'13-14 outlook: Los Angeles Lakers
What's in store for the Los Angeles Lakers? Our panel of five looks back at the offseason moves (and nonmoves) and forward to what lies ahead in the 2013-14 NBA season.
1. What grade would you give the Los Angeles Lakers' offseason?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: C+. They lost a potential franchise player in free agency, something unprecedented for this team. It's also not very Laker-like to bring in a group of players with one collective All-Star Game appearance (Chris Kaman in 2010). The best thing they did was not commit to long-term salaries. That will help in 2014 more than this season, though.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: C. No matter how you feel about Dwight Howard, L.A. lost a major asset for nothing in return (if he re-signed, the Lakers could have always traded him down the line) and lost some dignity as a franchise in the process (those "Stay D12" billboards hurt just to think about). They still get a passing grade for making chicken salad with the discount acquisitions of Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar, Wes Johnson and Shawne Williams, however.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Los Angeles: C. Regardless of what you think of Howard's fit with the Lakers, losing him without anything but salary-cap space coming back is damaging. You have to give the Lakers some credit for sticking to their plan of maintaining cap flexibility to chase free agents in the 2014 class, but, well, it better work.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: C. Losing Howard was a blow that will have major short- and long-term ramifications. But in adding Young, Farmar and Kaman on the cheap, the Lakers did as good a job as they could to shore up holes and add depth with the resources available to them.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: C-. There is a certain amount of risk involved in building your franchise around the brute force of The Big Deal, and the Lakers finally caught a bad beat. They did virtually everything they could to keep Howard, and they did virtually everything they could to make sure you were aware of that. They did the same to fill the void in the immediate aftermath, even if it amounts to the equivalent of a 40-degree day.
2. What's the biggest question facing the Lakers in 2013-14?
Adande: Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon. When he comes back and how well he plays determines the ceiling for this team. It's strange to have Bryant be the variable after so many years of serving as the constant.
McMenamin: Can their core of Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash stay healthy? Natural aging aside, if those three can play at 80 percent of the standard they set in their Hall of Fame careers and actually play in 80 percent of the Lakers' games, then L.A. will be OK. If Bryant's Achilles or Nash's ankle and back or Gasol's knees limit their production or availability or both, then it could be a long season.
Shelburne: Health. You don't need to hire an actuary to tell you this roster is injury-prone. The Lakers are counting on bounce-back seasons from Gasol, Kaman, Bryant, Steve Blake and Nash. You have to figure they'll stay healthier than last season -- in an ascension-to-the-mean kind of way -- but the odds of all of them staying healthy all season aren't favorable.
Soriano: How good will Bryant be? When he returns is obviously also crucial, but how well he plays when he does get back on the floor can mean the difference between challenging for a playoff spot or being in the hunt for a high lottery pick.
Verrier: What's the next step? All signs point to a full-on, tear-it-down rebuild, but a cocktail of hubris, feeling beholden to Kobe and Buss family drama will keep that from happening. So, what now? Trade Gasol? Fire Mike D'Antoni? Pray for a 2014 free agent? Play for a lottery pick? Re-sign Bryant at a discount next summer? All reasonable options, but all half-measures.
3. Who's the Lakers' most intriguing player?
Adande: Young. No one's embracing the extra shots afforded by Bryant's absence as much as Swaggy P. And in his mind there's no drop-off. The Lakers can actually use that dose of (over)confidence these days, since no one else seems capable of giving the team a persona while Bryant sits.
McMenamin: Kobe. It's always Kobe. He keeps the Lakers not only relevant, but fascinating. When will he come back? What level will he be able to perform at? How will he fit in D'Antoni's system without Howard? How will he respond if he's lost a step? How will he take it if the Lakers end up tanking? What kind of extension will the Lakers offer him if it is a tough season for him?
Shelburne: Gasol. He's back to being featured in the Lakers' offense like he was during their back-to-back championship run, he's developing a nice chemistry with Kaman and Nash, and he's in a contract year with something to prove. If he stays healthy-ish, he's all set up for another All-Star season. If he doesn't, the Lakers could look to move him at the trade deadline to get under the luxury tax threshold.
