It was an odd season for the Los Angeles Lakers. It all started with the way they were swept in the Western Conference semifinals by the eventual champions Dallas Mavericks last season. Dallas’ three-point shooting and speed off the edges overwhelmed Los Angeles. And a bush-league clocking in the air of Jose Barea by Andrew Bynum closed out the embarrassing performance by the Lakers.
Phil Jackson then retired, something designed to take place regardless of the season’s outcome. Mike Brown was hired to succeed the winningest coach in NBA history in terms of titles. In five years coaching LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brown won 65.4% of his games but successive playoff disappointments and James’ departure culminated on his firing. His hiring puzzled many but from a basketball standpoint made sense. LA had just bombed on the playoffs due to its defensive deficiencies and Brown was someone qualified to solve that issue.
In the offseason, general-manager Mitch Kupchak felt the only way to improve the roster was by using power-forwards Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol as trading chips. Kupchak had a deal in place with the New Orleans Hornets and the Houston Rockets, only for commissioner David Stern to step in and veto the trade as acting owner of the Louisiana franchise. But the specifics of the deal had already been made public and an upset Odom likely requested a trade. Kupchack then shipped him to Dallas for absolutely nothing.
Once the lockout was settled and the season got underway, the issues the Lakers faced were multiple. Brown chose to uninstall the triangle offense the team had run for over a decade and install a system based more on low post play in which perimeter players had to generate their own offense off the dribble. Kobe Bryant did fine with it but the role players struggled. That meant Bryant asserted himself more and more aggressively and the team’s offense looked absurdly poor and downright predictable. They were still winning games, however, because the defensive improvement Brown was hired to bring did come through.
As the season progressed, though, things got better. LA did not look like a juggernaut or anything but Bynum emerged as a dominant force now he was healthy throughout the entire year. Gasol began to understand his role within the offense better, the ascendance was clear. And when Bryant sat out seven games in the beginning of April to nurse a hurt left shin, the supporting cast was forced to step up and, for the surprise of most, they actually delivered.
The Lakers were playing the best basketball of the year as the postseason opened and two dominant wins over the Nuggets in LA gave the impression they were legit contenders for the title. Denver, however, resurrected, helped by the Lakers’ inconsistencies, and pushed the series all the way down to a game seven. Against the Thunder in the second-round, the Lakers have now fallen in five games, in a series that was closer than the final score indicates but that was not close enough for us to see a scenario in which LA would have won.
And now the Lakers look forward and find themselves in a really tough position to move ahead. According to Sham Sports, Bryant is on the books for over $27 million dollars, Gasol for $19 million and Bynum $16.1 million (a team option was picked up earlier in the year) for next season. As of right now, the trio combines for 108% of the Lakers’ projected cap (which should remain at just $58 million). And even the cap line expands some, it’s still unrealistic for LA to keep them all and retool the supporting cast, which held them back with the lack of athleticism.
That means Gasol is most likely going to be traded. Pau did not have his most prolific season as a Laker this year but the notion he is on a steady decline is misguided. His role within the team’s offense changed. He was no longer featured in the low block, with his back to the basket but rather in the high post, with the team taking advantage of his passing skills. The production was still there if you cared to see it as Gasol posted the third highest assist-percentage of his career but in about four percent less usage than in the other two years while his shooting percentages remained about the same.
As mentioned above, Gasol was nearly traded to the Rockets in a deal that would have brought Chris Paul to the Lakers. Houston remains Pau’s most likely destination because Daryl Morey has been so desperate for an elite player that he’s probably willing to overpay for him. That means a third trading partner will need to get involved as the Lakers can’t get both Kevin Martin & Luis Scola in the trade. Their combined salaries are $21 million which the Lakers could not accommodate.
Brooklyn and Dallas are other possible rumored destinations but neither can provide something that would satisfy the Lakers on a straight-up trade, so other scenarios for a third trade partner would have to be involved. Regardless of to where he goes, it’s safe to say Gasol will be traded this summer.
And that’s where the Lakers’ flexibility pretty much ends. With Metta World Peace (aka Ron Artest), Steve Blake, Ramon Sessions (who apparently was planning on opting out prior to the playoffs but that likely will change after his poor performance over the last 12 games) and Josh McRoberts are on the books for a combined $19 million next season, it would take a magic trick for general-manager Mitch Kupchak to turn that personnel over. LA still holds the amnesty provision but even if they use it on World Peace, which apparently is no longer a lock based on how he performed late in the year, they should still be way over the cap.
Bynum is untouchable. That’s because of the leap he took this season and because acting decision maker Jim Buss handpicked him in that 2005 draft. Meanwhile, Mike Brown isn’t expected to get canned. He is still under contract for three more years and it’s unreasonable to justify firing him over this season that featured special circumstances. And an argument can be made he actually did better with this team than his predecessor the year before.
Although we all flirted with the idea of amnestying Bryant, as he’s set to earn $30 million in several years, it really doesn’t make sense. The Lakers wouldn’t have the ability to re-sign him – in a backdoor, handshake, pre-agreed deal – for the length of his original contract and Bryant would go through that bidding system and probably end up in Golden State or Brooklyn.
So where do the Lakers go from here? Even having as good a trading chip as Gasol, it’s tough to see them enhancing this core and contend next year. Financially, they are then tied up for one more year as only Bynum should be on the books for the 2014-2015 season. They could then re-sign Bryant to a more reasonable contract. It is common knowledge contenders go through a drought after the window is closed but not the Lakers. So this four-year stretch we are midway through is bigger deal for them.
Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘The Basketball Post’ and an International Scout and Correspondent for NetScouts Basketball. More of his work can be found here and he can be followed on twitter @rafael_uehara.