1. The Return of Kobe Bryant: A week ago the Lakers locked up there superstar for two more years giving Lakers fans peace of mind that one of the franchises greatest players will play his entire career in Los Angeles. The two year contract extension will ensure the presence of Bryant as the Lakers complete this transition period. How effective Bryant will be on the court is still to be determined, but his legendary work ethic and intensity should have a positive effect on this year’s Lakers team. Young players such as Nick Young and Wesley Johnson should benefit from the return of Bryant, both from the presence of Bryant on the court and the example he sets in going about his business. Most importantly the presence of Bryant will give the Lakers a deadly option at the end of games. Los Angeles has been in most every game they’ve played of late but have lost some close due to fourth quarter fades. The presence of Bryant should give the Lakers the fourth quarter edge he’s provided throughout his legendary career.
2. They are fun to watch: By all accounts last season’s Lakers team simply wasn’t enjoyable to watch. With nearly a full season and an offseason to instill his system the Mike D’Antoni style is taking shape. General Manager Mitch Kupchak has done a fine job injecting life into the roster with limited resources. This year’s club is one of the more entertaining teams in the Western Conference. Nick Young gives them instant offense off the bench and has thrived in D’Antoni’s system. Former fourth overall pick Wesley Johnson is showing signs of the talent that made him such a high draft pick and provided major energy and athleticism on both ends of the court. Jordan Farmar is out for a month due to injury, but prior to getting hurt gave the Lakers excellent minutes off the bench.
3. Pau Gasol is Free: Playing Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard on the floor last season just didn’t work. The presence of Howard often made Gasol play in spots on the floor where he just wasn’t as effective or confident. With Howard in Houston, Gasol is no longer playing out of position and the 33-year-old veteran is back in the post and after a slow start is picking up his play. The absence of Howard has also allowed Jordan Hill to flourish. The former first round draft pick is playing the best basketball of his career and doing many of the things the Lakers envisioned from Howard. Hill’s constant hustle and grittiness has given the Lakers a positive companion to Gasol. The Lakers will get Chris Kaman back from injury this week, adding another big body and veteran post player back into the rotation. The trio of Gasol, Hill and Kaman gives the Lakers solid depth at a position where many of the contenders are lacking.
4. Mike D’Antoni: After much criticism last season the Lakers head coach has had a year to institute his system and the Lakers are showing very positive signs. As his time in Phoenix demonstrated D’Antoni often does his best job when expectations are low, as they were heading into this season. Whether the D’Antoni system can ever produce a title is debatable, but there’s no question that it is effective at times when he has the right mix of players. The potential X factor for Los Angeles is when and if Steve Nash can be effective again. Nash became an MVP in Phoenix under D’Antoni and he’s uniquely qualified to run the system. Steve Blake has done a great job in Nash’s absence but the potential return of their veteran point guard can be a huge factor in their ability to compete in the Western Conference as the season moves forward.
Of course the big criticism of any D’Antoni team is their inability to play defense. The Lakers are generally more athletic across the board this season but are still struggling defensively, ranked 27th in the league in points allowed. Granted their free-wheeling style contributes to defensive struggles but they’ll need to shore up the defensive unit as they get into the heart of the playoff race. Bryant, once a great defender, has struggled defensively in recent years and will likely struggle more due to the fact he’s coming off of injury.
5. They’ll be fresh down the stretch: The Lakers legitimately go eleven deep on their roster with Gasol leading the Lakers in minutes per game at just over 30. Los Angeles may not have a starting unit that can contend with Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs but their strong depth will benefit them greatly in a long and arduous NBA season. This depth will also allow the Lakers to slowly work in Kobe Bryant when he returns, as well as Steve Nash if and when he finally comes back from his latest time off due to injury. As the season turns into the final third the Lakers, specifically their veteran players, should have legs that are fresher than many of the teams they’ll be competing against. Add in D’Antoni’s aggressive style and the Lakers should have many a fourth quarter edge on teams toward the end of the season. The increased minutes from the bench players should also build the confidence and comfort of many of the young players. As the Lakers near playoff time their rotation will surely tighten up, but the head coach will have a deep potential bench to rely on moving forward.