For a team that epitomizes Hollywood, it was an ending that no producer in Tinseltown would have green-lit. The two-time defending champs looking to send their Hall of Fame coach into retirement with an unprecedented fourth three-peat instead looked old, slow and utterly frustrated against a team that most of the basketball world presumed wouldn’t be much of an obstacle.
Instead, the Los Angeles Lakers next season starts with an early vacation, their year ending in May for the first time since 2007 when they were bounced in the first round by the Phoenix Suns. For the Laker franchise and fanbase, it’s a bit like driving to Wally World only to find the gates padlocked. So before this bitter pill has had a chance to make it all the way down the collective gullet of Lakers fans, it seems like the perfect time to wonder “what now”?
What to do about Pau Gasol who drew the most fan ire of any Laker for his shrinking violet performance in the postseason? What sort of additional help can the organization find for Kobe Bryant – who is still one of the league’s most dangerous players, but who is soon to be 33 years old and is showing signs of accumulated injury? Perhaps most importantly, who will lead this team after the departure of the game’s greatest coach who was a bigger star than most of the men he coached?
Who fills Phil’s shoes?
The head of the bench is probably the best place to start with the Lakers. It’s probably also the most complicated riddle to try and solve. The best laid plans of owner Jerry Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak had the team winning its third straight title with Phil Jackson riding off into the sunset with his 12th championship before handing the reins over to Brian Shaw.
Shaw is still considered by some to be the front-runner for the job and would undoubtedly have the support of Bryant since the two played together for four seasons. But there is a question as to whether ownership wants to continue in The Way of the Triangle. Immediately after the Game Four loss to Dallas, no one in the Laker hierarchy was willing to say much about who would sit atop Jackson’s high-chair next season, but sources in the organization told ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande that the search was “wide open”.
One of the knocks against Jackson (and there weren’t many) was that he took
teams with extraordinary talent and won championships. It’s hard to argue against the fact that Phil coached some of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen, but maybe his greatest strength was the ability to mesh personalities and absorb distractions while focusing a group on a common goal. It’s how he got the Jordanaires to fall in line behind Michael’s notoriously Type A personality. It’s how he paired a veteran Shaquille O’Neal with a young, hungry and ornery Kobe Bryant to win three titles.
It’s a skill that can’t be overlooked, especially in a town like Los Angeles where distractions are as numerous as paparazzi cameras. That skill is the reason Jackson presided over the Lakers’ greatest run of success since Pat Riley took his act to Wall Street. It’s also something that may give Shaw the inside track to the gig. Whoever takes over the job is going to have to be able to stand up to Kobe Bryant who will need to start deferring to teammates a little more frequently in the future. Bryant would probably listen to Shaw more than any other new coach.
Shaw may also be the pick because this team was built to run the triangle offense. Many of the Lakers’ offensive problems stemmed from them getting away from running that offense. It’s been common in the last couple of seasons to see a crabby Kobe forsake the rest of the guys on the floor and take matters into his own hands, with varying degrees of success. Of course for the triangle to work, you need shooters who can knock down jumpers from deep. It didn’t help that as a group, the Lakers failed to be any sort of threat shooting the ball from the perimeter against the Mavericks. There is no universe in which shooting 19.7% from three-point range is going to get it done. Yet no matter how much the Busses may want to scrap Tex Winter’s iconic offense…
The roster is the roster
As is normal with teams that fall short of expectations, fans and media promptly put on their hard hats and talked about blowing things up. That’s much easier said than done. First off, after everyone releases the panic button, they’ll remember that Los Angeles won 57 games, ran away with the Pacific Division and earned the second seed in the West. Certainly after the past two seasons, anything less than a parade down Figueroa Street in early June was going to be looked at as failure. But let’s slow down before we completely write this group off.
The Lakers came blazing out of the gates this season, firing off to a 13-5 start thanks in large part to the play of Pau Gasol. In the first 18 games of the season, the Spaniard looked like a way-too-early MVP candidate, averaging 21.1 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. Later in the year, it was L.A.’s other big man, Andrew Bynum taking control. As the Lake Show rattled off 17 wins in their first 18 games after the All-Star Break, Bynum morphed into the game-changing center so many people thought he could be, dominating the paint with 10.8 ppg and 10.6 rpg.
Unfortunately for Laker fans, they’ll mostly remember Gasol being colder than a bowl of gazpacho against Dallas while Bynum’s legacy from the 2011 postseason will be his Dr. Phil impersonation when talking about the team’s “trust issues”.
Secondly, Los Angeles carried $91.646 million in salary for the 2010-11 season – light years above the cap number that had been set at $58.044 million and still a significant amount above the luxury tax threshold of $70.307 million. That’s not going to get much better next season. The Lakers already have a guaranteed $88.623 million in contracts for next year – and that’s without Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes picking up their player options for another combined $4.3 million.
The only player on the roster with any significant trade value is the 23-year old Bynum. He could help bring the point guard that the team so badly needs after Derek Fisher and Steve Blake looked like the cones in a J.J. Barea dribbling clinic. Except that injuries have been the biggest story of his young career. In six seasons, Bynum has played more than 65 games just once, when he appeared in a complete 82 games back in ’06-07.
What it all adds up to is…
Dwight Howard‘s not walking through that door
In the summer of 1996, the Lakers were coming off a first-round playoff loss to the Houston Rockets. Their next move was to convince Superman (Shaquille O’Neal) to leave Smallville (Orlando) for Metropolis (Los Angeles). At the same time, the team traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights to a heralded, but unproven high schooler named Kobe Bryant. Thus began the Lake Show’s return to primetime.
Fifteen years later, Laker fans are hoping for a showing of Superman II, this time starring Dwight Howard. The rumblings of trying to convince Howard to switch coasts has only gotten louder after L.A.’s bigs played so small against Dallas. But there’s still one more year left on Howard’s contract in Orlando and even with Jerry Buss’ deep pockets, it may not be that easy getting Howard to Southern California.
When Howard becomes a free agent after the 2011-12 season, the Lakers will still have $56.949 million tied up in guaranteed deals for Bryant, Gasol, Blake and Luke Walton; there’s another $24.673 million in team options for Bynum and Lamar Odom and still another $10.659 million in player options for Ron Artest and Derek Fisher. With a lockout hanging over everyone’s head, it’s likely that the salary cap and contract structures will look vastly different when the league tips off again. Will the Lakers even be able to fit Howard under that new umbrella? If they wanted to try, how much salary would they have to gut from the roster to open up space?
Better yet, is Howard really interested in coming to Los Angeles? Like Shaq, Howard is a big, engaging personality with a 10,000-watt smile that TV and movie producers would love to work with. But is he really okay with following the same path that O’Neal did? Plus, in today’s NBA, superstars have turned into part-time recruiters, trying to woo their fellow superstars to form another version of the Big Three. Why go to Los Angeles and play with an aging Kobe when you can convince Deron Williams and David West to come to Orlando?
Is it all over for the Lakers? By no means. Unless someone in the Pacific Division makes a major overhaul during the summer, the Lakers next season still appears head and shoulders above their competition. They’re still a playoff team with enough talent to make a run. However, if the standard is a championship or three (and in Los Angeles, it often is), then the curtain has definitely dropped on this edition of the Lake Show.