Summer Progress Report

Kurt —  July 16, 2007

After the Shaq trade, I think most Lakers fans realized it was going to take three to four years to really rebuild this team around Kobe, and that was if everything was done right. Contenders are not made overnight (look at how Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas were assembled).

How has it gone? Well, I’ve tried to block from my mind that first, Rudy T. coached year (but the barrage of threes still haunts my REM sleep). Phil Jackson returned in year two and gave the Lakers’ ship direction, progress was made. Then came last year, which was a step back (in part due to injuries).

After the season Kobe demanded that the team not just make up for that step back but rather make the big leap forward. Then he demanded the franchise do that or trade him (then just to trade him, which won’t happen this season). In my mind, in the original plan, year three of the Phil 2.0 era was to be the year the Lakers vaulted back to contention. And after two years we had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done to make the big step — I laid out my thoughts in four steps in the “Winning Now” post right after the season.

So, how are the Lakers doing on reaching those goals come mid July? (When things traditionally slow down.) Well, let’s break it down. (Note, the four items listed are out of order from the original post).

Improve the point guard position. First off, there is a certain amount of addition by subtraction here — Smash Parker will be a fine backup PG somewhere, but the Lakers should improve just by not having him as the starter night in and night out. At the end of the season my thoughts were to fill Smush’s shoes by making a big move, bringing in a quality PG that may be here for five years, and let Farmar be the backup. But I’ve come around to like what the Lakers did — draft Jarvis Crittenton and sign Derek Fisher for three years to bring some stability and leadership (likely off the bench) while two young talents find their footing in the NBA. It may be a bit of PG by committee this season, but this was a good long-term move. So, I consider this one done.

Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream. This one was really pretty easy and never really in doubt except by bored columnists. The Lakers have been building into a triangle team and losing to Phoenix did not mean the Lakers should change styles and try to emulate the run and gun. They haven’t. And this is good because we know the Triangle offense can win titles.

Defense first. Remember, the Lakers (despite all the injuries) scored 103.3 points per game last season, fifth best in the league. However, they have up 103.4. It was the lack of defense that held this team back. And will again if things don’t change.

That’s why I said every off-season move needed to be made with defense in mind. Fisher is not that — he can draw a charge and get a few steals, he’s a decent team defensive player, but he is not a solo stopper. He’s not solving the defensive issues. Having Farmar out top should help — he’s a better defender than Smush and will soak up some of Smush’s minutes — and Crittenton has the look of a good defender, we’ll see what he can do.

But for that trio to improve the Lakers perimeter defense, there needs to be a more threatening presence in the paint behind them than Kwame Brown.

Consistency in the paint. Nothing yet on this front. Next season is going to go down one of two ways for the Lakers front line, lets look at them.

• They make a big trade. This is the one thing that can vault the Lakers into contender status (as long as too much is not given up as to gut the team around the stars). If — and these are mighty, mighty big “ifs” — a Jermaine O’Neal or Kevin Garnett could be acquired at a reasonable price, the Lakers would have made the big move. (Other deals are possible, but those are the only two where we know there were talks.) The threat of either of those guys swatting Tony Parker’s lay-up into the third row would make our PG by committee defense instantly better. (To be fair, Parker has that pretty little running floater he likely would loft over KG’s outstretched arms, but I’m not going to think about that.) I think this is what most Lakers fans hope to see, and while the public chatter has died down I’d like to think Mitch Kupchak has not in trying to make a deal along these lines work.

• They come back with Kwame/Bynum/Mihm. This is not the end of the world, but it would mean more of last year. Kwame has had off-season surgery, so he should be healthy, and he’s in a contract year, so the locker-room joker should be motivated. Bynum has improved every year and reports are he’s been working with Laker coaches all summer. And some depth with Mihm is a plus (he could supplant Kwame if he returns to form). Basically, we can at least expect mild improvement here if they come back, and if that is the case and they stay healthy we get average play. And that likely means the Lakers land between 42-48 wins again.

The bottom line on where the Lakers stand — right now they are marginally better than last season, but then you could argue so is much of the Western Conference. Right now the Lakers have treaded water while setting themselves up to make a big splash. The question is, can Mitch find a way to take the plunge and make that splash.