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Team Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

Ben Zani, RotoWire.comView: All Team Previews

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

Can Lamar Odom stay healthy enough to be consistently fantasy productive this season?
(Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)
Stop us if you’ve heard any of this before. Last season, the Lakers depended almost entirely on Kobe Bryant. Kobe waffled between carrying the scoring load and trying to get his teammates involved, but to no avail as the Lakers were bounced out of the Playoffs in the first round. Kobe entered the offseason unhappy with the makeup of the team and demanded changes, but the team did not make any significant moves.

This blueprint has been the Lakers’ circle of life (and playoff death) for the last few years, and it looks to be the case this year again. Bryant scored 29 percent of the team’s total points last year, and the Laker with the second-highest point total (Smush Parker) was jettisoned with a message of “good riddance” in the offseason. Bryant’s very public efforts to bring another volume scorer to La-La land were fruitless. The team enters this season with largely the same roster as last season, when the Lakers went 42-40 before losing 4-1 to Phoenix.

However, there is some semblance of hope for the Lakers this year. As usual, much of it revolves around Kobe. Bryant has reportedly dropped 20 pounds during the offseason and has showed a renewed passion for defense while acting as the de-facto leader of Team USA. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom will enter training camp fully recovered from the knee and shoulder injuries that caused him to miss nearly half of last season. Forward Luke Walton enjoyed a breakout season last year and was re-signed to a long-term deal. Young point guard Jordan Farmar also has a year of seasoning under his belt. He is expected to make great strides in his sophomore campaign. The team also signed veteran and longtime Laker Derek Fisher to provide veteran leadership and eat up minutes at the point guard spot.

Still, with Fisher as the only major addition, expectations are very low for the Lakers – a low playoff seed and another first-round exit seem likely. But Lakers fans can look on the bright side: they still have Kobe.

PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION

Bryant was fourth in the league in minutes last season, with just over 40 per game. He will man the shooting guard position again this year and should receive similar playing time. Barring injury, Odom should play the same number of minutes at the four, and Walton should see between 30 and 35 mpg at the small forward spot. However, this is where the certainty ends with the Lakers.

The center position is in a state of flux and depends heavily on the health of Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm. Youngster Andrew Bynum saw significant minutes last season due to injuries suffered by both Brown and Mihm, but he generally disappointed the coaches and was relegated to bench duty whenever Brown was healthy. Brown also had offseason shoulder surgery, placing his availability for the start of the season in question. Mihm missed the entire season with reconstructive ankle surgery, and it remains to be seen how quickly his recovery will progress. The guess here is that Bynum enters the season as the starter and will play 25-plus minutes a game, but when Brown and Mihm return, Bynum’s playing time will be drastically reduced. Expect Brown and Mihm to each see 15-20 minutes per game when healthy, with Bynum dropping to between 10-15 minutes per game. Free-agent signee Larry Turner should only see garbage time minutes.

The forward spots are relatively secure with Walton and Odom, though if either is injured, all bets are off. Maurice Evans, Vladimir Radmanovic, Brian Cook and even Ronny Turiaf made starts last year while Walton and Odom were hurt. If the two starters stay healthy, look for Evans to receive 15-20 minutes per game backing up the 2-3 positions, and for Cook and Radmanovic to receive 10-15 minutes per game backing up the 3-4 spots. Turiaf may receive ten minutes per game, if that, backing up power forward and center. Rookie Sun Yue will barely see any playing time.

The team wants Farmar to take over the point guard spot, but Fisher should earn the starting nod at the beginning of the season. Expect Fisher to play 25-30 minutes per game when the season starts, with that number gradually decreasing as the team gains more confidence in Farmar. Evans will capably serve as Bryant’s backup at the shooting guard spot and see roughly 20 minutes per game while also backing up at small forward. Sasha Vujacic should see 10 or less minutes per game alternating between guard spots. Rookie Javaris Crittenton will also see less than ten minutes per game, unless he’s logging heavy minutes in the D-League.

PLAYER OUTLOOKS* = Projected Starter

CENTER

* Andrew Bynum – LAL [C]: Bynum received significant playing time last year by default, as both Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm missed time with major injuries. His performance was underwhelming, though it should be noted that he was just 19 years old for most of the season. He was significantly better as a starter (8.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.64 blocks) than as a sub (6.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks), and seemed psychologically affected every time he was benched. With both Brown and Mihm expected to make full recoveries this season, we expect Bynum’s starts, and therefore his numbers, to decrease. If and when Mihm and Brown get hurt again, Bynum may be a decent source of rebounds and blocked shots with regular playing time.

