There Are No Easy Choices

Darius Soriano —  May 25, 2012

Mitch Kupchak has a difficult road ahead of him.

For the second straight season, his team fell short of their ultimate goal. He understands that the Lakers are judged on their ability to hang banners in the rafters and by “only” reaching the 2nd round in back to back seasons he, his coaches, and his players have failed at that.

With that failure, a plan of attack to do better must be put into action. But, when looking at this team it’s not so simple to say what direction the team should move in. Consider the following variables:

  • The Lakers are a luxury tax paying team. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, they will only have a mini-mid level exception and the veteran’s minimum exception to sign free agents.
  • The Lakers have three cornerstone type players but trading any one of them comes with their own issues. Kobe is a franchise icon with a no trade clause. Dealing him is a non-starter on nearly every level and that’s before you get to his $27 million dollar salary next season. Pau Gasol is still very effective as a player, is extremely skilled, but also makes a lot of money. Andrew Bynum is young, very productive, and on the rise as a player. He also has an injury history and has shown maturity issues. All three of these players are extremely valuable to the Lakers while also having deficiencies that must be taken into account when thinking about their future, be it with the Lakers or not.
  • The Lakers have two key free agents in Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill, both of whom showed they could be impact players but now have the ability to play for other teams next year.
  • The Lakers have aging veteran role players that are difficult to trade and young players who all have questions about their utility as players.

In summary, the Lakers have a fine roster but one that was proven not to be good enough to win the championship. In the following seasons their main competitors will only improve and if the Lakers hope is to surpass them, they will need to improve at a level that exceeds them. Again, this is no easy task.

From where I sit, the Lakers have three choices for how they move forward. None of them are obviously better than the others and all of them come with uncertainty:

Working Around The Edges
There may not have been a team – and surely not a contending one – that was more hurt by the lockout than the Lakers. Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs, they were the only one that started the season with a new coach than the year before. They also started the season with a vetoed trade for a superstar guard with the resulting fallout being a trade of their best bench player (and 6th man of the year) from the season prior. Add to that 5 new players on the team to start the year, a non-existent training camp, and a condensed schedule that limited practice time and the Lakers had a difficult season of acclimation on their hands.

Even with all these variables and even more change throughout the season, the Lakers still finished with the 3rd seed in an ultra-competitive conference. They had an up and down playoffs but all and all did well for themselves by advancing past a Nuggets team that had all the ingredients to attack their weaknesses and then pushing the Thunder much harder than a 4-1 series defeat would imply.

And when looking at the roster as a whole and the results from this season, I think it’s more than fair to say that the problem with this team wasn’t its top end talent. There are certainly things to pick at when it comes to Kobe, Andrew, and Pau but in reality Kobe was 1st team All-NBA, Bynum was 2nd team, and Pau’s averages looked almost identical to those he’s put up his entire Laker career.

So, that leaves us with the role players. The non-big 3 Lakers all had up and down years. Ron didn’t come into camp in shape and dealt with some injury issues that didn’t allow him to be at his physical best until late in the year. Matt Barnes had another solid year but was again injured before the playoffs started and never regained the late season form that had him playing his best ball. Blake is a solid but unspectacular back up PG that still shoots a low percentage from the floor. McRoberts had an up and down year, starting out solid but then injuring his big toe and falling out of the rotation. Troy Murphy is no longer a viable contributor at this stage of his career.

These players – and Derek Fisher and then Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill – made up the entirety of the Lakers rotation throughout the regular season. Their inability to play at sustained productive level meant the big 3 played heavy minutes nightly. It also meant that leads were never that safe and deficits often grew when they were on the floor.

Suffice to say, if these players are improved, it makes sense that the Lakers could be a much better team next year. Getting this done is another issue entirely but if the Lakers feel good about their core big three and can choose 2-3 role players they’re happy with moving forward, the rest of the roster can be churned (or at least attempted to be) and the Lakers try again with this group and those new additions.

Of course, there’s big risk in this approach. This core of players just fell short for the 2nd straight year. Taking this approach would be the third year of tweaking around this core with the expectation that it would somehow be different this time. With Kobe and Pau a year older and Bynum’s history of unavailability, is that really the wisest choice? And, can this team really find the role players it needs with the limited cap exceptions and non-big three trade chips they have at their disposal? Answering no on all those counts is totally reasonable.

Trade Pau Gasol
The Lakers already did this once. In a move that would have netted them Chris Paul, Gasol was sent to Houston only to be told his bags needn’t be packed after all. So, this wouldn’t be an unfamiliar direction for the Lakers to move in. Gasol is a highly skilled player, but he’s also redundant with Andrew Bynum in terms of position both technically (they’re both Centers) and where he likes to operate on the floor (the left block).

