HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We can stop speculating about it now.
We can stop wondering what they’ll look like, together, all four of the Los Angeles Lakers’ major pieces (with apologies to Metta World Peace, whose importance we don’t want to minimize … after all, someone has to crank up the already ridiculous expectations for this team). Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol together is a fantasy basketball lover’s paradise. Four guys who all have Hall of Fame credentials wearing the same uniform, and all four playing vastly different positions, teaming up to try to unseat the Miami Heat as kings of the league.
You can’t pay enough for these sorts of storylines at the start of the NBA season, though Dr. Jerry Buss might say otherwise when that luxury tax bill arrives.
That multi-million dollar chemistry experiment we’ve all been waiting to witness gets under way today as the Lakers and the rest of the league’s teams that didn’t start last Friday open training camp. And with the official start of the 2012-13 season comes the renewed scrutiny of the one franchise that always makes a habit of creating a stir this time of year.
Lakers fans are no doubt confident that their team is poised for something seismic with the star-studded additions of both Howard (who is coming back from back surgery and not expected to go 100 percent at the start of camp) and Nash. There remains some reasonable skepticism in Los Angeles about Howard, at least from the likes of former Lakers great James Worthy. But there is no denying that the Lakers have, at least on paper, every bit of firepower needed to challenge for the throne this season.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate concerns about this team. The Heat made it to The Finals in their first year together but were ultimately overwhelmed by a Dallas Mavericks team that proved to have much better chemistry and in the end was simply a better team than the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh-led Heat.
While the Heat’s issues two years ago were corrected last season, the Lakers are fighting other forces, like Father Time and the usual assortment of wacky things that only seem to happen near Hollywood (sorry Steve Blake). As Ben Bolch of The Los Angeles Times points out, there are more than a few things to worry about in Lakerland:
Injuries could cause season-long unease for a team whose primary starters average 32 years old. It’s not exactly a spry bunch, with Bryant’s knees and Nash’s joints having absorbed more pounding over their careers than a runway at LAX.
And then there’s freak mishaps, such as backup point guard Steve Blake’s recent encounter with a Manhattan Beach parking lot spike strip. Who knew that walking barefoot near the beach could be such a bad idea?
Even fully intact, these Lakers aren’t foolproof. Nash and top reserve Antawn Jamison, for instance, each have glaring limitations.
“They’re both horrific defensive players for their positions,” said one former NBA coach who did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of his comments.
The Lakers could always funnel top opposing scorers toward Howard, though that could lead to foul problems for the NBA’s top rim protector.
Howard is certainly someone the Lakers don’t want to see on the free-throw line late in games. A career 58.8% foul shooter whose accuracy inexplicably dipped to 49.1% last season, Howard could cost his team victories or force it to take him off the court on offensive possessions in the final minutes of close games.
Coach Mike Brown also must figure out a way to integrate lane cloggers Pau Gasol and Howard into a Princeton-style offense that will be shepherded by new assistant coach Eddie Jordan. You don’t want players executing back cuts knocked unconscious running into a 7-footer along the baseline.
As intriguing as the possibilities are with Nash running the pick and roll, he’s not exactly surrounded by top-flight outside shooters as he was in Phoenix. The Lakers made 32.2% of their three-pointers last season, 26th worst in the league.
After listening to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra speak from the other side of the fence last Friday, Brown might want to place a call to Miami and take a few notes. Because for all of the pressure the players will be under, no one, not even Howard or Bryant, will be under a more intense microscope this season than Brown.
If he thought his first season in charge was dramatic — everyone remembers the dust ups he had with jettisoned big man Andrew Bynum — there will be no hiding from the weight of increased expectations this season.
So for all of the attention that will no doubt surround the Lakers’ stars, Brown’s performance is the one that could very well end up being the most crucial for the Lakers.