Chris Mihm – LAL [PF,C]: Mihm is the X-factor on this year’s Lakers, and his health will go a long way in determining the team’s frontcourt production. When healthy, Mihm is a capable center, putting up double-figure scoring, strong field goal shooting and more than a blocked shot a game. However, he missed all of last season after reconstructive ankle surgery, and no one is sure how the injury will affect his game. Mihm has publicly stated that his explosiveness and rebounding ability are back to what they were before the injury, but fantasy owners should be wary and look to Mihm only if he displays flashes of brilliance in the preseason.

Kwame Brown – LAL [C]: To say that Kwame Brown has been a disappointment is like saying that the Beatles were a moderately popular band – an understatement and a half. Brown continued his underachieving ways in 2006-07, averaging only 8.4 points and six rebounds while missing half the season with ankle and shoulder injuries. To make matters worse, Brown‘s recovery from offseason shoulder surgery will cause him to miss nearly all of training camp and possibly the start of the regular season. The return of Chris Mihm from injury will decrease Brown’s status in the Lakers’ center rotation, as will the continued growth of Andrew Bynum. Do what the Wizards could not do in 2001 and avoid Brown on draft day.

Larry Turner – LAL [PF,C]: Turner was signed by the Lakers after an impressive performance for the Lakers’ summer league team; he may make the final roster if Brown or Mihm have difficulty returning from injury. However, we expect the Tennessee State product to spend most of his year in the NBDL, and therefore he offers no fantasy value.

POWER/SMALL FORWARD

* Lamar Odom – LAL [PF]: When healthy, Odom may be the most underrated forward in the league. He is a triple-double threat every time he steps on the court and could be a 13-rebound-per-game player. However, Odom has rarely been able to put it all together in his career, and last season was no different. Knee and ankle injuries caused him to miss 25 games, and the sudden and tragic death of his six-month-old son also weighed heavily on Odom’s season and performance. In between the injuries, however, Odom put in his best work as a Laker, averaging 15.9 points and nearly ten rebounds per game. He also finished second on the team with 4.8 assists, and even posted a triple-double in April. If healthy, Odom is a fantasy bargain, overshadowed by his more famous teammate and other power forwards in the conference. Just be aware of his injury history should you choose to draft him.

* Luke Walton – LAL [SF]: Walton was one of the true breakout stars of 2006-07, finding a niche in the Lakers’ triangle offense. After never having scored more than five points per game, Walton posted career highs of 11.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.0 steals per game. His field goal (47.4 percent) and three-point (38.7 percent) percentages were also career highs, while he sunk free throws at a respectable 74.5 percent clip. His fine work was rewarded in the offseason with a six-year, $30 million deal, and he’s expected to put up similar numbers this year for the team. Walton is a solid-but-unspectacular fantasy forward, capable of contributing a little bit in a lot of ways. He could serve as a valuable bench player in deeper fantasy leagues.

Brian Cook – LAL [PF]: Cook started 24 games last season, but that was due more to the Lakers’ rash of frontcourt injuries than anything Cook was doing. In the team’s best-case scenario, Cook would barely play at all. As it was, Cook’s scoring, minutes, rebounds, field goal, free throw and three-point shooting all declined in 2006-07, and we expect them to drop even more this year if the Lakers’ starters remain healthy. Cook’s only real asset is that he can shoot three pointers (40 percent last year), but he will not play enough minutes to make those numbers mean anything fantasy-wise.

Vladimir Radmanovic – LAL [PF]: It may not be possible for a player to have a more disappointing debut with a new team than Radmanovic had last season. Brought in at more than $6 million per year to help ease the scoring burden on Kobe Bryant, Radmanovic quickly found himself buried at the end of the bench before separating his shoulder in an All-Star break snowboarding accident. On the court, Radmanovic posted career lows in nearly every statistical category, including minutes, points, three-point percentage, rebounds and assists. As if the snowboarding incident wasn’t reason enough, his lack of commitment on defense also earned him a spot in coach Phil Jackson’s doghouse, from which he has yet to emerge. Avoid the mistake that the Lakers made last offseason, and keep Radmanovic off your fantasy team.

