The Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps the most storied franchise in American sports, find themselves in a unique situation going into the 2011-2012 season.
Last season, the Lakers finished with a 57-25 record, but struggled in the playoffs. The Hornets gave the Lakers a tougher time than many expected, and the eventual-NBA champion Dallas Mavericks went on to sweep Los Angeles.
Not far removed from winning the NBA title in 2009-2010, the Lakers are suddenly without a lot of things they've grown accustomed to over the years.
The most glaring departure is the man calling the plays. The Lakers will be without famed head coach Phil Jackson. Not only has Jackson left, but his highly respected assistants are gone, as well. The Lakers will have a whole new scheme with new head coach Mike Brown in charge. Many doubted the wisdom of hiring Brown, a coach with no previous connection to the Lakers or the City of Los Angeles, and who has never won a title as a coach or player. Brown will have to prove his worth immediately to gain the respect of demanding Lakers fans, not to mention holdover players from the Jackson era.
The Lakers also fired assistant general manager Ronnie Lester, a highly respected basketball mind who had been with the organization for 24 years. Long-time scout Gene Tormohlen is also no longer with the organization, despite being consider one of the best scouts in the NBA. Both Lester and Tormohlen were part of the honored brain trust of general manager Mitch Kupchak and served under front-office and basketball legend Jerry West.
Those moves were reportedly made by Laker executive Jim Buss, son of the Lakers' long-time owner. Buss made the decision to hire Brown, and didn't consult Kobe Bryant in the decision. He also was rumored to be behind the deal that sent Lamar Odom to the Mavericks.
Odom was traded earlier this month along with a 2012 second-round pick to Dallas for a 2012 first-round pick and an $8.9-milliion trade exception. This deal reportedly had Bryant fuming, and ESPN's Stephen A. Smith reported that Bryant might demand a trade due to the way Buss is running things.
Though the Lakers are usually active in free agency, this offseason has been rather quiet.
The team isn't exactly swimming in money. The Lakers might still be in cost-cutting mode with a $91-million payroll, increased luxury taxes and increased revenue sharing. Brown was hired on a four-year contract for a total of $18.25 million, which is far lower than Jackson, who was paid $10 million in his final year. Jackson, like former assistant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, took a pay cut in the 2010-2011 season.
Meanwhile, the Lakers remain interested in trading for Dwight Howard, but may not have pieces to land the Orlando big man. The Magic would probably prefer to trade to almost any other team than the Lakers, but it's possible Howard might demand the deal. So far, there appears to be little talk of the deal taking place before the start of the season, which means the Lakers may need to wait until the trade deadline in March for Howard to possibly join the club. There will be other clubs interested in Howard, particularly the New Jersey Nets.
Howard may be viewed as the savior for the franchise. At age 26, he's in his prime, has tremendous athleticism, and is widely regarded as the best defensive big man in the NBA. Though he lacks offensive moves and his free-throw shooting is sub par, Howard still has a career-scoring average of 18.2 points per game.
The trade rumors circling Howard, which also previously circled Chris Paul, can't be much of a boost for morale. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum may become disenchanted with the upcoming season based on all the speculation that the duo might be on their way out. Both players have remained professional during the talks, but it has to bother them that their future with the Lakers is in doubt.
It also doesn't help that the Lakers remain thin at point guard. Derek Fisher spent a great deal of time in labor negotiations, and perhaps could have used some more availabilty to practice his outside shot. Fisher is considered one of the smartest players in the NBA, but is coming off consecutive seasons shooting under 40 percent, and at age 37 there are questions about how much longer he can play. Veteran Steve Blake, who played his first season with the Lakers last season, is coming off his worst scoring season since 2006-2007. Blake has three years remaining on his contract, but will need to regain his shooting stroke if he expects to spend them with the Lakers.
Then there's Bryant. The future Hall-of-Fame guard recently filed for divorce, and the Hollywood tabloids could make this season a major distraction. The Lakers were a circus in the 2003-2004 season when Bryant was involved in a sexual assault trial. In a shortened 2011-2012 season, NBA teams will be playing games without much of a rest. It's possible that the schedule will become frustrating for a team that has off-the-court distractions like the ones Bryant may be subjected to because of his divorce.
Bryant remains one of the best players in the league, but at age 33, and with knee problems, he might not be as dominant as in years past. However, Bryant has no interest in retirement, and believes his knee is fine.
I know my knee feels 90 percent better, said Bryant.
It's certainly not all gloom and doom for the Lakers. According to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register, Bynum is in excellent shape after shedding pounds, and also made strides in his low-post game.
The Lakers also added a shooter in Jason Kapono, and some size with Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy. The bench may have received a boost as second-year forward Devin Ebanks is reportedly a much better shooter this season. It's possible Ebanks could be the starting small forward, since Brown may favor his perimeter skills to Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes.
Power forward Derrick Caracter is expected to sit out for at least four to six weeks after having surgery to remove part of a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee. Caracter showed some promise last season, so he might be evolve into a key bench player in the future.
Fisher and Blake may be challenged by second-round draft pick Darius Morris, who added 10 pounds of muscle and improved his outside shot after playing at Michigan last season.
The Lakers have a great deal of work to do, both on and off the court. In a 66-game schedule spread over five months, the Lakers will need to have a deep bench and not suffer from fatigue if they expect a high seed in the playoffs.
The Western Conference will remain a challenge as the Mavericks, Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, and even, yes, the Clippers may make things hard on the purple and gold.
The preseason starts on Monday night with the Lakers facing their Staples Center co-tenant, the Clippers.