Los Angeles Lakers Offseason Variables
By Mike Misek
Sunday’s loss to the Mavericks ended the Lakers season was historic. Phil Jackson’s presumed final game was a thirty-six point loss that was the second-worst playoff defeat in Laker history. It was the first time since 2007 that the team failed to make the Finals, and the first time since 1999 that a Kobe Bryant team had been swept out of the playoffs. The surprising ending to the season raises a number of questions, but there are multiple variables to consider.
The expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement is going to impact all thirty teams, but some more than others. The Lakers have nine players under contract for 2011-12 and are going to combine to make $88.5 million. Shannon Brown holds a player option for $2.45 million and Matt Barnes has one for $1.9 million. The team also holds a team option for Derrick Caracter for less than $800K. Regardless as to what the decisions on options will be, the Lakers will have the highest payroll in the league. If the new CBA is systematically similar to the current deal where it is a soft cap, then the Lakers have little room to worry. The Lakers have generated in excess of $200 million in revenue in both 2009 and 2010, which is among the tops in the league. In February, the Lakers struck a new television deal with Time Warner Cable for twenty years and at the time of deal reports had the annual deal at $150 million per year for local broadcast rights in English and Spanish. The cumulative $3 billion figure has been disputed by Time Warner, and the idea of the Lakers getting $150 million a year when its current deal is $116 million less seems excessively high.
In any case, revenue growth for the franchise is healthy and if the league allows the Lakers to continue to operate at a higher level of payroll they certainly will have the revenue capacity to do so. Should the soft cap system be retained, certainly the team would be able to use its roster exceptions to add pieces. The institution of a hard cap without any sort of grandfathering would essentially end the Lakers as they currently exist. Not only would the team be unable to improve itself, it would need to sell off the assets it has. Even if some sort of retrofitting was created to allow teams like the Lakers to keep the players they currently have, such a system would still limit the avenues by which the team has to improve itself. Any sort of restructuring of the roster is going to be contingent upon CBA negotiations resulting in an agreement that does not limit the Lakers to spend the same amount as everyone else.
Rebuilding is not a real option
Kobe Bryant is 32 years old, but has just completed his fifteenth season. Michael Jordan only played fifteen years in his entire career. He is 53rd in NBA history in regular season games played with 1,103. His 208 career playoff games are more than that played by Magic Johnson (190) and Michael Jordan (179). The odometer is reaching a point that the Lakers cannot waste a year transitioning from one roster to another. This is important to note because with Phil Jackson retiring they are going to have both roster and system questions to address.
Kobe Bryant has always had a love-hate relationship with the triangle offense. He found it to be boring during his first three championships. When Jackson retired after 2004, Bryant got a chance to sample a different offense, but implored Rudy Tomjanovich to re-insert it in 2005 when he found that defenses were more effectively collapsing on him. The foray into a different system has not fully made him appreciative of the triangle. He still abandons the offense during games. Even in March of this season, Phil Jackson took a shot at Bryant when commenting “[Artest]’s probably a little better at [the triangle] than Kobe is, because Kobe ignores the offense.” The problem for the organization is that it has to figure out the kind of system it wants to run before addressing the roster. As the Steve Blake experiment points out, a point guard in the triangle offense requires a different skill set than of a point guard in more traditional offenses. Blake had the worst season of his career, and could be one of biggest beneficiaries should the team change systems. Then again, a change to the offense would likely end Derek Fisher’s career. Fisher’s best days are well behind him anyway, but he has a strong relationship with Bryant and that is not insignificant given how hard Kobe has been on teammates during his career. Regardless as to which path the team chooses, the point guard spot is one that needs to be addressed but until the decision on the system is made the team cannot do so properly.
Beyond addressing the point guard spot, the Lakers need to figure out what to do with their big men. In his capacity as ABC studio analyst, Magic Johnson said on Saturday afternoon that team needs to choose between the two big men. It is a complicated issue. Successful teams do need to change the makeup of their roster. The fatigue of the long seasons causes excess ware, and it is only exacerbated by bright stage that comes with the titles. Ultimately, there is a reason that despite the multiple titles won by greats like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson they never had more than two teammates who shared in all their titles. The problem, though, is that the kind of skilled big men the Lakers have assembled are hard to come by. The Lakers made the Finals for three straight years and won two titles with the biggest, longest, and most skilled frontcourt in the league. What changed? The league has not. The Mavericks swept them in large part because the Lakers had no means for slowing Dirk Nowitzki. The Grizzlies playoff run from the 8-spot has been on the backs of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Why would it be that the Lakers are unable to make it work with their big men again? Andrew Bynum is 23-years old, Pau is 30, and Odom is 31. It is not as if they got old overnight.
