The Lakers organization looks pretty shaky top to bottom these days, but there's reason to think they can still be a superpower.
The Lakers have an organizational talent for preseason mayhem. Who can forget that special time in October 2003, when Kobe Bryant was fighting a rape prosecution and Shaquille O'Neal was working parallel feuds with Kobe and Jerry Buss? Or the following year, after Buss traded Shaq, fired Phil Jackson and replaced him with Rudy Tomjanovich, who clumsily sought to impose an "up tempo" offense on a starting lineup that included Chucky Atkins and Chris Mihm? Or two years after that, when opening night arrived under the cloud of a Kobe trade demand and a starting lineup featuring Kwame Brown, Luke Walton and Ronny Turiaf? As these examples demonstrate, crisis management is nothing new to the franchise, which is nice inasmuch as the Lakers' 2011 preseason has been little more than a cascading series of DERPs.
The latest arrived on Wednesday morning, when the team announced that Kobe tore a ligament in his right wrist during the Lake Show's loss to the Clippers on Monday night. He sat out the second and last preseason game but has said he'll play in the regular-season opener on Christmas Day. Kobe tends to accumulate knocks over the course of a season, and it's troubling that they've started before the games even count. His health is likely to get worse before it gets better. In the meantime, it's hard to imagine the injury won't affect his handles and shooting touch.
His presence in the lineup, though, is 100 percent required because without him the Laker backcourt is a monstrosity. Derek Fisher remains the starting point guard, even though no one thinks he should be starting and he needed to sit out the first preseason game because his summer of labor negotiating left him nowhere near game-fit. Right behind Kobe on the shooting-guard depth chart is Jason Kapono, signed to the veterans' minimum to provide 10 minutes a night of spot-up shooting but potentially staring down the barrel of a larger role for which he's grossly unqualified. Shannon Brown doesn't seem like such a bad option these days. For that matter, neither does Chucky Atkins.
The frontcourt isn't in significantly better shape. Thanks to his monumentally stupid foul of J.J. Barea in the closing moments last year's playoffs loss, Andrew Bynum will sit out the first five regular-season games. Lamar Odom, nominally the team's sixth man last season though he played the third-most minutes, is now in Dallas. Derrick Caracter, who might've been called on for emergency duty, is out for a while with a knee injury. This confused landscape leaves Pau Gasol starting out of position at center and recent arrivals Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy playing the four. The only spot on the Laker depth chart that looks remotely stable at the moment is small forward, where Matt Barnes, Metta World Peace and Devin Ebanks offer a few credible, if slightly blah, options.
It's bad enough entering the season with your preferred starting lineup having played zero minutes together. It's much worse with an entirely new coaching staff, substantially new playbooks and a shortened training camp. That the Lakers dropped their two preseason games to the Clippers isn't such a big deal. What's more concerning is how disoriented they've looked, especially on defense. Gluing these guys together into a dangerous team is a process that will spill into January, if not February or March. For now, expect more sloppiness.
The most encouraging preseason development has been the play of the newcomers. At times McRoberts, Murphy and rookies Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock have all flashed the skills that led the front office to acquire them. Which underscores an important truth about this year's Lakers team: it could be much better at the end of the season than at the start. In recent years the goal has been to come out of the gates as fast as possible to get a jump on the race for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Given the top-to-bottom instability in the organization, that seems an unreasonable goal this year. But 66 games from now, the Lakers might once again resemble an NBA superpower. McBobs and Murphy will be integrated pieces. Bynum will return and perhaps reestablish himself as the league's second-best center. Morris or a resurgent Steve Blake could finally claim the starting point-guard position from Fish. Kupchak could turn the $8.9 million trade exception left over from the Odom deal into something useful. Compared to past Laker teams, this year's edition is starting from a lower point but has more capacity for improvement.
It all starts on Sunday, with the first of three games on consecutive days. Here's a quick look at the opponents:
Chicago Bulls (at Staples on December 25, 2:00 p.m.) - This is a good team! They're the same group that won 62 games last year, and now they have Rip Hamilton to bring back painful memories of the 2004 Finals. It's always fun to root against Carlos Boozer, but I've no idea how the Lakers are going to stop Derrick Rose unless Bynum leaps off the bench to drop a forearm shiver. Don't rule it out.
Sacramento Kings (in Sacto on December 26, 7:00 p.m.) - This is not a good team, though UCLA fans can tune in to see Tyler Honeycutt. Next year this game will be in Anaheim, so don't feel compelled to make a road trip unless you're dying to spend Boxing Day in a bland stinkhole of a city.
Utah Jazz (at Staples on December 27, 7:30 p.m.) - Probably not a good team either, but in Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks they have some tasty young talent. The Lakers would love to use the Odom trade exception to lift Paul Millsap off their hands. Trivia question: can you name the Utah head coach? I bet you can't. (It's Tyrone Corbin.)
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.