With the start of the 2012-13 NBA regular season nearing, You Only Blog Once is previewing the season with a series of "countdown" posts.
Tuesday: 7 storylines to watch for this season
Wednesday: 6 players on a ring-quest
Thursday: 5 League Pass Choice teams
Friday: 4 potential first-time All-Stars
Saturday: 3 non-LeBron MVP candidates
Today: 2 reasons these Lakers aren't the '03-04 Lakers
When the Lakers acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard this summer, many people immediately assumed Los Angeles was destined for another NBA title, or at the very least a trip to the NBA Finals. Some people, looking for any reason to discount the talent assembled by the Lakers, looked at the 2003-04 team, which added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to a core that already had Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, but didn't win the title.
But this team isn't that team. Here's two good reasons why (and, as a bonus, two bad ways in which this team isn't that team!).
Nash and Howard aren't Payton and Malone
Simple as that. Next.
No, just kidding. But there's a huge difference in adding Howard and Nash vs. Payton and Malone. When the latter two joined the Lakers, they were a combined 75 years old. Malone had spent his entire career in one system, while Payton was coming off contentious departures with the Sonics and Bucks. Yes, Steve Nash is 38, but he's still going strong. His win shares per 48 minutes last year were actually better than Gary Payton's the year before he joined the Lakers, despite the age difference. He may also be a better fit, since he's a primary distributor, while Payton had more of a scorer's mentality.
Then there's Howard, who is so not Malone for so many reasons. In his prime, Karl Malone was better than Dwight Howard has been, at least offensively. However, the Lakers weren't adding prime Malone. They were adding 40-year-old Malone, with 18 years of wear and tear. The year before joining the Lakers, Malone's scoring average was the lowest it had been since his rookie year. And while Howard may be coming off an injury-plagued season, he still averaged 20 points and a league-high 14.5 rebounds per game last season. He's certainly in his prime (back issues notwithstanding).
The Lakers didn't add two guys looking to make one last run at a ring. They added one aging but still quality piece and one player who could become their franchise centerpiece for the next decade. That makes a big difference.
The outside issues of today aren't the outside issues of 2003-04
The big off-court distraction for this season's Lakers team is Dwight Howard's contract status, which isn't that big of a distraction since everyone knows he'll be headed for free agency in July. Yes, there's always the risk that he bolts, but the Lakers know that and are well-positioned to manage that risk.
Compare that to 2003-04, where the Lakers entered the season with Shaquille O'Neal undergoing last-minute surgery, keeping him out for the start of the season, and Kobe Bryant dealing with his court case in Colorado. Add in the fact that Kobe and Shaq were feuding, Malone didn't get along with Kobe to begin with, and Phil Jackson was secretly writing a book about the whole psychological disaster and, well, to paraphrase Bruce Banner, the 2003-04 Lakers weren't a team, they were a time bomb. One that happened to explode in the 2004 Finals.
I don't see this team imploding. Kobe and Pau Gasol like each other, Kobe and Nash may have been rivals in the past, but the good kind of competitive rivals -- I've never gotten the sense that they personally disliked each other, and they can even bond off the court through their mutual love of soccer. Dwight's a wild card, but he's really just so happy to be out of Orlando that he'll probably do everything he can to make things smooth in L.A.
So that's the good news. Now here's the bad news in the 2012-13 vs. 2003-04 comparison.
Kobe Bryant isn't Kobe Bryant anymore
Kobe Bryant is still a great player. One of the best in the NBA, to be sure. But the fact is he's 34 years old, has nearly two decades of NBA wear and tear on his knees, and he's no longer in his prime. 2003-04, statistically, was actually a down season for Kobe. He shot 43.8%, his worst performance from the field since becoming a starter, and saw his scoring average dip from 30.0 PPG to 24.0 PPG. But given the outside distractions, added supporting talent and injury issues, a drop-off was fully understandable.
Even with that drop, Kobe's numbers outside of pure scoring total were better in '03-04 than they were last year. And now Kobe is another year older, and already battling injury problems.
Sure, this year's Lakers team is loaded. But in those final moments, Kobe is still going to want the ball, and still going to expect to be Kobe. The question is can he be?
Mike Brown isn't Phil Jackson
In 2003-04, Jackson may have been anticipating his pending retirement, and probably anticipated it more and more as the season dragged on. Even so, I'll take half-checked-out Phil Jackson over Mike Brown any day of the week.
I think Brown gets a bad rap sometimes because of how his Cavs teams fell short in the playoffs (and because at times he seemed to have no offensive philosophy other than "give LeBron James the ball and hope for the best") but even the most ardent Brown supporters have to acknowledge that he's not on Phil Jackson's level. Not even close. Even if the Lakers' personalities don't clash like they did in '03-04, Brown still has a lot of egos to juggle, something that was Jackson's specialty. How well he does that will go a long way to determining how well the Lakers do in 2012-13.