Gasol still value around the league. He’s a low post scorer with a very good mid-range game. He’s the best passing big man in the league and can be a focal point offensive player due to his ability to be scorer and set up man. He’s not the ideal number one on a championship team but he’s more than capable as a number 2. Don’t let his shifting and murkily defined role this year cloud how good he still is. In the playoffs, when the Lakers needed a strong performance from one of their big men, it was Gasol who raised his game both by rebounding and being more assertive on offense.

What he could fetch around the league is another question. Being that his prime years aren’t still in front of him and the salary he’s owed, a package for multiple contributing players seems like the best approach. Gasol makes nearly $20 million a year for the next two seasons. That’s more than most young superstar caliber players (Rose, LeBron, Wade, Durant, etc). So, just getting back a single player would prove difficult unless that player were a seasoned veteran AND was being paid handsomely. That’s a tough match. Plus, as mentioned above, the Lakers lacked consistent role players and if a package for two to three players who could either start or be impact reserves were on the table the Lakers would likely consider it. The Lakers are always looking for their next impact player but with Kobe and Bynum in the fold, maybe supporting them better through a group of players is wiser than trying to get another top level talent to share possessions with them.

Of course, losing Gasol would be difficult for the Lakers to deal with. Of their three key players, his combination of skill set and size is totally unique. He offers an offensive arsenal that both Kobe and Bynum possess and brings them to the table unselfishly and only in pursuit of the team’s goals. There’s a reason he was the guy at the elbow in the Lakers “horns” sets making all the key reads: he’s the only player that could do it successfully while embracing the role with nary a complaint spoken. He’s the epitome of a glue player as his versatility and selflessness allow him to contribute without getting in any of his teammates’ ways. There’s extreme value there that would surely be missed regardless of how good the players are that would “replace” him. Surely it’s difficult that he’s had to be reminded to raise his game as often as he has, but the fact is when he’s asked to do so he actually does it. Giving that up for another player (or group of them) may seem wise but they may offer their own set of concerns. The grass isn’t always greener, after all.

Trade Andrew Bynum
If there’s one way  to try and improve your team quickly, it’s to use your best trade chip to acquire a player (or group of them) that fit better with the team in place. As mentioned, there’s skill and positional overlap between Bynum and Gasol. Relying on one of them to man the pivot while sending the other out may just be the solution.

Bynum just made 2nd team All-NBA. He’s a monster of a man with an ever growing skill set that continues to be refined. He has soft hands, can finish over both shoulders with hooks or turnaround jumpers, and can still run the floor well enough. Defensively he has the ability to impact the game like few others can. This season he’s posted a 30 rebound game and a triple double that included 10 blocked shots. His enormous wing span means that even when he’s out of position or not able to fully gather himself to jump, he can still alter and block shots just by extending his arms. Bynum is only 24 would be on his third NBA contract and could be paid a reasonable amount considering his talent level and his impact on the game.

Being such a valuable commodity what Bynum could fetch in a trade seems limitless. Could he bring in a 3rd star to flank Kobe and Pau; a star that could be the cornerstone of the Lakers after those two are no longer elite talents? Could he bring in an even better group of players to support Kobe and Pau? These are only open questions because one has to look at this from the other side. If Bynum is so good, why would he be the one to go? In other words, what do the Lakers know that other teams should be worried about? Is his attitude really bad? Does his motor really not rev to its fullest consistently? Despite his growth into an elite level talent this season he also had his share of turmoil and that may affect his value.

If he were to go, though, the Lakers would also miss him. Young, skilled behemoths don’t grow on trees. In the Nuggets series Bynum faced double team after double team and created open shots for his teammates simply by being on the floor. Against the Thunder his ability to score efficiently gave the Lakers points they needed and shifted the defense his way in a manner that freed others to make plays. During the regular season his endurance may not have been  top shelf but there were many times his sheer size was the difference, grabbing an extra rebound or getting a post touch that led to an easy basket. We all remember the game vs the Celtics where Bynum buried KG under the rim and scored what was the game sealing basket. Does another Laker make that play so easily? Do you really want to give up the player can is capable of making such a play?

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All of these options have their merits and all of them scare me to a certain degree. It’s obvious the Lakers need to change things up but how far do they go? Last off-season they showed they’d go all in for Paul but those opportunities are quite rare. To think that another chance to grab a franchise altering talent will just materialize is a bit naive. But if it does present itself will they pull the trigger? If lesser quality deals come up that can change the complexion of the roster but still cost a cornerstone player will that be made? Add the back drop of finances, salary cap rules, and that tiny detail that it actually takes two teams to make a trade and there’s no easy answer here.


Darius Soriano

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