Yes, at least according to these power rankings at SBNation.com.
20th, down there with the Pistons and Raptors, behind the Pelicans, Wizards, and Cavs. Fair*?
To some degree, the Lakers are a little tough to handicap. It’s clear they won’t contend for a title short of some Damn Yankees!-style bargaining, but it’s reasonable to argue last season’s debacle combined with the dark mood surrounding Dwight Howard’s departure has pushed people too far towards the negative. Lakers fans will point to the end of the year (28-12!), and note how during the 2012-13 season basically everything capable of going wrong, did, and that had Steve Nash and Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill and Steve Blake stayed healthy and the beginning of the year not been such an excrement show of coaching changes and foul chemistry, they might have been challenging for home court advantage in the last week of the season, not just trying to get into the tournament.
So maybe people are piling on.
But probably not.
It’s not that the Lakers don’t have the potential to be a mid-to-(much, much more likely)-low end playoff team in the West, and it’s easy enough to look at the roster and say, Kobe Bryant! Steve Nash! Pau Gasol! Still plenty of name brand talent! Decent work in the free agent market, too. Except it’s not even a matter of peering behind the curtain. The team’s flaws, and considerable obstacles they’ll face, are out there in plain sight:
- Bryant, despite his many adamantium parts, is coming back from an injury typically devastating to players of his age. I’m probably more optimistic than most, believing he’ll be back sooner rather than later looking something pretty similar to the Kobe Bryant we’re familiar with. But even then, I’m not talking about Day 1. If in his mid-20′s Dwight Howard required half a season to touch previous form (off a totally different injury, but one in the same neighborhood of significance), Kobe in his mid-30′s will need time, too. Most of us made the mistake last year of confusing Dwight’s presence for his return. I’m not making the same mistake again.
- Gasol, at 33, is coming off surgeries on both knees, something that would be much bigger news if not for Kobe’s recovery.
- Nash, who defied the odds in Phoenix by stringing together a bunch of healthy seasons into his late 30′s, now needs to prove he can stay healthy in L.A..
- It’s not like Jordan Hill has been the picture of health over his career, either. If he, Gasol, or Chris Kaman miss any time, the Lakers as currently constructed become painfully thin up front. If the Lakers were an injury risk last year, what would the actuaries say about this crew?
- Even if the offense clicks, and there’s no reason to believe a healthy roster will have trouble scoring, the Lakers will almost certainly be “John Carter” awful on the defensive end. Consider how bad they were without Howard on the floor last season, then subtract Metta World Peace, their second best defender. No scheme of Kurt Rambis can fix the fundamental problem of personnel. If Mike D’Antoni morphed into Tom Thibodeau, it wouldn’t matter. (Actually, it would, but this option feels unrealistic.) A bad defensive team can only win so many games, and even in the best-case scenario for these Lakers, being anything more than average will be a monumental struggle.
The Western Conference has six teams — OKC, San Antonio, the Clippers, Houston, Golden State, and Memphis — ranging from light years to unquestionably better than the Lakers. Denver is too, even with a recovering Danilo Gallinari and no Andre Iguodala. If the Wolves stay healthy, they’ll contend for a playoff spot, and Portland quietly improved. The Pelicans could — could — make a little noise, as well. There will be plenty of competition for what could be one, maybe two spots in a season the Lakers enter with little margin for error. Add in teams in the East, and it’s easy to see how the Lakers move down the list, even if some squads are getting a boost for boldness or newness for which they may not prove worthy.
Of course, losing games in 2013-14 is hardly worst thing in the world. It improves L.A.’s draft position, and as the year goes on makes unloading whatever chips they have (Gasol, Hill, and perhaps Blake) to gather assets that much easier. Mediocrity serves no purpose in the NBA, and the odds strongly favor this team being mediocre, or a little worse. Are they really the 20th best team? I’d stick ‘em a couple rungs higher on the ladder, but with so many health questions surrounding critical players, at this point it’s hard to argue much.
*(Setting aside for a moment that Power Rankings are meaningless during the season, and even less so in August, I digress…)