Ronny Turiaf – LAL [SF,PF]: Turiaf will serve as the last forward off the bench this season – he saw action last year due to the team’s rash of injuries in the frontcourt. When he plays, Turiaf can be an effective rebounder and scorer, but he does not receive nearly enough playing time to warrant fantasy consideration. His per 48 minute numbers (16.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.4 blocks) are impressive, but the French forward averaged only 15.1 minutes per game last year and may see even less this year if the Lakers’ frontcourt is completely healthy.

Sun Yue – LAL [SF,PF]: The Lakers’ second-round pick out of China, Yue is a 6-7 swingman with more guard skills than forward skills. We expect him to spend this season either overseas or gaining seasoning in the NBDL.

POINT/SHOOTING GUARD

* Derek Fisher – LAL [PG,SG]: Fisher sought a release from Utah so he could sign in a city where his daughter can receive treatment for a rare form of eye cancer. He returns to the scene of his greatest success and should open the season as the Lakers’ starting point guard. But make no mistake: the team wants Jordan Farmar or Javaris Crittenton to take over that role by season’s end.

Why? In his last tenure with the Lakers, Fisher averaged roughly 10.5 points, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game, and those numbers are probably his best-case scenario for this year. However, his daughter’s condition (which may cause him to miss the occasional game this season) and the growth of Farmar and Crittendon could affect Fisher’s production.

* Kobe Bryant – LAL [SG]: Bryant was the league’s most prolific scorer last season, and there’s no reason to believe that he can’t repeat that feat this year. Bryant’s average of 31.6 points per game was actually four points less than his number from 2005-2006, though his assists (5.4), rebounds (5.7) and field goal percentage (46.4 percent) all went up last year. More importantly, Bryant improved as the season progressed, averaging more than 40.0 points per game in March and 34.1 in April. Bryant’s increased assist numbers were an interesting new wrinkle – he led the Lakers in assists with 5.4 per game. A slimmer, re-energized Bryant should explode for huge numbers this season, and fantasy owners shouldn’t let him slip out of the top five in any format.

Jordan Farmar – LAL [PG,SG]: The Lakers would like to hand the point guard keys to Farmar this season, especially with the departure of last year’s starter, Smush Parker. Farmar’s numbers last year were not terribly impressive (4.4 points, 1.9 assists), but that relatively poor showing last year can be chalked up to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson’s aversion to rookies, especially late in the season. He may be an optimal late-round speculative fantasy pickup.

Why? Farmar should be out of Phil Jackson’s rookie doghouse this season, and the team seems to want him to take over the point guard spot. He may not put up big numbers early in the season, but we expect him to be playing major minutes and starting games after the All-Star break.

Maurice Evans – LAL [SG,SF]: Evans is one of the best backup shooting guards in the NBA, blessed with the ability to score in bunches. Unfortunately, Evans backs up Kobe Bryant, meaning that his opportunities to contribute will be limited so long as he remains a Laker. When he did play, Evans put up nearly 18 points for every 48 minutes played, and his rebounds per 48 minutes (6.1) were also strong for a shooting guard. However, Evans saw only 22 minutes per game. He may see less due to the renewed health of many Laker players. If Bryant somehow gets hurt, fantasy owners should jump all over Evans, but otherwise he will be stuck backing up KB24.

Javaris Crittenton – LAL [PG,SG]: For the second straight year, the Lakers drafted a highly skilled 19-year-old point guard with the intention of making him their point guard of the future. We expect Crittenton, this year’s new point guard, to follow in the footsteps of last year’s new point guard, Jordan Farmar, who spent most of the year on the bench or in the NBDL. Farmar averaged 4.4 points and 1.9 assists in barely more than 15 minutes per game, and anything more than that this year from Crittenton would be a huge surprise. Crittenton has the size and athletic ability to be one of the league’s top point guards, but he is still years from reaching his fantasy potential.

Sasha Vujacic – LAL [PG,SG]: Vujacic was largely a disappointment last year, and the team’s patience may be running out on the fourth-year guard. He topped double digits in scoring only five times last year, which was less than the number of DNP-CDs he logged during the year. The acquisition of Derek Fisher and draft of Javaris Crittenton should mean even less playing time for Vujacic than last year’s 12.8 minutes per game, and we would suggest that fantasy players look elsewhere for guard help.

Coby Karl – LAL [PG,SG]: Karl is the son of Nuggets’ coach George Karl. The Lakers signed him to a free-agent contract after he netted 12.2 points per game for the Lakers’ summer league team. However, we expect Karl to spend the bulk of his year on the bench, if not in the NBDL.

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