For Lakers, becoming championship contenders again will be a tall order
The Lakers likely will need to break up their frontcourt of Pau Gasol (left) and Andrew Bynum in order to upgrade around Kobe Bryant. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
An optimist might look at the Lakers-Thunder series and come away thinking about how close Los Angeles is to championship contention. The middle three games of Oklahoma City’s five-game win in the Western Conference semifinals were all close, and with better crunch-time execution, the Lakers could have won all three and be headed home for a chance to close the deal in Game 6.
But that’s the wrong way to look at things, and the Lakers know it internally. The other two games were Oklahoma City runaways, and mixing blowout losses with down-to-the-wire contests is no way to win a playoff series. Luck, fatigue and randomness will inevitably swing a crunch-time game or two against you, and given the taxing load that the Lakers’ three best players carried all season, fatigue surely played a role in late collapses during Game 2 and Game 4 — the latter forever known as the game in which Kobe Bryant went completely off the rails, and then threw a long-tenured champion teammate under the bus.
This team was never a real championship contender. The Lakers had the sixth-best point differential among Western Conference teams, and they just couldn’t function as an elite club on both ends of the floor. They struggled to score in the first half of the season, checking in as a league-average offense. The March trade for point guard Ramon Sessions goosed the offense, but the defense collapsed over the final 20 games, surrendering points at a rate that would have made it the NBA’s worst for the full season. Sessions, among the worst defenders in the league for his position, didn’t help, but he alone cannot explain a team playing top-10 level defense for half a season and then hemorrhaging points like the Bobcats for 20 games, plus the playoffs.
The Lakers were just never that good, and their top three pieces don’t mesh as well as they used to, given the lack of talent and outside shooting around them. According to NBA.com’s stats tool, the Lakers outscored opponents by only 2.8 points per 100 possessions with Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the floor together. That’s a very low number for a star-studded trio on a decent team. And when you scan the team’s lineup data, what jumps out is the fact that no combination of two, three or four players did much to transform the Lakers. Most teams have duos or trios that result in dramatically improved (or worsened) play on one or both ends of the floor, but the numbers for every relevant Lakers combination basically hover around the same “good but not good enough” area, indicating that the foundation here is rotten.
The Lakers now have to ask if the Bryant/Gasol/Bynum trio is inherently limited because of Bryant’s declining skills, Gasol’s masquerading as L.A.’s Brandon Bass and Bynum’s now-and-then effort issues, or if that core would work better if the Lakers nail a couple of transactions on the fringes. They need shooting and speed — wow, do they need speed — in addition to finding a way to convince Bryant that he does not need the ball all of the time on the perimeter. The Sessions trade was supposed to help that process along; it ultimately failed.
In short: We have two seasons’ worth of evidence now suggesting that this team is not a real contender — not with the Thunder still growing, the Spurs sustaining greatness and teams in Denver, Memphis and the other one at Staples Center rising around the Lakers.
The question now is how to change that. Any prescription must begin with the sobering reality that the collective bargaining agreement offers the Lakers almost nothing with which to work. Acquiring a meaningful free agent will be very difficult, which means the Lakers will almost inevitably have to trade either Gasol or Bynum to upgrade the roster around Bryant. Salvation isn’t coming via the draft, either, because the Lakers traded their 2012 first-round pick to the Cavaliers for Sessions and sent a future first-round pick — which was acquired from Dallas in the Lamar Odom deal — to Houston in the Derek Fisher trade. They also gave Cleveland, which has its own first-round pick as well as Miami’s in the 2013 draft, the right to swap any of its picks with the Lakers’ selection next year. That’s a nice little get for the Cavs, who will almost surely jump up a half-dozen or so draft spots because they can send the Heat’s pick to the Lakers.
Once the Lakers inevitably pick up Bynum’s $16 million option for next season, they will have more than $80 million on the books. They cannot even see the salary cap (projected again to be around $58 million) from where they are, and they will be far over the luxury-tax line. The tax stays at the old dollar-for-dollar rate next season, but being over the tax carries a few serious penalties:
• The Lakers do not have access to the full mid-level exception, a key lure for ring-chasing veterans and solid mid-career role players. Los Angeles can offer only the mini mid-level exception for taxpayers, a three-year deal worth about $3 million annually. The full mid-level allows for a four-year deal with a starting annual salary a shade over $5 million. The difference might not matter to all players, but it will surely matter to some.
