Right now, the Lakers are a competitive, yet average team. They have been close enough to win many of their games but have often fallen short, to the frustration of everyone that wishes success for this group. Whether you’re an outsider watching the games, or an insider who has access to practices and the mindset of the coaches and front office, it’s seemingly obvious that this team has holes to fill, despite their ability to compete. Point guard and small forward play, bench production, and outside shooting are all glaring deficiencies and it’s up to the coaches and the front office to find solutions to those issues.
With that in mind, what those key organizational minds think about the roster and where it can be improved matter. So, it’s helpful when we get insight into their thought proccess, especially when it’s general manager Mitch Kupchak’s. It just so happens that Mike Trudell of Lakers.com was able to sit with Kupchak before the Lakers went on their road trip and was able to take his temperature on a variety of subjects. A few responses to Trudell’s probing caught my eye:
*In response to questions about the Lakers continuing to look at deals and if there’s something he (Kupchak) would like to accomplish before the deadline:
It’s my job to look at everything, small or big, to try and improve the team. We continue to look at everything, and if there’s something that we can do today to improve the team for this season and into the future, we’ll consider it….if there were a way for us to get a 25-year-old, All-Star, ball-handling guard we’d love to do it … but that’s not likely in February. So you look at other alternatives, and see if it’s better than what you have. That’s all.
*In response to a question about Mike Brown and his staff’s performance in what has been a very busy Lakers’ schedule so far this season:
A coach and his system is going to help, but at this level when you play 82 games, it’s about talent. If you have a lot of talent, coaching staffs are typically going to win a fair share of games. Our staff has had a tough act to follow, with Phil Jackson’s Hall of Fame, 11-championship career as a coach, but they’ve embraced the challenge. They had a shortened training camp, but there’s no question to their dedication and how hard they work. They’ve been received by the players with great enthusiasm, and I think our players want to play for them. They do a good job at practices, as well, so that’s all good. As I mentioned, there are certain areas of our roster that need to be improved, which falls on my shoulders. Having said all that, we have had a favorable home schedule that we mostly took advantage of, despite the two games (vs. Chicago and Indiana) that you could argue that we should have won, but we need to win some road games. All in all, I think we’re probably within striking distance of where many thought we would be. But we played an awful lot of games in a short period of time to start the season, and I think you can look around the league and in a week or two begin to tell how things will play out. For the first third of the season, especially for a new staff, much of the time is spent figuring out the rotation, but when we get back from this trip, we’ll be almost 30 games into the season, and we should have a better idea.
What I take from all this is pretty straight foward. Kupchak understands that this team is weak at PG while again acknowledging that getting your hands on an impact player at that position will be difficult. Furthermore, he seems to think that the players are taking to Mike Brown’s coaching well but that the roster limitations are real and that it’s his job to correct them.
This brings us to the million dollar question: What are the Lakers going to do about it? It’s clear that the team needs to make a trade but that’s not always easy. Beyond the fact that it takes a partner to make a deal, the Lakers must decide if they want to move forward with this big three intact or if the need for an impact player at a different position will give them a better chance to win, thus facilitating a trade of one of their big three. After making that determination, they need to target who they want and try to get that player (or those players).
For what it’s worth, I think the Lakers are focusing more long term than they are on this season. The new CBA is set to hammer them financially so cutting payroll is surely a consideration. Plus, Kobe looks to be in good enough condition that he’ll play at a high level through the end of his current contract. When you add in the hiring of Mike Brown – and with him the removal of the only system several key players have known – and dropping him into a truncated season where training camp was almost non-existent and practice time will be severely limited, the balance between this year and the future seems even more tilted towards what happens next rather than now.
This isn’t to say the Lakers can’t be a contender this year. The trade of Lamar Odom – irrespective of how we all feel about it – does give the Lakers options and an additional asset (Dallas’ protected 1st round pick) to make a trade. The Lakers can absorb a contract directly into the Odom traded player exception or sweeten any deal with a draft pick to try and get a player of interest. Considering Kupchak’s comments about wanting a PG (even though he mentions a 25 year old all-star level player) is telling in that it directly acknowedges his team’s biggest weakness. It also shows a desire to better balance his team and (potentially) take some of the load off Kobe Bryant in the coming seasons. The trick is, of course, getting that player in house.
And that brings us back to that million dollar question above. The Lakers are obviously waiting for the bigger names on the market to get sorted out (Howard and, potentially Deron Williams) before they make a move. This is an approach that I agree with as I think chasing the best players in the league when they’re realistic gets is one of ways you build a championship contender in this league. When you run a storied franchise in a glamour market, I think those types of moves make even more sense. However, when does the pursuit of those players become too burdensome? And, when should those pursuits be abandoned to instead make smaller, less impactful, deals that could help the team now but may not set you up for the future as well?
These are questions the Lakers front office is facing daily and I don’t know that there’s a good answer, to be honest. In the meantime, though, we wait.
UPDATE: Reports have been confirmed that the Lakers have released 2nd year forward Derrick Caracter. If you read the Kupchak interview in its entirety, a move like this was hinted at as February 10th loomed as the deadline day to cut unguaranteed contracts before they became fully guaranteed.
Caracter never really got a chance to play meaningfuly minutes for this team as he was part of a crowded front court rotation that up to this season included Bynum, Gasol, and Odom. His injury coming into this season also put him behind the 8 ball as he was now looking up to Pau/Drew and Murphy and McRoberts with few, if any, minutes to be had.
That said, when Caracter did get a chance to play last season he flashed a solid offensive game with good post moves and decent range on his jumper. His rebounding and defense needed work but those are things (especially the defense) that can be improved over time with more exposure to the complex schemes and multitude of responsibilities big men have as back line defenders.
Ultimately, I wish him nothing but the best and do think he will land on his feet somewhere. Some team will certainly take a chance on his talent and try to develop him into a contributing big man. But, whatever team does give him a shot will need to make sure he keeps his nose clean and stays committed to keeping his weight down. These have been issues in the past and could resurface if not monitored by the team. Good luck to him, though.