L.A. Lakers: 2012-13 Forecast
October 11, 2012, 10:19 AM ET
By John Hollinger
It's good to be the Lakers, as we learned once again when two more big-time players went out of their way to end up in forum blue and gold. Between financial advantages and the lure of L.A., the Lakers have options that most other teams simply don't, and to their credit, they continue to take maximum advantage of them.
At least, for now. Because the two avenues the Lakers used to lure in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard this summer may not necessarily be available to them going forward. Nash arrived in a sign-and-trade, which after this season will be verboten for luxury-tax-paying teams like the Lakers.
As for Howard, adding his salary to the others on board, as well as the other assorted flotsam L.A. took on in the trade, pushed the Lakers' payroll to $100 million. This season they can handle the tax hit, but going forward the more punitive tax is likely to result in a massive bill from the league. Even if the Lakers could stomach paying it from a strict profit-loss perspective, it's an open question whether they'd be willing to do it rather than stuff $50 million or so in their own pockets. Remember, the Lakers have cut salary wherever possible in recent seasons, and only reopened the financial floodgates when the opportunities to get Nash and Howard arose.
What makes this so interesting is that the Lakers can go in a number of directions very quickly. They have a $100 million payroll this season, yes, but they also have a $9 million payroll in 2013-14, when Nash is the only player on their books. Presumably Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and others will re-sign between now and then, but for a team with an aging roster the Lakers have to like how flexible they remain. And remember, unlike virtually every other team, this one can virtually guarantee that its cap space can be spent on a superstar, given that stars flock to L.A. even when the team has no space at all.
To the Lakers' credit, they've taken advantage of their good fortune and made the most of it, staying involved in the Nash and Howard pursuits even when their odds looked poor and mostly avoiding the kind of catastrophic splurges that have afflicted other big-spending teams (cough, Knicks, cough).
What they haven't done well, alas, is draft. That's partly because they're always picking 28th and have had no pick at all in several seasons, but the end result is that they have the most top-heavy roster in basketball. The Lakers have four huge stars, but at spots five through 12 this team is difficult to discern from the Bobcats. In a related story, L.A. has no good young players and hasn't for some time. At some point, this could turn out to be a genuine problem.
But more on that later. The Lakers looked worn out the past two postseasons, and now are reborn, with Howard on hand to carry them into the post-Kobe era. Talent will always flock here, it seems; it's just an annual question of whether they can surround it with enough complementary players to mold a champion.
Last season's version of the Lakers wore its oldness on its sleeve at the defensive end, where Mike Brown instilled principles that made it fundamentally sound but not terribly threatening. How could it be, with such little athleticism on the perimeter?
Most notably, the Lakers were last in the NBA in forced turnovers (see chart), and it wasn't even a close last. Only 12 percent of opponent possessions ended with a turnover, and as a result the Lakers permitted more shots per possessions than any team in basketball -- even though they were a good rebounding team.
This is probably the biggest worry for the Lakers going forward; they added another guard who rarely forces miscues in Nash, and while Howard can protect the middle he's not going to do much to force turnovers on the perimeter. Similarly, the Lakers were already a strong rebounding team, so Howard won't remove more than a few second shots compared to Andrew Bynum.
In other words, the Lakers are likely to again look at a major shot deficit thanks to their inability to force turnovers. Where they have to make it up is by forcing those shots to miss, and on that item the Lakers graded out much better. In particular, they didn't foul. The Lakers had the league's lowest opponent free throw rate a season ago (see chart), and as a result only three teams permitted a lower true shooting percentage (TS%).
So the Lakers gave up a lot of shots, but most of them didn't go in. With Howard around, the latter trend should only be accentuated. Nonetheless, L.A.'s massive shot deficit a year ago left it just 13th in defensive efficiency; the hope is that Howard can lift the Lakers into the top 10, but he doesn't have a ton of help.
Instead, the Lakers' more likely path to world domination would be as an offensive juggernaut. The Lakers had a top-10 offense a year ago despite getting virtually nothing from two starters and the entire bench, working mostly in two-point increments behind Bryant's midrange post-ups and the work of Gasol and Bynum inside.
The Lakers also had a surprisingly high turnover rate for a good offensive team that didn't run much, largely because their secondary players were shockingly bad at taking care of the ball given their limited offensive roles. Guys who were just asked to spot up and make shots like Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Jordan Hill and Josh McRoberts somehow still had turnover rates far beyond the league average at their positions; as a result, L.A.'s team turnover rate ranked just 21st.
The Lakers also didn't take much advantage of the 3-point line; well, except Bryant, who shouldn't have been. L.A. was 26th in accuracy and 22nd in total 3-pointers, which is pretty pathetic given its post threats and the fact it had an elite wing scorer to command double-teams. Metta World Peace, Blake, Barnes and Fisher combined to make fewer than a third of their 3s, despite the fact they were basically wide open the entire season.
