Additions: PF Josh Powell, PG Sun Yue.
Losses: PF Ronny Turiaf, SG Coby Karl, SF Ira Newble.
Ceiling: NBA championship
Despite last spring’s Finals face-plant that included the biggest blown-lead in Finals history and getting embarrassed in Boston’s Game Six clincher, the Lakers roll into this season as the popular pick to win the whole thing. The strongest pro-L.A. argument is the return to health of Andrew Bynum, who was a beast in the first half of ‘07-08 before a knee injury took him out. Seeing as the Lakers’ biggest problem in the Finals was getting dominated on the glass when it mattered most and not getting enough from Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol inside, Bynum’s presence should be the missing ingredient. On paper, Bynum and Gasol are already the best big-man combo in the game (although a motivated Shaq and Amare could lay claim to that title, and defensive Jazz fans will yell at you if you don’t at least mention Memo and Boozer), and when the L.A. duo figures out how to effectively play off each other, it’ll be a problem for the rest of the League. You know what you’re getting from Kobe Bryant: at least 28-30 points per, plus he gives you a chance to win every single night because he is the best player on the floor 90% of the time, and whether he chooses to play-act the whole “Smiley Mr. Fun Teammate” thing or not, he’s your best playmaker and passer. If Odom plays ball and accepts coming off the bench — which he says he’ll do — he’s a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who can pull down 10 boards a night if he plays a lot of minutes at PF. Worst-case scenario, L.A. has arguably the best player in the game, arguably the best coach, arguably the deepest bench, arguably the most versatile forward in the West, and arguably the best pair of big men. How bad can they be?
Basement: Second-round exit
Good as they are, Gasol and Bynum still don’t equal one In-His-Prime Shaq; no one is outright scared of them, and the opposition’s defensive game plan still revolves around Kobe 100% of the time. And as good as KB24 is, we saw in the Finals that the right scheme can neutralize him. There is high potential for the Odom/Phil Jackson dynamic to sink this team, if L.O. has ulterior motives (contract year) and Phil is steady trying to prove a point rather than trying to work it out. While the bench is deep, that’s more a testament to its strengths in the backcourt (Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic) and on the wings (Luke Walton, Trevor Ariza); the frontcourt depth leaves something to be desired, since Chris Mihm can never stay healthy, newcomer Josh Powell is nothing to write home about, and D.J. Mbenga is a YouTube clip and a not-hard-enough foul waiting to happen. And is the fact that Kobe refused to have offseason surgery on his finger — and that he’s coming off his longest season since the three-peat era plus the Olympics — going to come back and bite L.A. in the [expletive]? And is Bynum really as great as everyone wants to believe? He still hasn’t been signed to the big-money extension he wants, so he’s got some Sulk Potential right up there with Odom. The Lakers should be good for at least a Top-3 seed in the West, but as strong as the conference is, every round will be a battle.