The 2012-13 NBA season was unlike any that the Los Angeles Lakers have experienced in their recent history. A team that looked talented, experienced and deep fell apart physically and emotionally as the franchise only just crept into playoffs before getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Expectations are extremely low heading into the 2013-14 season. It appears that the success or failure of this roster will once again come down to Kobe Bryant and what he is able to achieve coming back from a serious Achilles tendon injury.
Of course that’s a first major hurdle for a 35-year old who has been remarkably durable during one of the greatest careers that the NBA has ever seen. Bryant’s ability and determination to play through pain, and at a high standard, is of the like that is perhaps near unique. Despite having played more than 45,000 regular season minutes and 8,000 minutes, Bryant still averaged nearly 40 minutes per game last year and almost single-handedly led a flagging team into a playoff spot that looked extremely unlikely for much of the year.
The departure of Dwight Howard from the roster during the offseason leaves Bryant as the clear and undisputed star player on this roster. There are no more heir apparent players in this group. This is Kobe’s team and they will live and die based on how well he is able to defy age and continuing scoring and defending at an elite level.
The good news for Lakers’ fans is that if Bryant is able to come back reasonably close to the October 29 season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers, then there is still perhaps reason to be optimistic about this team’s playoff chances (even if a championship bid is completely out of the question). The Howard experiment, which always felt doomed to fail, is over and that can only be a good thing for the future of this franchise.
Meanwhile, there is reason to be optimistic that the team’s other two key veterans Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will be healthier this season and should find their role. There will be no reason in 2013-14 for head coach Mike D’Antoni to not utilize Gasol’s strong and versatile offensive game. Nash will have a full training camp (plus last year’s experience) to find his role more effectively on this team both when Bryant is and is not in the line-up.
The rest of the line-up may not represent the sort of depth that LA has been used to in the past, but it isn’t as bad as many have suggested. Nick Young is a shooter who should fit in with D’Antoni’s style of offense, while Steve Blake, Jordan Farmer and Jodie Meeks offer solid depth in the back-court. Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman provide solid options in support of Gasol on the front court, and this team has some young players with length to work with in its rotation with Wesley Johnson and possibly even Ryan Kelly likely to see minutes.
The idea that this team will do much worse than last year’s disappointing group doesn’t seem so likely on closer inspection. There have definitely been worse seventh/eighth seeds and the experience on the roster can only be an advantage. Health was a major problem in 2012-13 and will be a concern again this year, but it’s possible to argue that just a little more luck in that department will give the Lakers a great chance of making a seventh straight playoff appearance. That may not be the standard in LA, but it’s worth remembering that this franchise has missed the postseason just twice since 1976.
It’s also worth mentioning that there isn’t a tremendous amount for Lakers’ fans to get excited about besides another season with Bryant. This isn’t similar to 2004-05 when the team struggled after Shaquille O’Neal’s departure, but ultimately knew that Bryant would be the face of the organization for several more seasons. There are no obvious successors on this current roster and there are some doubts about the financial feasibility of paying and even ability to attract major free agents next summer.
For now the success and failure of the Lakers remains in Kobe Bryant’s hands. That’s not a bad place to be. Bryant is a remarkable force driven and determined to win like few others. However, he is also 35 and is coming off the first major injury of his career. He hasn’t been armed with a serious title contender for 2013-14, but he has the still big responsibility of keeping them relevant and attractive for a possible final run at another title the following season. It’s definitely still Bryant or bust for the Lakers.