The Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2015-2016 season with a multitude of questions, but at least one was cleared up in recent days. In what might be his final season, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant has been cleared to play after being sidelined in recent seasons with knee and shoulder injuries.
Head coach Byron Scott will have a hard minutes cap on Bryant this season, with the hope that it will prevent future injuries. Bryant is entering his 20th season, and his ability to play at a high level in 2015-2016 will likely play a major factor in whether he decides to continue his NBA career when his contract expires at season's end. Another determining factor involves the players around him, and their performance next season and their potential in 2016-2017.
After a miserable season that saw the Lakers finish near the bottom of the Western Conference, there is hope that the Lakers have put their troubles behind them with Bryant back, and with a new collection of veterans and young players providing depth for their second-year coach. General manager Mitch Kupchak added veterans Lou Williams, Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass, along with No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell, No.27 pick Larry Nance Jr. and No. 34 pick Anthony Brown. The Lakers also bring back 20-year-old Julius Randle, who sat out all but 14 minutes after suffering a right tibia injury in the season opener.
The Lakers' preseason begins on Oct. 4, and the regular season tips off on Oct. 28. There are many questions that surround the Lakers, with many of them revolving around Bryant. Here are some that stand out:
Kobe's Back, But Will He Be Effective?
Bryant returns to the court, but his effectiveness will be one of the key stories of the NBA season. The 37-year-old is one of the most determined players in sports, and will almost certainly play hard every night. But Bryant's lift on his shot, his full-court skills, his defense, and his ability to penetrate will all be under heavy scrutiny. In his 35 games last season, he shot 37.3 percent from the field and just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc. Those are not the numbers a player like Bryant expects out of himself.
In all likelihood, Bryant will still average better than 20 points per game. But his field-goal percentage will probably be below his career average of 45.1 percent, and he will need to prove he can handle the strains of an 82-game schedule. It wouldn't be surprising if Bryant is rested for stretches of the season to make sure he is physically fit for the entire year.
Can This Young Group Mesh With Kobe?
A lot of talk will surround Russell and burgeoning guard Jordan Clarkson and their performances on an organization with playoff hopes. While both players put their talent on full display in 2014-2015, they will be deferring to Bryant next season.
It's no secret that Bryant can be an overly demanding and impatient teammate, who expects to take a lot of shots at the expense of others. Even with limited minutes, Bryant may be paired with both Russell and Clarkson on the court and won't tolerate poor decision making from either player. Russell, Clarkson and other young players on the squad will be expected to learn and learn quickly how to play in the Lakers' system and around Bryant.
Russell didn't exactly set the Summer League on fire. He turned the ball over too much, and didn't shoot well from the field (37.7 percent). The rookie will have a big role as a distributor, and making sure backcourt veterans like Kobe and Williams get opportunities to score.
What Russell, Clarkson, as well as Randle and Nance all seem to have in common is that they are mature and unselfish. Those are important qualities for young players.
Is Scott On The Hot Seat?
After a forgettable first season, Scott no doubt is aware of the fates of Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni. Unless they are gifted a superstar big man like when the Grizzlies sent Pau Gasol to L.A. in 2008, Lakers brass is aware that an NBA title isn't happening this season so there isn't too much pressure on Scott. A trip to the playoffs would quiet any detractors, but a winning percentage under 40 would mean a hard look at Scott.
Should the Lakers underachieve, some may openly question Scott's ability to raise the Lakers out of their prolonged stagnation. Scott will need to avoid losses to weak teams, and earn some wins against top NBA teams to prevent barking from the national media that he can't lift L.A. out of their recent shambles.
For the most part, Scott can feel comfortable with his job security. As a former player during the feel-good Showtime Era, Scott is part of the Laker family unlike Brown and D'Antoni. He also has several years of coaching experience, and this is his dream job, so he will do his best to keep the Lakers competitive next season. Scott has always been a likeable guy who will be given the benefit of the doubt, particularly with this young group.
Can The Lakers Even Make The Postseason?
The Lakers were handed a gift with a relatively weak schedule to start the season. Aside from two dates with the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers will not face a team that finished with 40 wins or more until their 12th game of the season when they host the Toronto Raptors. Getting off to a hot start is imperative to the Lakers, because of the young players on the roster, and the need to build confidence after the disastrous 2014-2015 season.
The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies seem like locks to reach the playoffs. Of the the two remaining spots, the Lakers will receive a tough test against the New Orleans Pelicans and Mavericks.
The Lakers may be able to squeak in with a No. 7 or No. 8 seed, but that's if they can stay healthy and key players overachieve.