There was a time, back in the 1980s, when the Los Angeles Lakers went by the name “Showtime”. A team led by one of the greatest players to grace a basketball court, Magic Johnson, brushed aside opponents with their quick and scintillating basketball to win 5 NBA titles in a decade. It was a team built on fast offense with the likes of the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. And to top it off, they were coached by none other than the great Pat Riley, leading many to call this particular team one of the greatest of all time. The 1985 final was their greatest achievement of the lot as they finally got the monkey off their back and defeated their arch rivals; the Boston Celtics.
But as the future Hall of Famers reached the end of their career and retired by the turn of the 1990s, the Lakers struggled to gain a foothold even in the Western Conference, let alone competing for the championship. A rebuilding process was set in motion and it wasn’t until the mid ‘90s when they added the mighty Shaquille O’Neal and a young Kobe Bryant to the line-up. They took their time to gel, their differences well known to the team and the public. But help arrived in the form of one of the NBA’s greatest coaches, Phil Jackson, who had led Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to six titles in the ‘90s.
What followed is history as the Lakers completed a ‘three-peat’, winning three consecutive titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. After a couple of hiccups in the ’04 and ’08 finals, the team was back with a vengeance and added two more titles in ’09 and ’10 (where they defeated the Boston Celtics who were favourites to win). The Lakers have always been winning titles. But as with every team, there are highs and lows. Phil Jackson has now retired and Mike Brown has tried to step into some big shoes to try and lead the Lakers out of the Playoffs and into the Finals – where they truly belong.
- Here comes the… cavalry?
The Lakers were found wanting in the last season as they relied heavily on Kobe Bryant to get them out of trouble. Pau Gasol’s form in the Playoffs just wasn’t up to the mark. Andrew Bynum was a standout performer but he is now no longer a Laker. But two new additions to the squad have made the fans very optimistic about the new season – Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
Nash could turn out to be the creative fulcrum the team has sorely missed with his favoured pick-and-roll to choose from, considering he has both Gasol and Howard on the floor. Howard’s rebounds, blocks and his post up moves would improve the Lakers’ offense and defence a few notches. Both the players have topped the assists and rebound charts respectively in the last season. And Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has done a tremendous job in bringing both the players to Staples Center.
But one worrying factor is their age and fitness. Nash is 38 and can no longer sustain the same intensity he had years ago. His defence is also not something you can write home about and the team would truly be tested when they face a young, quick team like the OKC Thunder. Also, both Nash and Howard have back problems. Howard is still in rehab, recovering from a surgery to fix a herniated disc, which means he will not be ready for the start of the pre-season. Whether he will make it to the squad when the regular season gets underway on October 30thcan only be speculated at this point.
The need for a Plan B
Howard’s possible absence means that Gasol will have to step up like how he did when Bynum wasn’t available in the last two seasons. But Mike Brown will have to keep in mind that Gasol is just back from a very busy summer where he won the silver medal at the Olympics for Spain. Fatigue will play an important factor. He is also not getting any younger and at the age of 32, it would be risky to ask too much form him early in the season. And although 34-year old gold medallist Kobe didn’t play as much as was expected in the Olympics, he too would be subject to burnout.
This means that the Lakers will have to rely on their bench to contribute more this season. But if you look at their bench’s contribution for last season in terms of points, the Lakers are dead last! It shows how much the Lakers have been dependent on their starting five. It is something that must change for an ageing squad.
Metta World Peace will have to improve on his offensive skills but his reliable presence on the defensive court will be an added bonus. They have added Antawn Jamison whose career average is a shade below 20 points per game and he is a player who can keep the ball moving. He would be expected to start games in Howard’s absence and he is a worthy addition who could be their sixth man. Jordan Hill too should be seeing some more game time and he would look to impress. Both Hill and Jamison could be fighting it out for the fifth spot on the floor if Howard is not ready for the start of the season.
A new era?
The squad is one with a lot of potential. But it is too early to make a call on whether this team can push for the title. For starters, they first need to get together and learn to play as a team. Kobe has never had a point guard dominate the ball on offense and it would be new territory for a player of his calibre. But he must understand that Nash is a proven playmaker and distributor of the ball. He’ll need all the help he can get. Both Howard and Nash are in a quest to get their first ring and Kobe would do well to co-exist with them to get his sixth.
The Big Five of Kobe, Nash, Howard, Gasol and World Peace have a job on their hands. No other team has reached the NBA Finals as many times as the Lakers have. As they go in search of a record equalling 17th NBA title, it may not exactly be “Showtime”, but they could come mighty close.