Season preview: Los Angeles Lakers
Time's not a luxury for this squad; character, experience will drive its success
LOS ANGELES -- A little less than three months ago, the Los Angeles Lakers sent out a media advisory inviting to whomever was around on a Friday afternoon and available on four hours' notice to come down to their training facility to meet Dwight Howard.
After a long, sometimes tortuous courtship between the Lakers and their next great franchise center, the wedding reception was a rather low-key affair. No disco lights, no dancers and absolutely no proclamations about how many titles he might win in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.
Not one, not two … ah, you know that LeBron James quote by now. None of that. Howard simply said he was "just happy to be here" and "going to make the best out of it."
He promised to work hard, not to win multiple championships. He was humble and happy. Ready for work. Hoping for the best. All the things a guy who escaped a miserable situation with the Orlando Magic -- much of it of his own doing -- and ended up in one of the NBA's glamor franchises should cite at a moment like that.
At the time, we chalked it up to self-awareness. But after the Lakers' winless preseason, I began to think Howard had recognized what not to say by watching what James regrettably uttered when he joined the Miami Heat as they tried to mesh all that talent into a team with the whole world watching and waiting for them to stumble:
This might take a while.
"We're not going to get this overnight," Howard said the other day. "We're playing for June. We have to remember that."
If that wasn't obvious in August, it's crystal clear now after the Lakers' ugly preseason.
Yes, those aren't the games that count. But those games can be revealing. And for the Lakers, what you saw over eight games this past month was a team that's learning a new offense, integrating two key new players and adjusting to new way of doing things for the second year in a row.
The Heat barely made it out of the gates with all their limbs intact that first year James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh got together. They went 9-8 out of the chute and set an unofficial record for emotional, early-season players-only meetings.
Asked if his Lakers could be in for a similar start, Lakers coach Mike Brown didn't exactly pooh-pooh the scenario.
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"It was tough for them and it could be tough for us," Brown said. "That's just the reality of it.
"What's going to be interesting, if it is tough for us, is, how are our guys going to respond? Are they going to have a bunker mentality and stay together and stay the course? Or are they going to panic and fall prey to the naysayers out there?"
Whether things are going well or terribly, it's always interesting in Lakerland. Still, Brown has a point.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak put together an incredible roster over the summer. Lakers ownership green-lighted an incredible expenditure, what with $99.2 million in guaranteed contracts and another $30 million in luxury taxes due in July.
But these things tend to take time, which, unfortunately, the Lakers really don't have a lot of.
Their window to win is probably two years -- or as long as Kobe Bryant wants to keep playing and Pau Gasol is under contract. After that, the franchise is due -- and surprisingly well-positioned -- for another reboot.
Only Steve Nash ($9.7 million) is under contract for the 2014-15 season. Assuming the team resigns Howard to a long-term extension this summer, add in another $20 million or so. So there is plenty of room under the salary cap to chase another superstar to pair with Howard for the next decade, as ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst posited.
But it also will probably be a good time for the Lakers to get their financial house in order to avoid paying the increasingly punitive luxury tax bills that will be especially hard on so-called "repeat offenders" like the Lakers. According to Larry Coon, ESPN's salary cap expert, if the Lakers were $30 million over the luxury tax in 2014-15, as they are this season, they would owe a staggering $115 million in luxury tax.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss has always been willing to spend for a better chance at a championship. His son Jim Buss -- whose voice within the organization grows louder every year -- proved he's cut from the same cloth this summer as he steered home the trades for Howard and Nash.
But those numbers would give anyone pause.
What that means for the Lakers at present is pretty simple: There are a lot of clocks ticking.
A slow start is survivable. A sluggish middle is tolerable. But come playoff time, they'd better be jelling.
Patience will be a virtue early on but a luxury they can't afford later.
So how do you accelerate a process without rushing it? Or, as John Wooden would say, "Be quick but don't hurry?"
"You don't waiver when things don't go well," Nash said.
That's where personality comes in. Character. Experience.
Nash's poise and Bryant's savvy give the Lakers an advantage over what James' Miami Heat tried to accomplish that first season they were together and make L.A. more like the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, who won a title in their first season together.
Of course, the Lakers also have to contend with things like Nash's age (38) and Bryant's injured foot, which might keep him out of Tuesday's season opener against the Mavericks.
Then there's the urgency they all feel, knowing their window to contend together is much shorter than the one the Heat opened up in 2010.
So, yes, Mike Brown, this will be interesting, to say the least.
"Although it's new to a lot of us and we're new to each other, you've got to buy into it and keep building and building," Nash said. "At some point we'll have a bunch of little breakthroughs that will put us in position to say, 'Ah, this is why we're doing this.'"