Do they really want to cut off their nose to spite their face? Lamar Odom had a horrible Game 2 of the Mavericks series , but of the three his play in the postseason most closely resembled of his typical form. Pau Gasol was horrible in the playoffs. He had been to the playoffs seven times in his career, and this year was far and away the worst playoff season he has ever had. The odds are with a prolonged offseason with which to rest his body and clear his head that Pau Gasol can fully recover from this poor showing. Would the team really be better off dealing him now when his value is at the lowest it has been since his arrival in Los Angeles? Andrew Bynum seemed to jump ship a bit in the postseason. He admitted to not rotating properly and made an accusation about a lack of trust. In Game 4, he took a cheap shot on JJ Barea that certainly does not garner him any support. It was a classless move. The problem with moving Bynum is that the Lakers cannot move him, retain the size advantage up front, and improve without also getting older. He and Shannon Brown were the only players in the Laker playoff rotation who were under the age of 30. Is change for the sake of change what is needed? If so, could they possibly deal Bynum when for all the turmoil he has faced in his career is still someone who is all of seventeen months older than the current rookie-of-the-year?
The truth of the matter is that Dwight Howard is the only guy who could possibly make the Lakers better without also making them considerably older, but Orlando has said they are not going to deal him. Anyone who has seen the assemblage of bad contracts that surround Dwight Howard on the Magic roster can understand the reason. The Magic are going to be expensive regardless, the only question is whether they are going to be good. Plus, if the owners are able to negotiate further restrictions to player movement in the form of a “franchise tag” with the next collective bargaining agreement, then Orlando might be able to either ride Dwight Howard longer than just one more year or solicit a better deal down the line.
The Bench: Injured and Bad
Following last summer, the Lakers were supposed to have one of the deepest benches in the league. They were widely praised nationally for the depth of their roster. It simply did not work out. The team struggled for any sort of consistent production from anyone other than Lamar Odom. Steve Blake had been one of the better backup point guards in basketball over the past four seasons, but he was a disaster in the Laker offense. Matt Barnes was brought as insurance behind Ron Artest, but he tore cartilage in his right knee in early January and was never the same player when he returned. Sasha Vujacic was dealt in February in part because Shannon Brown was playing so well that he rendered Vujacic expendable, but Brown was a different player after the All-Star break. His play was among the team’s biggest disappointments down the stretch of the season. Luke Walton was again limited by his back. Theo Ratliff had arthroscopic surgery on his bothersome left knee in November and basically missed the season. Joe Smithwas acquired in the Vujacic trade, but never gained any sort of traction.
Fixing the bench will not be easy. The abundance of second round picks in their possession is not likely to help them next year. The team is simply not going to find two players in the second round who are the caliber of Devin Ebanks or Derrick Caracter, and they did not play much as rookies. Phil Jackson has never been one to play rookies, so those two might be the greatest beneficiaries of his retirement, but most coaches with contending teams stay away from playing rookies. With a year under his belt, however, Ebanks could certainly be someone who offers the team a long, athletic, and active wing off the bench. He was tremendous in the 2010 Vegas Summer League as well as solid in the preseason. Even in the sparing minutes he received during the season, he performed well for a rookie. The unfortunate reality is that by the time the established veterans on the bench were performing so poorly that he might have been forced to be given a chance, he suffered a stress fracture in his left tibia. He was not available for the playoffs. Derrick Caracter is a great talent for a second round big man, but he cannot be a walking foul defensively, and is by no means good enough to be unprepared to play - as was the case once earlier in the season- or getting in trouble at a pancake house.
The deepest, or maybe second deepest, position in this upcoming draft is the point guard spot. It is possible Kupchak finds a point guard or shooter he likes and thinks can fit, but the odds are overwhelming that whoever it is they take in the second round of a weak draft will be someone who gets more minutes on their D-League team than with the big club. It stands to reason that any player who the Lakers like enough to think can get on the floor and contribute right away is probably going to be valuable enough for them to go buy first round pick to acquire. The most likely route for the Lakers should they retain their second round picks is to draft players who will not look to join the season next year. It never hurts to have assets going forward that can either be used to replenish the roster in the future or use in trades.
The team also still has the draft rights to Chinemelu Elonu who has been one of the best shot blockers in Europe this season. The problem with him is that the length, athleticism, and shot blocking he brings to the table are offset by his propensity to commit fouls. He is not likely to join the team. Another option from Europe could be Gustavo Ayon. Earlier this spring, El Diario of Chihuahua, Mexico reported that GM Mitch Kupchak was in attendance for a game between Fuenlabrada and Regal Barcelona and came away impressed with 26-year old starting center. Ayon had 24 points and 8 rebounds in the upset win. The Mexican national has confirmed that he will try out with a number of NBA teams this summer. While not a high profile option, he might be an option as a minimal risk signing.
Ultimately, there are two paths: incremental change or wholesale change. Given the ugly way the season ended, the call in Los Angles and among Laker fans is going to be for wholesale changes. The call will be to deal everyone but Kobe, and somehow some way come back next season with Dwight Howard. Any dream that results in one of the ten best players in the league ending up on your roster is a pleasant one, but it is still a dream that is not realistic this summer. Once the emotions of the season subside a bit, reality will set in. Reality could be really ugly, and the new collective bargaining agreement might not do them any favors. Given the frightening possibility of what a hard cap could do to the franchise, Laker fans might end up warming back up to their current roster and the concept of incremental changes quite soon. If nothing else, it might remind them that a championship caliber team does not necessarily play for the title every year.