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Posted: Thursday October 9, 2008 11:37AM; Updated: Friday October 10, 2008 11:50AM
Marty Burns Marty Burns >
INSIDE THE NBA

Season preview: L.A. Lakers

Story Highlights

Andrew Bynum's return is key to the Lakers' hopes of winning the championship

Will a busy summer and the decision to skip pinky surgery take a toll on Kobe?

The Lakers figure to be highly motivated after flaming out in Game 6 of the Finals

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Andrew Bynum's return will give the Lakers the defensive anchor that they missed during the second half of last season.
Andrew Bynum's return will give the Lakers the defensive anchor that they missed during the second half of last season.
AP
Projected 2008-09 lineup
Starters
PG Derek Fisher
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Lamar Odom
PF Pau Gasol
C Andrew Bynum
Reserves
SF Trevor Ariza
PG Jordan Farmar
F Vladimir Radmanovic
C Chris Mihm
PF Josh Powell
SG Sasha Vujacic
SF Luke Walton
Blogger's Take
Kurt Helin from Forum Blue & Gold offers his thoughts on the Lakers' prospects for the season:

Everyone knows the Lakers enter the season as title contenders (they reached the Finals last season without their starting center and with Kobe's finger held in place by tape). But can this team take the next step to a title? Yes, if their key players stay healthy. Yes, when Lamar Odom shows how well he works off the ball at the 3 spot. Yes, when Pau Gasol shows how well he can play in the high post as a power forward (see what he did in the Olympics for an example). Yes, when their defense improves in the paint and on the wing.

SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.

Lakers at a glance

Last season: 57-25; lost in NBA Finals to Celtics

Notable additions: Sun Yue (R)

Notable losses: Ronny Turiaf (signed with Warriors)

Coach: Phil Jackson (431-225 in eight seasons with Lakers; 976-418 overall in 17 NBA seasons)

Reasons for hope

1. Bynum is back. Before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 13, center Andrew Bynum was averaging 13.1 points (on a league-leading 63.6 percent shooting), 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. More important, his team was 25-11. After a summer spent rehabilitating the knee, the 22-year-old 7-footer says he's 100 percent. "I worked hard in the offseason because I knew how big of a year this was for me and the team," Bynum said.

Bynum gives L.A. a legitimate presence in the middle and enables Pau Gasol to slide back to his more natural position of power forward. With the 6-10 Lamar Odom at small forward, the Lakers could boast the league's largest front line. (That's assuming the Lakers start the threesome; Jackson has been tinkering with his lineup and also expressed concern that Gasol and Bynum were not playing well together early in the preseason.)

2. They have Kobe Bryant. Fresh off helping lead Team USA to the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, Bryant looks as primed as ever. Last season, the 6-6 shooting guard finally claimed the MVP award, averaging 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals (despite a torn ligament near his pinky) while showing the patience and leadership needed to bring out the best in his teammates. Bryant was shut down by a smothering Celtics defense in last year's Finals, but he remains the NBA's most feared competitor and perhaps the game's best closer.

3. They're motivated. While the Lakers had plenty to celebrate during what had been a Cinderella-type season, their disappointing Finals performance -- and the meek surrender in Game 6 -- had to leave a rotten taste. Bryant and coach Phil Jackson, in particular, will be motivated to get back and deliver better performances than they did in last year's championship series. "There's still a little angst and anger there," Jackson admitted to reporters recently.

Reasons for worry

1. Kobe didn't get rest. Bryant insists he's feeling as spry as ever at age 30, but he has played more minutes over the past three seasons (9,609) than any other player, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It remains to be seen how last year's extended playoff run and this summer's Olympic commitment affect him down the stretch next spring. Bryant's decision to put off surgery on his pinky until next summer only heightens the concern that he won't be 100 percent when the Lakers really need him.

2. Odom's shifting role. Lakers camp opened with talk about the possibility that Odom would come off the bench this season rather than start at small forward. Odom bristled at the suggestion, but he seems more open to the latest idea of starting as a ball-handling guard while Bryant shifts to small forward. However the lineup shakes out, it looks as if Odom is facing an adjustment after starting at power forward last season.

3. The toughness issue. The Lakers might have one of the game's fiercest competitors in Bryant, but there is no getting around the fact that they played soft in the Finals. L.A.'s other players still have to prove they have the mental toughness to fight back when things aren't going their way. Odom, Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic have to step up and show some killer instinct, especially with energetic reserve Turiaf having left via free agency.

Keep an eye on ...

Odom's mind-set. After his soft showing in the Finals, Odom appeared to be prime trade bait for a more defensive-minded forward. The Lakers, at least for now, appear to be willing to see if the silky smooth veteran with the finesse game can prosper back at small forward or in the backcourt. But if L.A. doesn't live up to expectations early, the Odom trade rumors will start flying again.

Go figure

Point guard Derek Fisher led the NBA in offensive fouls drawn last season (54), just ahead of Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut (53) and Sacramento's Mikki Moore (51).

Bottom line

With Bryant still in his prime, and Bynum back to provide a presence in the middle, the Lakers have to be considered the Western Conference favorites. But if Kobe wears down late in the season, the other Lakers get too complacent or Bynum's surgically repaired knee doesn't hold up, L.A. will have a tough time holding off all those other top challengers in the West.

Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.

 
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