Obviously, Nash changes the equations on both the 3s and the turnovers considerably, with the threat of his deadly shot being a particularly notable change from the fingers-crossed approach with last season's point guards.
As noted above, L.A. decided to finally take advantage of the money-printing concept known as the Lakers and spend its way back into contention.
Traded Josh McRoberts, Andrew Bynum, Christian Eyenga, a 2015 second-rounder and a protected 2017 first-rounder to Orlando for Dwight Howard, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon. Once this deal landed at its door it was a no-brainer for L.A. to follow through with it. The only question for the Lakers was whether the deal would cost them Gasol in addition to Bynum, and unbelievably it didn't. Better yet, the Lakers got protection on the draft picks, even the 2015 second-rounder (!), and gave up nothing of great importance aside from Bynum. As for Clark and Duhon, they're filler that came as a salary dump from Orlando, but Blake was bad enough a year ago that Duhon may win the backup point guard job from him.
Let Ramon Sessions go, traded first-round picks in 2013 and 2015 and second-round picks in 2013 and 2014 to Phoenix for Steve Nash (three years, $27 million) in a sign-and-trade. Again, a no-brainer deal for the Lakers once the opportunity arose. The first-round picks will almost certainly be in the late 20s, and the upgrade to a position of such weakness in recent seasons could not be more massive. There are concerns about Nash's age and durability, yes, but the Lakers were able to get him at a discounted price in addition to the discounted cost in trade assets. Given their win-now posture with Kobe at the end of his prime, this was another major coup.
Let Troy Murphy go, signed Antawn Jamison for one year, minimum. The Lakers went for the only player in captivity who defends worse than Murphy, but did so to get the benefit of Jamison's legitimate offensive spark. A flowing-type player who struggles a bit in iso systems (see his Cleveland tenure with LeBron and Shaq), Jamison may benefit from the Lakers' Princeton offense (one he used in Washington) if he becomes the go-to guy for the second unit. But if things devolve into isos for Kobe and the post players, he may struggle. You can't argue with the price, that's for sure.
Let Matt Barnes go, signed Jodie Meeks for two years, $3 million. Barnes was L.A.'s best sub a year ago and his loss will be felt, but Meeks is an important pickup because he addressed the lack of shooting that stymied the Lakers a year ago. Meeks also came at a very friendly price given his track record of success with the long ball; while he's limited in other areas, he should be a nice fit on this roster.
Drafted Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre. The Lakers had two late second-round picks and there's a good chance both will make the team. Keep an eye on Sacre, especially, a 7-footer who could give them some frontcourt minutes. Johnson-Odom is more the classic low-skill, end-of-the-bench energy guy, and may spend much of his time with their D-League club.
Like everyone else, I expect the Lakers to make the conference finals and contend for a championship. Unlike everyone else, I don't expect them to be particularly imposing in the regular season, for a number of reasons.
For starters, their situation is a bit like Miami's was two years ago -- they're going to need a bit of time to figure everything out. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in particular need to strike a balance between the hero-ball stuff that the Lakers have run the past few years and the pick-and-roll-centered attack that Nash operated. File away this stat from NBA.com's whiz-bang tool: The Suns' offensive efficiency with Nash on the court last season was 106.5, even with fairly pedestrian surrounding talent; the Lakers' with Bryant on the floor was 103.9. In other words, Nash has a much stronger case to be the offensive focal point than Bryant. I'm not sure that's how it will work out in reality.
Other small issues peck at L.A.'s projected win total. Howard had back surgery last spring and is still recovering; at best he'll be rusty, and he may even miss some time to start the year. Nash and Bryant are no spring chickens either, so the prudent course is going to be to keep their minutes in the low 30s and leave them fresh for the postseason.
All that means the Lakers' supporting cast has to play a lot of minutes, and that cast still isn't very good. Meeks answers the need for shooting and Jamison will provide some points (for both teams), but their best bench player from a year ago (Barnes) left, and they still have replacement-level or worse situations at backup point guard (Blake/Duhon) and backup small forward (likely Devin Ebanks). Their best sub at this point is probably Jordan Hill, but even he pales in comparison to the third big man on most rosters.
All those minutes count, and between that and what may be some early-season bumps while they figure things out, I don't expect the Lakers to challenge for the West's top seed.
What I do expect is for them to be fairly terrifying by playoff time. It's likely they'll add another player at the trade deadline, and that some random veteran will wash up on their shores via waivers. Come postseason, they'll be able to ramp up the minutes for their four stars and rely considerably less on the riffraff, and as with the Thunder that will make them far more potent in the playoffs than in the regular season.
That's cause for legitimate excitement in L.A., and I get it. But as far as the regular season goes, I'd temper my expectations a bit.
Prediction: 53-29, first in Pacific Division, 4th in Western Conference