October 25, 2012
NBA Enemy Lines
Los Angeles Lakers
2011-12 Record: 41-25
The Lakers' starters have combined for 33 All-Star appearances. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Think about it this way: Steve Nash is among the top five point guards in the NBA. Pau Gasol is among the top three power forwards. Kobe Bryant is top two at shooting guard. Dwight Howard is the best center. By the end of the year we might be arguing over whether each of those four guys is the best at his position. Even better, they can all fit together as long as Howard plays his role. This team could be unbelievable.

Their backcourt depth is actually going to be a strength, but I don't like their depth in the frontcourt apart from Antawn Jamison, who is not a true 4. Depth is important because Howard is coming off back surgery. I know they have a big luxury-tax bill already, but my guess is that they'll probably get somebody to fill out their frontcourt at the trade deadline or post-deadline who gets waived. They'll go out and get a P.J. Brown type. You know someone will be available -- and who wouldn't want to play for that team in that city?

[Chris Mannix: What to expect from the Lakers this season]

Nash is 38, but he's still getting it done. Everybody keeps waiting for Nash to break down, but he's like a veteran pitcher who just keeps finding ways to get better. There's never been anybody better at playing pick-and-roll basketball. He comes off the pick, he sees how you're playing it, and if he doesn't like what he was getting the first time then he runs it again -- and bang, it's a basket. Last year it looked like he might be declining, but I think that was because the guys around him in Phoenix weren't good enough. And even then he made those guys so much better. It may take a while for him to figure out how to play with Kobe. Maybe he'll defer more to Kobe than he should. But even if it takes them some time, I don't think you'll see the Lakers struggling too much in terms of wins because they're so talented. And I definitely think it's not going to take an entire season for them to mesh.

I think the pace for the Lakers is going to be slow, even with Nash running the team. If Howard ever ran the floor on every possession, can you imagine how impossible they would be to defend? Pau can run like a deer, and obviously Howard can run when he wants to. But Kobe is the guy I see holding that up more than anybody.

The other thing is that Nash hadn't been running so much his last couple of years in Phoenix. It wasn't that seven-seconds-or-less offense anymore. It was more of a fluid game where they would flow out of transition directly into a pick-and-roll with the trailing big guy. Nash would be unbelievable running those things. But I don't think you're going to see him running the same kind of offense for the Lakers.

If Kobe isn't among the top five players in the game, he's surely among the top seven. You can see signs of decline [at age 34]. He'll take a few more bad shots now because he has to. He used to take a bad shot because he thought he'd make it. Now he's forced into a few more bad shots. A good defender can frustrate him and make him take a bad shot. He didn't used to be frustrated; he'd just think he could make this bad shot anyway. The only wing scorers I'd rate ahead of Kobe are LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

[Photo Gallery: Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan]

I do think Kobe is going to be fine as long as it's working, and it's going to work because they're all so good. The hardest thing for coach Mike Brown will be settling on what they're going to do in the fourth quarter of close games. They're going to have so many options.

I don't expect to see any conflicts between Kobe and Nash. Once or twice you'll see Nash call somebody over for a pick-and-roll and Kobe will roll his eyes, because he's Kobe. But what Kobe wants more than anything is to win another championship, and Nash wants to win his first one.

The guy who may cause the biggest problem is Howard, who is definitely going to complain because he's going to get so many fewer touches. It seemed like 70 percent to 80 percent of the plays were run for him in Orlando, and now he's probably going to be the fourth option. Howard's life can be so much easier than it has been if he can just go with it. They'll be saying to him, Look, we've got Pau in the post, Nash on the pick-and-roll and Kobe. So why don't you just block shots and rebound, and you'll get 20 points a night by going to the offensive glass? Howard could build up his numbers that way because he's such a beast. But will he buy into it? Maybe that's where Nash comes in to make it all work.

[Ben Golliver: Howard an X-factor in Western Conference]

Howard is a big upgrade over Andrew Bynum. Is Bynum a more skilled offensive player? Yes, but that's the only place he has an advantage. They're both immature guys, that's for sure. Does Howard come in and say I'm looking like the bad guy after all the crap I pulled in Orlando for the last two years, so I need to toe the line now? Hopefully he takes into consideration what he has to do to get beyond what happened at the end in Orlando. The answer is that if he wins a championship, nobody is going to care what he did or even how many points he scores.

You know Shaquille O'Neal is going to be playing games with his head, baiting him and talking about he was more dominant for the Lakers than Howard. I'm going to love watching that whole sideshow develop.

[Photo Gallery: Dwight Howard through the years]

Metta World Peace's game is going downhill faster than any other Laker's, but they have no one else to start right now at small forward. It would be a huge mistake to put Jamison in the starting lineup. What they need there is a guy like Thabo Sefolosha, who can shoot the three when he's open and can guard whoever is on the perimeter. World Peace can't handle that kind of defensive role nearly as well as he used to.

Gasol is the one who makes this a great team. They'll run a lot of pick-and-roll with Gasol picking and popping. You've got Kobe and World Peace in the corners and Howard ducking in, and Pau is such a great mid-range shooter. He'll make a play whether he scores or passes. He's going to fill a huge role on a team like this because he's unselfish, he's a great passer, and I love the fact that two times every year he'll come out and say he needs more touches. He does it when the team is getting away from him, because he knows it needs him. He knows how to play, he knows what he's talking about and he only speaks when something needs to be said. Put it all together and they have three great high-IQ basketball guys in Kobe, Nash and Gasol. It's a really good mix.

Jamison isn't nearly what he was. He's been dying to be a sixth man on a good team for a few years now. That's what he needs to be. He's never been good enough to be a starting 4 against top teams because he couldn't guard the good players. With the Lakers, he'll have an advantage playing against backup 4s or 3s. There will be nights when he'll get it going and change a game, where he comes in with a lead of six to eight points in the first quarter and by the time he leaves the lead is up near 20. It's just so easy to imagine him in pick-and-roll with Nash hitting him for that little runner Jamison likes.

The Lakers are probably going to be the best rebounding team in the league. Last year they were big with Bynum and Gasol, and now they're even bigger. I keep going back to this because their future depends on it -- if they ever get Howard to accept the role of getting a few passes in the post but relying mainly on going to the offensive glass, running the floor and blocking shots, then they'll kill everybody. They have two great shot-blockers in Howard and Gasol, and those blocks will create easy baskets at the other end for Nash. That means they can create transition naturally, without having to force the issue and gamble defensively. Just by playing solid, fundamental defense, they'll be able to create buckets at the other end.

[Lee Jenkins: Pacific Division preview]

I love their backcourt depth. When Chris Duhon was in Chicago, he used to guard the best backcourt player at either position. Steve Blake has played the 2-spot a bunch alongside the point guard. Jodie Meeks is fine as a guy who can make shots as a fifth guard.

They're going to need some minutes in the frontcourt from Jordan Hill. Another key for their bench is whether Earl Clark or Devin Ebanks can become an effective player.

If the Lakers make it to the conference finals against Oklahoma City and both teams are healthy, I think the Lakers will kick their butts. Then if the Lakers play Miami, that will be the most exciting NBA Finals in years. I think the Lakers would win because their big guys will be too good. Plus, the Lakers will be so hungry, especially with Kobe and Nash needing to win. If they don't win it this year, you know they are not going to win it the following year when Nash will be 39.


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