This is uncharted territory for the L.A. Lakers. The debacle of last season turned an over-hyped super squad into an over-aged long shot. Now, the perennial contenders are suddenly underdogs — not even the marquee attraction in their own building. Losing Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets has played into the narrative of the Lakers’ demise. If they were bad with him, they’ll be terrible without him, right? Maybe. But this team is still led by a man named Kobe Bryant. It’s uncertain when Bryant’s surgically repaired ankle will be ready to play on, but you can bet it won’t be long before the Black Mamba is dropping 40 and scowling at the basketball world for even thinking of doubting him. No, Bryant won’t win his sixth NBA title this season. But don’t be surprised if the suddenly sad sack Lakers end up over performing in 2013-14. That’s just the Kobe way.
Additions: Marcus Landry, Chris Kaman, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly, Elias Harris
Departures: Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock
Despite the hype, the Howard experiment never panned out in L.A. The team tried their best to keep him, but Bryant has already noted that he couldn’t care less about Superman’s flight to Houston. The gap left by Howard and the amnestied World Peace has been filled some solid-if-unremarkable pieces — notably former all-star Chris Kaman, who will be a nice addition next to Pau Gasol or filling in off the bench — and the Lakers also picked up some young offensive-minded players who could thrive next to Steve Nash in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. At the very least, the new-look Lakers face fewer expectations than last year and will likely have better chemistry than the ill-fated marriage of Howard and Bryant.
- How will the Lakers handle their role as a middling team in the Pacific division with only an outside chance at a playoff berth? They added some nice offensive bit players in Chris Kaman, Nick Young and Jordan Farmar, but defence is still a huge problem. The Lakers ranked 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season, and the losses of Howard and solid perimeter stopper World Peace leave holes in that department that simply weren’t filled in the off-season.
- The good news is that last season made Kobe Brant very mad — a huge plus for basketball fans. We’re talking about the most ruthless winner since Jordan, about a 35-year-old who averaged 27 points per game last season. Here’s what will happen: Bryant will return, ankle intact, a couple of weeks after his Lakers get off to a terrible start. He’ll embark on a Kobe-against-the-universe tour, carrying the Lakers on his back alongside an unthinkable stat line for the remainder of the season, and, come to think of it, the team may just squeak into the playoffs.
- Most of the discussion surrounding the Lakers this year will be about next season. L.A. won’t accept this not-a-contender status for long and with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony hitting the market next summer, rumours will swirl. The Lakers won’t be bad enough to get a lottery pick. But can they manage to draft, trade and sign their way back to the top before Kobe loses his superpowers for good?
Breakout Player: Jordan Hill. The Lakers added some promising talent in Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Nick Young, but each comes with an asterisk from his earlier stops in the NBA. Young is likely to have the most impact as a scoring threat, but with the glaring holes in the team’s defence, Hill has the potential make a huge impact this season. The thick, 6-foot-10 former eighth-overall pick will protect the rim and haul in some boards if he’s able to stay out of foul trouble (and healthy). Five seasons into his career, this is Hill’s best chance for a breakout year.
Scale of Decency: Half-decent. The Lakers’ offence should open up a bit without Dwight Howard clogging the middle. Yes, the loss of the most dominant big man in the game is a blow on D, but his absence might actually have its benefits. There’s only room for one superstar on Kobe’s team, after all. Nash isn’t any kind of threat to that role. If he and Bryant can stay healthy — one of those enormous “ifs” — the Lakers could at least be a fun show to watch. Expect them to finish third in the Pacific behind the Clippers and Warriors, and maybe squeak into the playoffs as the eighth seed.