Remember when Kobe almost left the Lakers? Me neither. It seems like ages ago—though it was just a year back—that the Lakers were a franchise in turmoil on the verge of trading away their superstar for spare parts.
But it never happened.
Instead, Bryant was named MVP. The Lakers had the best regular season record in the West and advanced to the NBA Finals before losing in six games to the Boston Celtics. It was a tough loss to swallow, but the journey made it bearable, if barely.
The Lakers weren’t expected to contend for a title heading into last season. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein placed ranked them 20th in the 2007-08 season opening Power Rankings, writing, “The sad reality, after all the chaos of the summer and October, is that this team is in for a real drop if Kobe leaves and a ride of countless bumps and ceaseless speculation just to grab a playoff spot if he stays.”
This season, Stein has them at number two behind Boston. After trading for Pau Gasol last season and getting a healthy Andrew Bynum back this year, Lakers’ expectations are clear: NBA championship or bust. Lakers fans feel the same way.
After falling two games short of the title last year, it’s not going to be easy to improve, but there is a lot of room to drop off.
Last year, every step along the way was fun. No one saw it coming. Watching the development of Bynum before his injury. Watching clutch performances from Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar. Delighting in the energy and antics of Ronny Turiaf.
This year’s team will be watched with a more apprehensive eye. Turiaf is the only significant departure, signing with Golden State in the offseason. But the return of Bynum crowds the front line and will likely relegate Lamar Odom into the role as sixth man.
Will Gasol, Bynum and Odom co-exist harmoniously? Will Jordan Farmar seize the starting point guard position from veteran Derek Fisher? And who will step up as the primary small forward—defensive-mined Trevor Ariza, three-point specialist Vladimir Radmanovic or the versatile Luke Walton?
There are many questions about this Lakers team. They are capable of answering them all and, if they can stay healthy, there is no doubt they’ll be a playoff team. But in a top-heavy Western Conference, the road back to the Finals won’t be easy. And with expectations in Los Angeles at their highest since the Kobe-Shaq-Malone-Payton season of ’03-’04, there’s only one result that will make this season a success for this franchise.
Check back to MattHubert.com tomorrow for the return of the MattHubert.com podcast, featuring a full NBA preview from Matt and Mike.