Three combined Most Valuable Player Awards. Four combined Defensive Player of the Year Awards. Eight NBA championships. 18 combined All-NBA First team appearances. And a whopping 33 total visits to the All Star game.
The starting five of the Los Angeles Lakers reads like the stuff of basketball video game cheat codes, comprising of a collection of players who could only be gathered together on the same court in an All Star game or in fantasy. Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, and Metta World Peace. The best center in the league, one of the greatest scorers and winners in league history, the best passing big man in the league, one of the greatest passers and shooters in league history, and a solid – albeit unpredictable – defensive force capable of stopping the best of them on his night.
Together, on the same team, for the whole season.
None of the names in this starting five have played in a more stacked roster (at least on paper) before. Dwight Howard’s best teammates with the Magic in the 2009 Finals run were Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, and Rashard Lewis. Metta World Peace – formerly as Ron Artest – was a part of a great Pacers team in 2005 (before they imploded prematurely) which featured Jermaine O’Neal, Stephen Jackson, and Reggie Miller. Nash could never carry the Suns to the NBA Finals, despite playing alongside Amar’e Stoudemire, Shaun Marion, Joe Johnson, and others. Gasol enjoyed his best time in Los Angeles itself, teaming up with Kobe, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom for two consecutive championships. Even Kobe himself claims that the Lakers this year are the best one ever assembled in his time (a claim that Shaquille O’Neal and the early 2000s will heatedly dispute!)
Whether or not you agree with Kobe’s opinion, one thing is for certain: there will be no excuses for any of the Lakers’ stars to keep them from the Promised Land this season. Nash – at 38 – remains one of the greatest players in NBA history without a championship, and after spending last season along with subpar talent in Phoenix, this is his last and best chance for a ring. Kobe (34),World Peace (almost 33), and Gasol (32) aren’t getting any younger. All of them suffer from the same quandary, to squeeze out the best from the remaining years of their dwindling talents before they and their teammates get too old to perform at the highest level. Howard (26) is in the prime years of his career and has many years of elite basketball ahead of him. But there are no guarantees of how many of those years he will spend playing alongside elite talents. For a great player who has played in good (but not great) teams in his career so far, he finally has the chance to win his first elusive championship ring, too.
This year, there are no excuses for the Lakers. Kobe can’t blame Smush Parker and Kwame Brown for slowing him down. Nash has better players to pass the ball to than Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley. Howard can be assured that, with the game on the line, the ball will be in more assured, experienced hands than Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkuglu. No longer does Gasol have to fill in for the oft-injured Andrew Bynum at Center or worry about shouldering too much of the load of the Lakers’ post-play.
The pressure is on the aging Lakers to give it their all this season, to make the most of each other, and win Kobe’s sixth, Gasol’s third, Metta’s second, and Nash and Dwight’s first rings. Even with the talent at their disposal, the Lakers will need to overcome some tough foes. The Thunder and the Spurs out west. The champions Heat or maybe even their eternal rivals Celtics out East. But more than anything, their biggest challenge comes from within. The Lakers bench needs to step up to support their glittering starting five, and their defense needs to become better. There is great pressure on the team management – particularly Head Coach Mike Brown – who will undoubtedly suffer the gauntlet if the Lakers fail to perform to expectations this season. A 1-3 start after a winless pre-season has intensified the strain on Brown’s job security. Lakers fans will be wondering if he really is the right leader to guide this superstar roster to a championship.
Can Brown survive the pressure? Can anyone else do better? Will the Lakers starting five learn to co-exist and turn their accolades on paper into domination on court?
They beckon history if they make it work; but they could also fall into the halls of infamy if they don’t. For the 2012/13 Lakers, it’s time for all or nothing.