STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Rinse, repeat. The Lakers finished last season with strikingly similar statistics as the 2008-2009 Lakers, and finished the season with the same result: another NBA championship. Los Angeles successfully defended its title by relying heavily on the inside-outside combination of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, getting solid center play from Andrew Bynum when he was healthy, and double-doubles from sixth man Lamar Odom. Both Lakers championship teams were nearly unstoppable at home, beat up on Western Conference teams, and rode blistering starts to clinch the top conference playoff seed with relative ease.
There were some differences, however. Last yearís 57-win Lakers scored six fewer points per game than their 2008-2009 counterparts, and shot worse, albeit slightly, in every measurable metric. Bryant missed nine games with injuries, more than he had missed over the previous four seasons combined. Gasol also missed some time with hamstring issues. Forward Ron Artest, who was paid big money to bring his all-around skills to Los Angeles, proceeded to post some of the worst numbers of his career. So while the Lakers finished 2010 just as they did 2009, with a championship, last season showed that there are certainly some chinks in the armor.
What does that mean for this year? The cast is almost exactly the same; backups Steve Blake and Matt Barnes are the only significant additions. There are, however, some red flags, even with such a similar roster. Bynum enters the season with a knee injury that will keep him out until at least late November, and his knees are now at the point where his future has to be questioned. The teamís two stars, Bryant and Gasol, have now played a combined 23 NBA seasons, plus playoffs and significant international play. Every one of the teamís expected opening day starters are over the age of 30. So while fantasy owners should draft Lakers players expecting more of the same, age and injury could instead put in motion the beginnings of a decline.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Bryant averaged nearly 39 minutes per game last year and will see similar time this year. Heíll be backed up by Shannon Brownís 10-15 minutes a night, and Sasha Vujacic in small spurts when a three-pointer is necessary. The other backcourt spot will be less clear Ė Fisher is 36 years old and struggled mightily during the season, but is so trusted to run the offense that we canít see him playing less than 25 minutes a game. Blake will chip away at Fisherís playing time, with 15-20 minutes expected at the beginning of the season, and as much as 30 by seasonís end. Up front, Gasol will play center with Bynum out, and return to PF when the young center returns. Expect 35-40 minutes a night from Gasol regardless. Artest may see last yearís 34 minutes per night reduced with the presence of Barnes, who could see as much as 20 per game. Odom will take over at power forward when Bynum is gone and play 35-plus minutes a night, and will still play 30 when he returns to the bench. Bynum will probably be brought along slowly, but expect an average of 25-30 minutes by seasonís end. In Bynumís absence, Theo Ratliff could see 5-10 minutes of run. Backup forward Luke Walton wonít see more than 10 minutes a game.
Pau Gasol: Gasol will qualify both at forward and center, but his statistics last year looked much more like those of a 5 than a 4. After never averaging double-digit rebounds in his career, Gasol snagged an impressive 11.3 per game last season, which would have been fifth in the league had he qualified. This stemmed from a huge improvement on the offensive boards, where Gasol pulled down 3.7 per game. Gasolís 1.7 blocks per game also resembled those of a pivot, as did his high field goal percentage. There is, however, one number that separates Gasol from other centers: his excellent free throw percentage. Gasol made 79 percent of his shots at the stripe last year, an excellent number for a big man. Fantasy owners may be slightly wary of the two separate hamstring injuries he suffered last year, but at the center spot, you canít do much better than Gasol.
Andrew Bynum: Out until at least late November, Bynumís knees should come with a ďFragileĒ stamp marked on them. He now adds a torn meniscus to the sizable heap of knee injuries heís suffered in his short NBA career, an injury that required recent surgery. When healthy, Bynum is a top-10 NBA center Ė guaranteed 15 points, eight rebounds, 1.5 blocks and great field goal and free throw shooting. But given that heís already out for the beginning of the season and has played more than 65 games only once in his career, fantasy owners should tread lightly when it comes to drafting Bynum, and have no expectations of durability.
Theo Ratliff: Yes, Ratliff is still kicking around at the age of 37. He put up sneaky-good numbers at the end of last year in Charlotte - five points, four rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 22 minutes per game. He may occasionally see those numbers in Los Angeles early in the season with Bynum out, but with Bynum healthy, Ratliff expects to stay on the bench.
