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Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Updated: October 2, 4:00 PM ET
Hollinger's Team Forecast: Los Angeles Lakers

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant
Kobe and the Lakers were the top team in the West, and now they have a healthy Andrew Bynum.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

NBA executives are fond of saying it's the deals they don't make that often end up being the best decisions, and certainly the Lakers would agree with that sentiment.

It's hard to remember, in the wake of their conference championship and Kobe Bryant's MVP season, but when training camp opened, Bryant's frustration with his supporting cast had him pining for a trade to a team that he viewed as a more legitimate contender. His frustration stemmed from the team's refusal to trade Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd at the 2007 trade deadline.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 57-25 (Pythagorean W-L: 62-20)
Offensive Efficiency: 110.3 (3rd)
Defensive Efficiency: 102.8 (6th)
Pace Factor: 98.0 (6th)
Highest PER: Kobe Bryant (24.31)

In retrospect, much of it seems hilarious -- that he wanted to go to the Bulls because he felt they had a better chance of winning the title, for instance, or that he wanted Kidd instead of Bynum -- but at the time it was dead serious. Fortunately, Bynum broke out with an All-Star caliber first half of the season, immediately justifying the team's decision to hang on to him, and the rest of the Lakers' youthful core began playing dramatically better.

Bynum checked out with a midseason knee injury, but almost immediately the Lakers had an incredible trade fall into their laps. L.A. procured star forward Pau Gasol from Memphis at a cost of two players who weren't even in the rotation: guard Javaris Crittenton and center Kwame Brown, and three long-term assets -- Spanish forward Marc Gasol (Pau's brother, ironically) and first-round picks in 2008 and 2010.

While the rest of the West cried foul, L.A.'s offense went to another level. With Gasol in the middle, the Lakers were second in the league in offensive efficiency after the All-Star break at a staggering 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Thanks to the offense, the Lakers took the top seed in the conference and rolled to the Finals with just three playoff losses on their slate. (In fact, here's an unusual twist: While the Lakers failed to win the title, they had the league's best playoff winning percentage, going 14-7 against the champion Celtics' 16-10.)

The Lakers' 2007-08 breakout was almost completely unexpected -- nearly everybody thought they'd once again limp into the playoffs as a low seed and get bounced in the first round. The reason they didn't was a wholesale improvement by the supporting cast. I don't mean that they made little incremental changes -- I mean they got way better overnight, in a shocking turn of events (see chart).

Lakers Secondary Players' PER: 2006-07 vs. 2007-08
PLAYER 2006-07 PER 2007-08 PER CHANGE
Andrew Bynum 15.44 22.60 +7.16
Jordan Farmar 10.79 15.43 +4.64
Sasha Vujacic 11.67 15.06 +3.39
Vladimir Radmanovic 11.02 12.69 +1.67

In particular, four younger players made huge leaps: Bynum, obviously, along with Sasha Vujacic (who turned into a long-range assassin after being fairly useless in his first three seasons), Jordan Farmar (who showcased outstanding offensive skills after a rough rookie year) and Vladimir Radmanovic (who solidified his game, though to a less shocking extent, and took over as the starting small forward). Throw in the return of point guard Derek Fisher, continued solid play from Ronny Turiaf and a midseason deal for Trevor Ariza, and suddenly the Lakers were the league's deepest team.

Once he realized how good the help was, Kobe quickly came around. He came around so far, in fact, that he ended up winning his first MVP award. While we can debate the merits of the vote, there's no doubt that he showed far more maturity and selflessness with this group than he had in past seasons. He also played through a broken finger when surgery was recommended and showed virtually no drop-off from its effects.

The Lakers finished the year third in offensive efficiency even though they weren't exceptional in any one area -- they were just really good across the board, comfortably beating the league average in every metric except offensive rebounding. Their most impressive stat was the simplest one -- they ranked third in field goal percentage at 47.6 percent.

That variety was apparent watching the team play. L.A. had post threats in Bynum and then Gasol, a go-to scorer in Bryant and multitudes of shooters surrounding their main threats. Additionally, pretty much everyone could pass, which made them a very fun team for purists to watch -- especially compared to the Kobe-on-five system they had run the previous two years.

Defensively, L.A. overachieved in ranking sixth in efficiency. They didn't have a strong interior presence at that end, but their perimeter defenders were solid and Phil Jackson kept them well organized (well, at least until the final game). However, one area where they were notably deficient was their inability to create dead-ball turnovers.

Fewest Dead-Ball Turnovers Forced, 2007-08

TEAM % OF OPP. POSSESSIONS
WITH DEAD-BALL TO*
Minnesota 6.32
L.A. Lakers 6.36
Houston 6.50
New Orleans 6.55
Atlanta 6.56
League average 7.17
* -- Turnovers where no steal was credited

L.A.'s opponents had dead-ball turnovers on only 6.36 percent of their possessions, the second-lowest rate in the league (see chart). What's puzzling is that the Lakers had Fisher, who led the league in offensive fouls drawn with 54 -- usually charging fouls are a key component of dead-ball turnovers. But no Laker drew more than 15, and several heavily used players hardly drew any -- Bynum had just one, while Radmanovic, Farmar, Gasol and Bryant combined for just 24.

Unfortunately, the Lakers' turnaround story ended one chapter sooner than they had hoped, as they fell to Boston in six games in the Finals. The offense started getting wobbly against San Antonio in the conference finals and then derailed entirely against the Celtics. Even L.A.'s brief torrid stretches were followed by horrendous droughts, such as the fateful second half of Game 4, and the teamwide surrender in the deciding Game 6 left a bad taste in their mouths heading into the offseason.


