After trading for Pau Gasol midway through the 07-08 season, the Lakers were the scourge of the league, going 22-5 with him in the lineup. Their success carried into the postseason as they rode the wave into the Finals after defeating the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, and San Antonio Spurs without too much trouble. Meeting the Boston Celtics in the Finals, however, proved to be a much bigger task for the Lakers than many expected. The Celtics would rout the Lakers in six games, ending their great run through the Playoffs. This offseason, the Lakers did very little in the way of reshaping their roster for another title run. The fact that they did next to nothing may put them right back in the NBA Finals in 2009. The Lakers made it to the 2008 NBA Finals without their key big man, Andrew Bynum. This season, he is expected to be healthy, and along with the returning Trevor Ariza, Bynum could be the deciding factor between either a Playoff exit or a fifteenth banner hanging in the Staples Center.
Offense: The Lakers averaged 108.6 points per game last season, but it wasnít because they were a fast-paced team. The high-scoring of this team could mostly be attributed to their great ball movement and solid team play which led to efficient offensive plays nearly every trip down the floor. The offense, though, runs through star player Kobe Bryant for the most part. If an open shot isnít available or a reliable play can not be followed upon, Kobe Bryant can be counted on to create a scoring opportunity for the team, or possibly himself. Other than Kobe, both Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom can be go-to-guys in tough situations. Andrew Bynum has shown potential to be a go-to-guy, but until he plays a full season, he wonít be considered a star for this team. As long as Bynum fits in well with Pau Gasol, the Lakers wonít have much to worry about on offense. Plus, they do have Kobe Bryant.
Defense: The Lakers would beat their opponents by over 7 points per game last season and were a pretty tough defensive squad. The Lakers, though, despite placing fifth and sixth in steals and blocks, had some troubles, especially against the Celtics in the Finals. Their big problem was their lack of just that Ė a big. They hope that with Andrew Bynum back, their post defense will be more intimidating powerful. Pau Gasol isnít a terrible defender, but he isnít that great. With Bynum, Gasol will be able to focus on help defense, because he just doesnít have the size or strength to handle the bigger players one-on-one in the paint. The perimeter defense will be more reliable with Trevor Ariza making his way back in the shuffle. So, it seems like the Lakers wonít have much to worry about defensively either. They will have some problems early on, but they should be improved when compared to last yearís team, if just by adding Andrew Bynum back into the lineup. Plus, they do have Kobe Bryant.
Strengths: The lineup for the Lakersí team this year is scary. Not since having Shaq patrol the paint have the Lakers had a better team around Kobe Bryant. The star power of this team is immense and they look vastly improved on paper when compared to last seasonís team that made the Finals. Plus, they do have Kobe BryantÖ
Weaknesses: Health has to be a major concern for the Lakers. Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza both played a total of 35 games last season and were expected to be key contributors in the Lakersí rotation. If they canít stay healthy, the Lakers could be looking at another missed chance this season. Both players look to be healthy, though, so injuries might not be a big worry for the Lakers. Their defense was another problem last season, but with these two guys healthy, that small weakness might become a big strength.
Five Players to Watch:
Kobe Bryant - The 2008 Most Valuable Player took the Lakers to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2004, when Shaquille OíNeal was still on the roster. Kobe Bryant couldnít deliver the team the 2008 NBA Championship, however, and the team is still without a title since 2002. This year, with a healthy squad around him, the now trustworthy teammate, Kobe Bryant, will have a better shot at bringing home the title to Los Angeles. If his teammates can step up and take bigger roles on the offensive end, Kobe can be a better facilitator for the offense, and become a lock down defensive specialist on the other end of the floor. Even if his teammates do become more offensively reliable, Bryant will still get his shots and will likely score close to 30 per game once again. Bryant now has an MVP award to add to his already Hall of Fame resume, but winning a title in the post-Shaq era with the Lakers may be most important in solidifying his career as an NBA great.
Pau Gasol - The acquisition of Pau Gasol to the Lakers last season pushed them over the top and eventually into the NBA Finals. Gasol gave Kobe a sturdy weapon in the post and was a great sidekick to the MVP. With Bynum, Gasol wonít have to worry as much about defending the better post players around the league, and will also have less pressure to produce on offense. Gasol is still the number two option behind Bryant, but this year he could start transitioning into more of a role player for the team rather than being a star, which should benefit his game as well as the team.
Andrew Bynum - Despite playing in just 35 games, Andrew Bynum introduced himself as a potential superstar in the making and could finally be that reliable post-presence the Lakers have been looking for since trading Shaq. Bynum could be an absolute force on the offensive end, but this year he will likely focus on defense. His defense is his strong-suit at the moment and it is exactly what the Lakers need. Bynum will get his opportunities on offense, but his defense can completely alter games in the Lakersí favor. Andrew Bynum may be a future 20 point per game scorer, but for now, the Lakers need him to be a force in the post on defense which will prepare the team for another deep run in the postseason.
Lamar Odom - From the sounds of it, Lamar Odom could become the sixth man for this team. Whether it is because of worries of how he, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol would work together in the post or the emergence of Trevor Ariza, this could be a problem for the Lakers. Odom would still get plenty of minutes and might actually provide better play from the bench, but if he isnít happy, he could drag the team down. Odom is a great team player and has a tremendous all-around game, but if he isnít happy, the Lakers could suffer. More likely than not, though, something will be figured out by Phil Jackson that makes everyone happy.
Jordan Farmar - Along with Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar emerged as a reliable player from the bench. Farmar might end up starting for the Lakers, but if not, he will provide solid minutes either way. He doesnít have great playmaking abilities and is just an average shooter, but he is a very solid perimeter and man to man defender. He plays very well alongside Kobe Bryant in the backcourt and isnít afraid to take big shots. If given the time, Farmar could be one of the most improved players in the game once again, and could help lead the Lakers to the title.
Title Hopes: The Lakers made the Finals last year and they are favorites to get back there once again. With Andrew Bynum, they might be the favorites to win the title. Chemistry is a question, but if they can answer that, they should end up with their 15th NBA Championship by seasonís end.
Prediction: 1st Place, Pacific Division