Ron Artest: Artestís first season in Los Angeles will be remembered for his clutch three-pointer at the end of Game 7 of the Finals, as well as his subsequent therapist-thanking speech. Those two moments, however, overshadowed what was otherwise an extremely poor year by Artest standards. His 11 points-per-game average was the worst of his career, and an average of 4.3 rebounds per contest was his worst since the 2000-2001 season. Per-game marks of 3.0 assists, 35 percent three-point shooting and 68 percent free throw shooting were also among the worst Artest has seen. Even more worrisome was that Artestís defensive metrics, long the true source of his fantasy value, were career worsts, with 1.4 steals and 0.3 blocks With Matt Barnes, who essentially does everything Artest can do, now in town, look for Artestís numbers to only drop from last yearís poor performance.
Lamar Odom: While Odom disappeared during the Finals, he remains a solid value play in the regular season and for your fantasy team. Donít be scared off by his sixth man role Ė Odom is a walking double-double even when he doesnít start. Furthermore, heíll earn starts and increased playing time early in the season when Bynum is injured, and will still see more than 30 minutes per game later on. Odomís biggest asset is the rebounding value he provides. Heíll get you ten rebounds a game in any role. In turn however, donít count on Odom for starter-level scoring, and his steal and block numbers have also declined. Even with those decreases, Odom remains vastly underrated and a great value.
Matt Barnes: Barnes is one of those players who is much more valuable to a real team than a fantasy team. From a statistical perspective, he doesnít do anything spectacular or even noteworthy, but coaches across the league rave about Barnesí defensive skill, toughness, and intangible assets. But until they can formulate a fantasy statistic for ďfearlessness,Ē owners should stay away from Barnes.
Luke Walton: A back injury essentially wiped out Waltonís season last year, and itís unclear as to whether his career will ever recover. Last yearís addition of Ron Artest made Walton somewhat redundant, and this yearís pickup of Matt Barnes makes him even more statistically insignificant. Avoid him on draft day.
Kobe Bryant: Kobe just wonít slow down. Despite having more than 1,200 games and 14 seasons on his odometer, Bryant is seemingly more effective at the age of 32 than he was at the age of 22. His scoring, rebound and assist averages were all higher last year than they were the previous season, despite battling back, knee, finger and ankle issues. Bryant also averaged more minutes per game (38.8), and in turn took more free throws and attempted more shots in each contest. In short, Kobeís not easing off the gas pedal anytime soon. Whatís on tap for this year? Possibly a greater emphasis in the post. Bryantís 15 boards in Game 7 of the Finals especially opened eyes, though expert Kobe-watchers have noticed a greater emphasis on low-post work over the past few seasons. Twenty percent of Kobeís shots last year were close to the basket, a number that we expect to increase this year. With that will come more fouls drawn, a higher field goal percentage, and of course more rebounds.
Derek Fisher: Fisher is a player on the decline. Last yearís averages of 7.5 points and 2.5 assists were not fantasy-worthy in any format, and his 38 percent field goal percentage was downright harmful. The addition of Steve Blake further dilutes Fisherís value. We expect Blake to possibly take over Fisherís starting spot by seasonís end, or at the very least, play more minutes than the 36-year-old Fisher.
Steve Blake: Blake could be a player to watch by seasonís end. He has only the aging Fisher ahead of him on the depth chart and seems like a natural fit for the Lakersí patented triangle offense. He has also always been a solid three-point shooter, which the Lakers have always sought in a point guard. Heís never been much of a scorer, and wonít be with all of the Lakersí stars, but he could be a decent play in deeper leagues if and when he takes over the starting point guard spot.
Shannon Brown: Brown has always possessed elite level athleticism, but that has never translated to much production. He is solely a scorer, and does so in spurts, but not nearly on a consistent enough level to warrant a fantasy look. Should Kobe Bryant miss time, Brownís value will skyrocket, but otherwise heíll be little more than a bench player battling for minutes.
Sasha Vujacic: Vujacic is the rare role player who has lost the ability to fill his role. Long regarded as strictly a three-point shooter, Vujacicís putrid 31 percent three-point percentage last season eliminated both his minutes and any fantasy value he may have had. Expect him to see a hefty dose of DNP-CDís.
Lamar Odom: Odom flies under the radar with bigger stars in Los Angeles, but provides solid numbers and will have greater opportunity with Andrew Bynumís absence.
Andrew Bynum: Even when he does come back, the Lakers will probably be wary to play Bynum heavy minutes given his lengthy history of knee injuries.