Following perhaps the most disappointing season in the history of the organization, the Los Angeles Lakers entered the 2014 offseason with hopes that a potential blockbuster free agent signing or trade would reverse the club’s fortunes and return the purple and gold to glory with superstar Kobe Bryant expected to be back at full strength after sitting out nearly all of last season.
The results were less than encouraging, as the club failed to lure LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or any other major name and was left to piece together deals and signings that are not expected to make a dramatic impact on a squad that finished just two games ahead of last place in the Western Conference. Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Ed Davis were added along with lottery pick Julius Randle, and second-round draft pick Jordan Clarkson, while Pau Gasol signed with the Chicago Bulls and Jodie Meeks moved on to the Detroit Pistons.
More help could be on the way, as the Lakers have shown interest in forward Michael Beasley. Beasley averaged 7.9 points per game, and nearly shot 50 percent from the field in 2013-2014. After a promising season in 2010-2011, there has been a dip in Beasley’s production, but he is only 25 and still could be a strong frontcourt contributor. There have also been rumblings that Shawn Marion could join L.A., who at age 36 remains a solid rebounder and scorer. Acquiring either Beasley or Marion would add depth to the squad, though there remains a lack of an elite go-to guy in the frontcourt unless Randle matures quickly.
There's optimism within the organization that new head coach Byron Scott will reinvigorate and stabilize a team that has gone through numerous coaching and offense scheme changes in recent years. Scott has plenty of coaching experience and is loyal to the Laker tradition of winning. However, there is little to be inspired about in how Scott’s staff is shaping up. During the Phil Jackson years, the coaching legend was surrounded by respected gurus and assistants such as Tex Winter, Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons, who helped L.A. gain an edge with a well-executed Triangle Offense. Scott’s current staff includes just longtime assistant Johnny Davis, with inexperienced Mark Madsen or Robert Horry possibly filling out the group, according to reports.
Scott has already begun preaching an emphasis on defense, and that the Lakers would likely not try to re-create the Showtime era. The Lakers are not exactly overloaded with lockdown defenders at the moment, particularly at point guard, where opponents will include the likes of Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Tony Parker in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the offense will likely continue to run through Bryant, who despite sitting out most of the 2013-2014 season and entering his 19th season, should still be a premier scorer. Finding other players to pick up the scoring might prove difficult with the absence of Gasol, and with Steve Nash’s ineffectiveness in recent years. The Lakers will likely look to Lin and Boozer, along with swingman Nick Young, who combined to average roughly 44 points per game in 2013-2014.
The West will continue to be highly competitive following a season in which seven teams finished with 50 wins or more. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs should be near the top of the West, along with the Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors should fight for a high seed. An ominous sign for the Lakers might be the fates of the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns in 2013-2014. The Grizzlies only managed a No. 7 seed despite 50 wins, and the Mavericks were able to just edge the Suns by winning 49 games compared to Phoenix’s 48. Both the Grizzlies and Mavericks failed to advance beyond the first round. Indeed, it wasn’t surprising that James and Anthony kept most of their options in the Eastern Conference, which had only two teams finish with more than 48 wins. Luring players like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and even Kyle Lowry was a lot harder than it looked, given the players they would have been surrounded by and the difficulty of winning in a very deep conference.
The Lakers will likely need a lot to go right to even reach the playoffs, let alone go deep into the postseason. The starting lineup will likely consist of Jordan Hill at center, Boozer at power forward, and Young at small forward, with a backcourt of Bryant and Lin. Randle is expected to be a key player off the bench. Nash’s status remains questionable given his injuries and age, while the rest of the roster will need to improve off last season if the team expects to earn a playoff spot. L.A. finished 24th in the league in turnovers (14.8 per game) and 25th in rebounding (41 per game), and that was with big men Gasol and Chris Kaman.
The Lakers could be in for a stretch similar to the gap between the departure of superstar center Shaquille O’Neal in 2004 and the arrival of Gasol in 2007. During that period, the Lakers won 34 games in the 2004-2005 season, 45 in 2005-2006, and 42 in 2006-2007, with the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in the starting lineup. Bryant relied on starters like Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum and bench players like Brian Cook and Luke Walton to earn L.A. a No. 7 seed. The current squad may have more talent and athleticism than the ones in those seasons, but the West is deeper in 2014 and Bryant isn’t expected to average over 30 points per game.
In short, Scott has a challenge ahead of him with this roster. The Lakers have a great tradition of winning, and the team’s fans expect the Lakers to be title contenders every year. When Scott was introduced as the head coach, he was joined on the podium with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes and current general manager Mitch Kupchak, who were all part of the Lakers roster in the 1980s, the most successful era in the team’s rich history after a down period in the mid and late 1970s. The image of those players together was a fine reminder of what the Lakers once were, and perhaps a stark forecast of how difficult it will be to get there again.