. Just ask Steve Nash. I’m optimistic. Like most people, my default is that Kobe can find a way. But that’s not exactly high end scientific insight.
Degree of Ifficulty (1-10): 5
2. If Steve Nash plays often, and well…
Nobody expects MVP-level Steve Nash to take the floor this year, but were he to play around 65 games at something in the general ZIP code of his final season in Phoenix on a per-minute basis, it could completely change the complexion of the roster. Suddenly, even if it’s only for 20 minutes a night, the Lakers have two great facilitators in their lineup, with Nash and Bryant. Their presence opens the floor for others (defensive problems notwithstanding). The easy bucket count rises. There is lineup flexibility, giving Scott more combinations to choose from. Some pressure comes off Jeremy Lin to play at Linsanity levels. Jordan Clarkson gets minutes out of merit, not necessity.
Nash will always be remembered in L.A. as a symbol of failure and disappointment. A good final season helping the Lakers push towards the playoffs won’t change that, but at least it would leave fans with more positive memories, and perhaps more importantly would let one of the greatest players of this generation leave the game on something resembling his terms. Can he do it? I really hope so, but it’s much easier to believe in Bryant’s chances to rebound, physically. Until Nash shows he can play regularly, absorbing contact without his nerves firing out of control, it’s hard for optimism to morph into confidence.
Degree of Ifficulty: 8.5
3. If Wesley Johnson* makes a leap…
Look at the dude’s game log for 2013-14 – he was all over the place. 24 points one night, one point the next. Blame Mike D’Antoni if you’d like, but much of that is on Wes. Some games, Johnson was a force on one end or the other, or occasionally both. Too often, though, he’d disappear like a wood-grain chameleon, on the floor but basically invisible. He’s not untalented, but Johnson has rarely managed to display his gifts effectively for any length of time. He’ll have another chance this year, because the Lakers don’t have another wing who can defend at his level, nor a bunch of pure 3′s trying to steal his minutes. Johnson has been working out with Kobe a lot over the summer, and combined with the opportunity to play real games with him, maybe it’s enough to help realize more of the potential making him the fourth pick in the 2010 Draft.