Biggest Strength: Depth

Any team that is talking openly about bringing Lamar Odom off the bench (more on that in a minute) obviously has a lot of weapons, and in the Lakers' case it's not just in the starting five, either. While the Bryant-Gasol-Bynum-Odom quartet looms as one that no team in basketball can match, L.A. also has a devastating second unit.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Lakers make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

The rising star of that bunch is Farmar, who had a big year off the bench in his second pro season and is still just a pup at 21. He seems poised to take Derek Fisher's starting gig if he just improves his defense a little, but with this group he may be just as effective piling up points off the pine since he can get more shots with the second unit.

Vujacic is another huge threat, especially if he can continue shooting the way he did last season. Even if he doesn't, he can defend, handle the ball and play all three perimeter spots, and despite his slim build he is the feistiest player on a team that has a rep for softness.

At forward, L.A. has an embarrassment of riches. Radmanovic, if he doesn't start, is a flaky but dangerous long-range bomber who can play both forward spots, while Luke Walton is one of the best passers in the league. And don't sleep on Ariza. Though he hardly played last year due to injuries, he's played extremely well whenever he's had the chance, and he could steal a rotation spot with his athleticism on the wing.

Up front the Lakers aren't quite as loaded, but they still have Powell and Chris Mihm -- a handy backup if he can overcome recent ankle troubles. Plus, with two 7-foot starters, it's easy to slide one to center and bring one of the forwards off the pine as a sub.

Biggest Weakness: Frontcourt chemistry

L.A.'s problem isn't talent, it's making the pieces fit. That wasn't an issue last year when Gasol was playing center and Odom at power forward, because each had enough perimeter skills for those positions to get out of the other's way.

Things look very different, however, once you add Bynum to the picture. The behemoth 7-footer will take up residence on the low left block, and the Lakers would be fools not to take advantage of his soft touch and deft passing from down low.

To do so, however, requires spacing, and that's where we get into issues. Gasol has good perimeter skills for a 7-footer, but does he have enough to play the high post the entire season without seeing his offensive output decline? I'm not so sure about that. He'll still get low-block touches when Bynum is out of the game, and he should be able to play high-low with Bynum very effectively because he's such a good passer, but this is a concern.

And then there's Odom. Moving him down to small forward isn't just problematic as far as Odom is concerned, it also collapses the spacing for everybody else. He's not a threat to make 3-pointers, whereas Radmanovic and Vujacic are killers from distance -- and the ability to punish double-teams by finding shooters for easy 3-point attempts is what made Bynum and then Gasol so devastating down low last season.

But if Gasol's defender is below the foul line, and Odom's defender is disregarding him on the perimeter, does it still work? Or does the offense run at 75 percent of peak efficiency because there aren't enough spacers out there?

One possible solution is to move Odom to a sixth-man role, where he'd sub in at power forward for first Gasol and then Bynum. That would lead to a more efficient personnel usage for much of the game, but it would also limit the number of minutes the Lakers get from one of their best players.

Which is why Lakers fans keep coming back to another alternative -- trading Odom. And until that happens or the trade deadline passes, it's likely to be a persistent topic.


Outlook

The Lakers have the highest ceiling of any team in basketball. If Bynum comes back healthy and plays like he did last season, if the frontcourt meshes and stays out of each other's way, and if Bryant can put together another MVP-caliber season, the sky is the limit. In that sense, the Lakers have to be considered the favorite to win the West -- if everything goes right, there's no way anyone will beat them.

So you might be surprised to learn I'm not picking them to win. When I projected this team statistically, enough minor concerns came up that it added up to a one-game advantage for the Jazz. I realize this seems a bit odd since L.A. beat Utah fairly convincingly in the playoffs last year, and did it without Bynum, so let's try to walk through it:

(1) Bynum's health and production are not guaranteed. I project him playing 30 minutes a game, even with time out for injuries, and that still might have been rosy on my part.

(2) The frontcourt players are likely to negatively impact each other. Not hugely -- not as badly as Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry last season, for instance -- but enough that in the absence of other effects it would be a noticeable. I project both Gasol and Odom losing 1.5 points of PER to this.

(3) Kobe. It's become passe to say he's the best player in the league; certainly he's been on the short list for the past half-decade. He's also 30 and has more mileage on his legs than any other 30-year-old in history, which might not be a concern except that his numbers have dropped fairly sharply each of the past two seasons. The fact that he's trying to play out the entire season with a wounded finger makes me think this isn't the year he breaks the streak. My projection system has his PER at 23.83 -- that's without putting my thumb on the scale for the factors mentioned above -- and while that's still awesome, it also would continue the downward trend (28.11, 26.13, 24.31) since age 27.

(4) The guards. Vujacic, Fisher and Farmar all played far better than their established norms last season. While this seems believable enough in Farmar's case, the other two had several years of data indicating they weren't as good as they showed last season. It's possible they've bucked the trend; it's also not the way to bet. Chances are at least two of the three will play worse this year.

If the points above sounded too pessimistic, let me bring up four optimistic indicators, too: The Lakers have Gasol and Bynum for a full season instead of half, Farmar could excel and take over at the point, Bynum could be unbelievably good, and Ariza is potentially a major upgrade on Radmanovic and Walton.

All that gives the Lakers a better best-case scenario than anyone in the league. But they have to answer a lot of question marks in order to pull that off. And when I look at what's probable, rather than merely what's possible, L.A. comes out second in an airtight three-way race for the West's top record.

Prediction: 57-25, 1st in Pacific Division, 2nd in Western Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.