The Los Angeles Lakers spent the summer gutting the roster of a championship contender and restocking it with seasoned NBA talents committed to making an immediate title run together.
Now that everybody is in uniform, the Lakers are talking like they’ve got all the time in the world to follow this remarkable experiment from conception to completion.
“We’re taking it day by day,” said Russell Westbrook, the LA native and former league MVP. “We’re figuring out what our dos and don’ts are. That’s what the season is for. We have one ultimate goal, and that’s to win the championship.”
Almost exactly one year after the Lakers raised their 17th championship trophy in the bubble, they’re wrapping up their preseason schedule with a roster including only three holdovers from the group that partied in Florida. After an injury-plagued repeat attempt ended in the first round against Phoenix last spring, the Lakers decided to try something completely different to go after a second ring with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The Lakers have nine players who are 32 or older, including eight of the 11 new additions to their roster. But even more importantly, according to the Lakers, they’ve added a tremendous cross-section of tested NBA talent to a roster that should be a nightmare to stop offensively on most nights.
Westbrook. Dwight Howard. Rajon Rondo. Carmelo Anthony. DeAndre Jordan. Trevor Ariza. Wayne Ellington. Kent Bazemore. Even relative youngsters Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn.
The Lakers have all the ingredients of a championship team — at least in, say, 2015.
It’s up to the players and coaches to prove they’re still a contender, and they believe they’ve got more than enough time to get in sync.
“We have guys who have done this before and know what it takes to win,” James said. “We’re going to get there on our own schedule, but we all know what the ultimate goal is, what we’re striving to get to.”
Any team wearing the purple and gold has been a marquee attraction in the NBA for decades. This roster will get all that attention and more, no matter how well this grand experiment progresses.
“We’re going to have to face it all year,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It’s probably a bigger target this year than ever. … Our group is used to it. It’s quite frankly something that we welcome. It makes for tougher nights because we get teams that play above themselves, but the result is you get pushed every night. You have to be sharp, and if you’re challenged like that, you’re going to reach a higher level, and that’s something we welcome.”
Injuries clearly seem to be the greatest obstacle to the Lakers’ success, and they represent the greatest chance for this experiment turning into a catastrophe. Los Angeles already has lost Ariza and young talent Talen Horton-Tucker for a significant amount of time in the preseason.
James has been slowed by significant injuries in two of the past three seasons, while Davis has been even less durable. The Lakers addressed last year’s injury woes by hiring Roger Sancho away from Golden State to be their new head athletic trainer.
Vogel isn’t committing to any rigid strategies of rest and rotation to minimize injury concerns, but he has been with James and Davis long enough to have an open dialogue about their approach to the season.
Westbrook has been a ball-dominating, high-volume contributor throughout his impressive NBA career, but the veteran guard insists he will have no trouble adjusting to less ball-intensive responsibilities, particularly when James is on the floor. James, Westbrook and Davis will form a formidable Big Three, and they all begin the season confident they can coexist comfortably.
For his part, Westbrook is looking forward to running pick-and-rolls with a top center for the first time in his career when he suits up with Davis.
“You’ve got the ultimate weapon,” Westbrook said. “It’s my job to utilize it to the best of my ability.”
AD AT THE 5
Even with James and Westbrook, the Lakers’ fortunes could hinge on the health and effectiveness of Davis. The superstar big man will be used more frequently this season at center, where he has usually been too athletic for most opponents’ big men to guard well.
As always with Davis, every question hinges on health: He missed two months of last season with a calf injury before a groin injury ruined his playoffs. Davis said he devoted his offseason to becoming more durable in hopes of putting together an MVP-caliber season.
When Davis isn’t playing center, the Lakers have two impressive defensive options in the middle in Jordan and Howard, who is back for his third stint with LA.
Westbrook and Rondo look forward to taking risks on defense because they know the rim is protected by Jordan and Howard. The centers’ upbeat, engaging personalities also should go over well in the locker room.
“I love this team, and I love this city,” Howard said. “I’m so excited to be back.”