Other news, notes and observations as media day (today) gives way to the start of training camp (Tuesday) around the league …
Enough Already With The Ray Allen Bashing In Boston
It’s understandable to have some hard feelings when a star bolts from one side of a rivalry to another. But this nonsense brewing in Boston in regards to Ray Allen needs to stop.
Doc Rivers is a class act. But Allen’s old teammates aren’t showing much as they attempt to distance themselves from the former member of the Celtics’ Big 3 now that he’s joined the Heat. Dan Duggan of the Boston Herald highlights the foolishness:
First, Kevin Garnett said he didn’t have Ray Allen’s phone number anymore. Then Jason Terry said, “Who?” when asked about Allen.
Yesterday, [Rajon] Rondo was the latest to dismiss his former teammate, refusing to mention his name.
“A lot of people don’t know that Courtney, I think, was second behind No. 20 (Allen) last year in 3-point field goal percentage,” Rondo said.
For the record, Allen finished fourth (45.3 percent) and Lee was 22nd (40.1) in 3-point shooting. . . .
Enough already gentlemen. Settle it on the court like the competitors that you are. But save the high school antics for, well, high schoolers.
Injury Hiccups Stain Start Of Camp For Mavericks
The Mavericks have already started practicing and they’re already dealing with the realities that training camp brings. Two days into camp and they’ve already had two key players suffer injuries. More from Dwain Price of the Star-Telegram:
One day after Chris Kaman suffered a sprained lower back on the opening day, Brandan Wright strained his quad during Sunday’s practice at American Airlines Center. Mavs officials believe the injuries are minor, but aren’t sure how long either player will be forced into limited duty before returning to the court.
“Brandan Wright got a little quad strain today, but it’s not considered serious,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ll evaluate him and he’ll be day-to-day.”
As a backup last year who played in 49 games, Wright averaged 6.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 16.1 minutes. He often got pushed around because of his lithe body, but he did something about it by beefing up over the off-season.
“I haven’t checked the scale, but he’s worked on his strength,” Carlisle said. “He had a really good learning year last year — he had a terrific individual year.
“Last year was the first year he’d been in the playoffs and that experience, I think, is important for his career because getting in that situation you’ll learn where you’ve got to improve. One area was his strength, so he’s worked on it.”
The Mavericks’ will have to be extremely careful with both players this season. Their depth in the frontcourt is an issue when everyone’s healthy.
Magic Enter Camp In Unfamiliar Territory
A playoff lock in recent years, the Orlando Magic hit the court this week with lots of questions.
Everything is brand new this season, from first-year coach Jacque Vaughn and his staff to the front office crew led by general manager Rob Hennigan to the 12 — count ’em, 12 — new players that will be wearing Magic uniforms for the first time.
The vast majority of NBA analysts predict the Magic will struggle this season. General manager Rob Hennigan and Vaughn want the team to establish an identity as a hard-working, blue-collar club that is never satisfied with losing. Vaughn and his coaches have a role in that, but that tone has to come from returnees such as point guard Jameer Nelson, big man Glen Davis and shooting guard J.J. Redick and incoming veterans such as shooting guard Arron Afflalo.
“I think as a competitor it’s hard because oftentimes people almost want you to be worse so that you can eventually get better,” Redick said. “I know the guys we have in that locker room. That’s not going to sit well with them, so I expect us to be very competitive, to be a group that plays extremely hard. I like our core group of guys and I like our young players, and as long as the coaching staff and the team is on the same page, I think we’ll be fine.”
Confidence is a powerful thing, especially when it’s channeled in the right way. But not everyone is willing to buy in the way that Redick has (he really has to as one of the few familiar faces for the Magic).
We’re like those analysts mentioned above. We see struggles in the future for this team.
Suns Still Searching For Another Big Man
Another team familiar with success is embracing the challenge of rebuilding. The Phoenix Suns are dealing with health issues that will drastically alter their roster as they search for another big man to fill out the rotation. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic has the details:
Once relatively settled with 13 guaranteed contracts, the Suns likely will stage a battle for another roster spot in light of the expectation that Channing Frye’s enlarged heart will sideline him for the season.
