The Next Step

Kurt —  December 6, 2007

We’re almost 20 games into the season, and there have been some exhilarating ups (like last night’s win in Denver) and rather jagged downs.

And through it all, here’s what I think we’ve learned about the Lakers — they are a solid second-tier team in the Western Conference.

Which is an impressive sign of growth (and better than many national experts thought). However, how the team got there may be different than many imagined — this is a team right now with a superstar (Kobe) leading some fast-emerging young talent (enter Andrew Bynum) and a number of guys who are good role players who fit the system. It’s a good, solid, deep team.

So how do you take that next step to contender? Well, you need a key second “star” to mesh with Kobe and the up-and-coming Bynum.

I kept hoping that Lamar Odom would be that cog, and I’ve wanted that for as long as he’s been here. He’s hard not to like as a person, always seeming humble and personable. As a parent myself, my heart ached for him last year, and still does. I wanted so badly for him to succeed.

But I’ve finally come to accept Lamar for what he is — a good, but inconsistent player. Fragile. At times brilliant. Other times absent. At both ends of the court. A guy with good numbers at the end of the night but not one I think the Lakers can count on to bring the Lakers to the next level.

Lamar’s recent struggles to adjust to playing the three — what he said was his natural spot before the season — highlight this. Here are Lamar Odom’s offensive ratings (points he’d score if he used 100 possession) the past five games: 85.3, 85.7, 98.3, 76.8, 75.6, 100.3. Those are bad numbers, to put them in context the Lakers season offensive rating is 110.8, and Kobe consistently is 120 or higher per game, he’s efficient. For the season Odom using 16.6% of the team’s possessions when he is on the floor, down by 18.9 last year, a sign of his uncomfortableness and passivity.

Last night, in the fourth quarter and the game tight, Odom got two chances starting with the ball out on the wing to create something with a bit of a mismatch on him, because Denver was trying to deny Kobe the ball. Both trips were empty and ugly. The Lakers went back to Kobe, and he came through.

It’s not just that game, this recent streak, but rather more than two seasons of pulling for Odom to step up that I’m giving up on. I’m not unhappy with Odom, I’ll still root for him as hard as ever, I’ve just come to a Zen-like acceptance that he is who he is. And who is he is not who the Lakers need.

If that is the case, I see two paths the Lakers could take to become contenders in the next couple of years (and not risk losing Kobe):

1) Trade Odom and filler to bring in a true number two star to this team. That player would likely have to be a four, someone to provide toughness and defense that Bynum is inconsistent at right now, but there may be other options I’m not seeing.

2) Trade one of the young point guards, Kwame Brown’s expiring contract and filler at the trade deadline to bring in a high quality player who can compliment Kobe, Odom and Bynum and make the Lakers a contender. I’m not sure if this player is out there yet, but the season is young. (This was always the theory with the now likely dead Jermaine O’Neal talks — from my perspective you needed Kobe, Odom and the JO of old to compete, so to offer Odom and Bynum for JO was a lateral move. Right now, with the way he is banged up, there is no way we should give up Bynum for JO.)

There are other paths.

3) Trade Kobe for young talent and let Bynum, Farmar, Crittenton, Walton, Ariza and Turiaf and the young players brought in grow together into a powerhouse in a couple years. I’ve never liked this plan for one simple reason — you just don’t trade a Kobe in his prime. First off, it’s a stupid business move because season ticket holders and sponsors would revolt. But even basketball wise, who can you get that will really fill that void on the court. The hardest part of building a contending basketball team is getting that one transcendent piece — your Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett guys. The Lakers have that in Kobe and have him in his prime. You build around that, not let it go.

4) Wait and see how the existing team grows and if it can reach the next level on its own.

If I were the Lakers front office, I’d be thinking about and putting feelers are out there for options one or two. This team is close, it’s growing and coming together, it just needs to be nurtured and one more key piece added. But if not I’d wait, because option four is more likely be successful than three.