• While the new, harsher tax rates haven’t kicked in, the clock on the so-called “repeater penalty” has already started. Beginning in the 2014-15 season, any team that has paid the luxury tax in each of the previous three seasons will pay nearly 1.5 times the normal tax rate. The Lakers paid the tax this season and will almost certainly pay it next season, which means that in 2013-14 — when Bryant and Gasol are set to make $50 million combined — they may scramble like heck to get under the tax line. The Lakers are a money-bags team with the best local TV deal in the league, but the Buss family does not have any giant outside cash cow, and the new revenue-sharing plan will hurt. The team is already in money-saving mode, having dumped salary at the trade deadline, in the Odom deal and in the aborted Chris Paul trade.
This matters when you begin tossing around Gasol/Bynum deals that pile on long-term money.
• The Lakers cannot offer the biannual exception, and they don’t have quite as much flexibility as non-tax teams in terms of how much salary they can take back in a trade. (For the full details, see Larry Coon’s must-read guide to the salary cap).
The Lakers do have the $8.9 million Odom trade exception for another few months, and they could use the amnesty clause to waive Metta World Peace, who has two years and $15 million left on his deal. Shedding World Peace wouldn’t put them under the tax line, and it would leave a gaping hole at small forward that second-year player Devin Ebanks hasn’t proved he is ready to fill. Point guard Steve Blake, due $8 million over the next two seasons, is also a potential amnesty candidate.
So in terms of non-trade options, the Lakers are limited to the veteran’s minimum exception and the mini mid-level. They could add a free agent or two via those mechanisms, but the free-agent crop is thin, and the top ring-chasing veterans are either worth much more (Kevin Garnett), think they are (Jason Kidd), play Bryant’s position (Ray Allen, Jason Terry) or are so close to washed up on one end of the floor as to be risky signings (Antawn Jamison, a big defensive liability). It’s tempting to suggest that Bryant could shift to small forward to accommodate the signing of a true shooting guard, but he hasn’t played that position for anything but short stretches — and usually with bench units — over the last few seasons.
No matter how you slice it, you keep coming back to dealing Gasol or Bynum for either a star (i.e. Orlando’s Dwight Howard) or multiple pieces that fit the roster better. In the latter scenario, those additions would provide some quality at point guard and on the wing, and allow the Lakers’ leftover big-man star to operate as the team’s only true center.
A trade of both Gasol and Bynum for Howard and Hedo Turkoglu has always worked, but that leaves the rest of the roster pretty bare, even if it would save the Lakers money in the short- and long-term. A Bynum-for-Howard deal works straight up and doesn’t really affect the Lakers’ long-term cap situation, but the Magic would figure to ask for other goodies — a future first-round pick and the dumping of Turkoglu’s toxic deal, which includes $17.8 million in guaranteed money over the next two seasons. (Turkoglu’s salary, by the way, does not fit into the Odom trade exception.) And even if the Lakers could swing the Howard/Bynum swap, it still leaves Gasol floating around the perimeter for much of the game. Howard’s defense would be such a huge upgrade that the awkward fit might not matter, though.
Bottom line: Transforming the Lakers into a title contender again will require some luck and some major risk.
wow between their trades and draft pick deals, salary cap situation of which they're way over and will be in the future, and not being able to bring in vets with a decent mid lvl exception that isn't minimal, the Lakers can only get worse the next few seasons? they might even have to let Artest go to save on salary cap? i guess the Dwight deal is the only card they have that looks remotely appealing to turn things around, and the article makes a good point about Pau still being on the outside even then with a lesser scorer inside in Dwight.
Re: So the Lakers are pretty much screwed for the next couple years...
Its beyond motivating Pau/Bynum time....
Pau has sucked in the last 2 years playoffs now, and Bynum is a child. Trade him for another centre and let him go be the man elsewhere. He has great potential, but he doesnt give a fu*k, cant see that changing...
The bench needs 1 or 2 scorers, the amount of times teams killed the Lakers to start the 4th qtr this season was disgusting..