The Suns have invited NBA veteran power forward/center Solomon Jones, power forward/center Luke Zeller, swingman Othyus Jeffers and point guard Diante Garrett to training camp, which opens Tuesday with the first of four consecutive two-a-day sessions at UC-San Diego. The camp, which is closed to the public, will conclude Saturday with an intrasquad scrimmage before the Suns return to Phoenix to prepare for their Oct. 10 preseason opener at Sacramento.
The Suns have the roster minimum of 13 players under contract but Frye’s loss likely will lead to an addition, although the Suns are permitted to carry up to 15 players on their regular-season roster.
Jones and Zeller seem like the most probable candidates as big men with different styles.
Jones, 28, is an athletic shot-blocker who played sparingly in 268 games for four teams over six seasons. The 2006 draft’s 33rd pick out of South Florida signed with the Los Angeles Clippers early last season and played in 10 games before being waived and joining New Orleans on two 10-day contracts for 11 more appearances.
Jones, 6 feet 10 and 245 pounds, has career averages of 3.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 11.1 minutes per appearance with Atlanta (2006-09), Indiana (2009-11), the Clippers and New Orleans.
Zeller is another Suns look at part of a basketball brotherhood. Luke is the older brother of Tyler Zeller, who was drafted 17th in June and traded to Cleveland. Suns power forward Markieff Morris and previous Suns players Robin Lopez, Taylor Griffin and Jarron Collins from the past three seasons all have brothers in the NBA.
Luke Zeller, 6 feet 11 and 245 pounds, has played in Japan, Lithuania and the D-League since going undrafted out of Notre Dame in 2009. He averaged 4.9 points and 2.8 rebounds as a Fighting Irish senior captain but his shooting range as a big man gives him a shot to contend for a regular-season roster spot. He averaged 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 24.9 minutes per game for the D-League’s Austin Toros last season while making 34 percent of his 3-pointers.
Neither Jones nor Zeller will be able to stretch the floor and defenses the way Frye does. But the Suns have so many other lingering questions heading into training camp that simply filling out the roster is more important than being able to find a “stretch four”[power forward] to fill the void left by Frye.
Is Bynum Ready For Prime Time?
It’s hard to argue with the credentials. The big fella has the rings and big-game experience that no other current big man in the league can boast of having.
But is the new face of the franchise in Philadelphia ready to lead the Sixers to the top half of the Eastern Conference standings? All eyes are on the Lakers’ former big man, according to Bob Cooney of the Daily News:
Similar to when Moses Malone was brought here in 1982, all eyes will be on Bynum and how he will be able to carry the organization on his gigantic 7-foot, close-to-300-pound frame. The obvious concern is health, as the soon-to-be-25-year-old has played each game of a season just once in his 7-year career. Last season, though, he missed only six of 66 games and posted career-high averages of 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 35.2 minutes a game. Those numbers are even more assuring since the shortened 2011-12 season was played in such a small time frame. Wanting to ensure his suspect knees continue to be at full strength, Bynum had a noninvasive knee procedure done in Germany that former teammate Kobe Bryant swore by.
Who he’ll be paired with in the starting lineup is intriguing, with Spencer Hawes looking to be the front-runner. That would give the Sixers two 7-footers on the floor with a true post presence in Bynum and, in Hawes, a good passer and shooter who can also rebound. The roles of Lavoy Allen, Thaddeus Young, Kwame Brown and rookie Arnett Moultrie are among many riddles on [Doug] Collins‘ plate.
If you spit out your morning coffee seeing Bynum mentioned in the same sentence with Malone, we understand. We were a bit taken aback by that as well.
But these are the sort of expectations Bynum is going to be dealing with all season. His profile says “elite big man.” Now he has to live up to that on a nightly basis, without the security blanket that Bryant and the Lakers provided him.
It’s going to be interesting to see if he’s ready to step up to that challenge …