Soriano: Kobe's the obvious answer, but I'll go with Nash. The former two-time MVP turns 40 in February and is coming off an injury-riddled season. If he can resemble the Nash of old, the Lakers' ceiling goes up significantly. But if he's just an old Nash, he may end up a reserve by season's end.
Verrier: Kobe. Always and forever. He's a fading gunslinger waging war not only against age and science, but against a game that once so cherished his heroics but now largely dismisses them in this age of efficiency. His empire is crumbling around him, and his demanding ways and millstone contract will likely ward off any of the help he needs to keep his ring quest going. How will he respond? (Spoiler: aggressively.)
4. What's one bold prediction about the Lakers?
Adande: They'll make the playoffs. What used to be the safest prediction in sports now counts as a minority opinion. But I believe they'll emerge from the pool of the Mavericks, Blazers, Nuggets and Timberwolves to grab one of the last two playoff spots in the West. They still can score (even if they're not the best at stopping other teams from scoring).
McMenamin: Young will have the best season of his career. After being buried on Philadelphia's bench last season, Young finds himself in a perfect situation. He'll get to do his best Mamba impression while Bryant is out (he took 15 more shots than any other Laker through the first six preseason games) and D'Antoni will give him plenty of freedom to tap into his limitless offensive potential.
Shelburne: I wouldn't be surprised if the Lakers pull off a major midseason trade. They need to get a jump on their future and the best way to do that is to acquire a building block during the season to help lure a top 2014 free agent next summer. Unless they're absolutely rolling, why stick with the current roster and chase a seventh or eighth seed?
Soriano: They'll make the playoffs. Smart people predict a campaign with fewer than 40 wins and a steep drop into the abyss of hoping for lottery luck. But I see them having better health, a top-10 offense and a middle-of-the-pack defense, which will be just enough to snatch the eighth seed.
Verrier: Bryant will come back sooner than later. Quite the tepid sports take at this point, but consider how Kobe spent his summer: being dissed by Dwight, sitting idly while the Lakers signed only middling veterans, watching Nick Young take 13 shots a game, changing his Twitter avatar to a grizzly bear like a total weirdo, and flying to Germany mid-preseason for PRP treatment while STILL RECOVERING FROM AN ACHILLES TEAR. An opening-night return wouldn't surprise me at this point.
5. Prediction time: How far will the Lakers go this season?
Adande: The same place they went last season: the first round of the playoffs. If they do grab a low seed there's no favorable matchup for them among the upper-tier teams in the West. That doesn't mean they couldn't provide any fascinating matchups. How about Lakers-Clippers? Or Lakers-Rockets? Just a reminder that even if the Lakers aren't great, they can still make for great discussion.
McMenamin: First-round exit, just like last season. They'll finish seventh or eighth in the West if health is on their side (and after all the bad luck of last season, they deserve some things to go their way in that department), but it's tough to see them pulling off an upset over one of the top seeds at that point.
Shelburne: I had them winning 48 games in our summer predictions and I'm sticking to it. That sounds really high when compared to our aggregate 12th-place projection or Vegas' 33.5 wins, but it's really not as wild as you think. It's just four wins more than they had last season, when everything went wrong. For now, I'm buying into the Hakuna Matata talk emanating from Lakers camp, and blind faith in Bryant's ability to return from his Achilles injury by Thanksgiving or so.
Soriano: One round and out. A surprise trip to the playoffs will have to be enough for a team that simply doesn't have the horses to truly compete with a stacked top half of the Western Conference. If the playoff gods are nice, though, maybe we'll get an entertaining hallway series with the Clippers that goes seven games.
Verrier: The lottery, for the first time in a decade. Here's a challenge: Watch any of the Lakers' six preseason games and try to feel good about their prospects this season, particularly on the defensive end. The glass-half-full outlook on such a finish? It would help the front office finally come to terms with how it's let the bench rot away by ignoring the draft, and create quite the pyrotechnics show in El Segundo this summer.