Past, Present and Future of the 2011-12 Lakers

J.M. Poulard —  May 29, 2012

With the Lakers season now over and the wounds from the elimination at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder slowly healing, we look back on the season that was and look forward to what will be for the present day Los Angeles Lakers by going 3-on-3 with the Forum Blue & Gold staff.

1. What was your favorite Andrew Bynum moment of the 2011-12 season and/or your thoughts about his season overall?

David Murphy: The 30 rebounds against the Spurs was an astonishing number, but the fact that Kobe wasn’t suited up, and that it was San Antonio, added to the stakes. I was watching Drew snag balls and kept thinking about the difference between him and somebody truly dedicated to boards. Rodman had that innate sense, he instantly saw and tracked trajectories, he was able to fly horizontally to the floor. Bynum’s not like that, he’s just more of a really big guy who has a decent sense of where the ball will be, and is able to get position. The larger point is the question of consistency. It’s like anything in the game, you have to want it. Does he have it in him to will that body and size and the bulkiest knee device in the league, to do these things game in, game out?

J.M. Poulard: With 23 seconds left in the game and the Los Angeles Lakers clinging to a one-point lead against the hated Boston Celtics at home, everyone assumed the ball would go to Kobe and that he would seal the game with a jumper at the right elbow. Well instead, Mike Brown put the ball in the hands of Andrew Bynum on the left block against Kevin Garnett and he delivered with a beautiful right-handed hook shot that essentially sealed the game. This is when many truly started to have visions of greatness for ‘Drew.

Emile Avanessian: In more ways than one, Andrew Bynum ranks among the most frightening players in basketball. At seven feet and 300 pounds with a skill set nurtured by the greatest center ever to play the game, he is a must on any list of the NBA’s toughest covers. A graceful giant, on any given night Bynum is capable of hanging a demoralizing 35 on an opponent or wiping the boards clean, as he did on April 11 in San Antonio, when he grabbed an incredible 30 rebounds. On most teams in the league he’d be a focal point, almost certainly boasting averages in the 25-14 neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, my greatest fear concerning Andrew Bynum is that he’ll be cast as the Lakers’ leading man for the coming decade. Only physically does Bynum cut the figure of a championship catalyst. Set aside the injury concerns (which, thus far in his career, have been significant) and you are left with a physically gifted big man whose penchant for losing interest in the task at hand knows neither rhyme nor reason. Say what you will about the consistency of Shaq’s effort while in L.A. – and I’ve said plenty – he’d sooner dedicate the entirety of a summer to two-a-day workouts than sleepwalk through playoff games and close out a season with a whimpering 10 and 4.

2.What was your favorite Pau Gasol moment of the 2011-12 season and/or your thoughts about his season overall?

David Murphy: To Pau or not to Pau? The question of his future has to be the most obvious one on the table. I’m a huge, huge fan. The games in which he wasn’t a factor were shocking because we expect consistency from him. He actually plays quite well with Bynum and I think left to their natural devices, just going out there and winging it together, they’d be unstoppable. Regardless of what Pau has meant to this team, or his best moments, he’s the most obvious trade chip on the table and I have to think he’s played his last in a Lakers uniform. The fact that he was in play all year means something. Jim Buss is a draft junkie and I’d bet that he’s looking at ways to jump up and get a meaningful pick.

J.M. Poulard: Picking one singular Pau moment from this past season proved difficult for me, but highlighting one of his skills came almost naturally given his talent. The best moment of this past season involving Pau Gasol was every pick-and-roll he ran with Kobe Bryant that resulted in him diving hard towards the basket, catching the ball and then lobbing it softly over the top of would be defenders to Andrew Bynum for a thunderous dunk that always brought the house down when the games were played at Staples. If Pau has indeed played his last game in purple and gold, this will be my lasting memory of him for the 2011-12 season.

Emile Avanessian: It’s not always easy to conjure sympathy for an intelligent 31 year-old making $19 million per year, that’s still got his health and designs on a life in medical once this chapter of his career draws to a close.

Perhaps Pau Gasol’s days as the Lakers’ clear-cut #2 option are behind him. Who knows, maybe his best days as an NBAer are behind him. Maybe neither. Perhaps a breakneck regular season – before which he was actually traded away – during which he was asked to adapt to a new role, despite a paucity of practice time is not exactly a scenario in which one thrives. Whatever the explanation, the Lakers have arrived at a crossroads with their gifted big man.

For reason extending beyond a lackluster (by his own standards) 2011-12 – advanced age relative to Bynum, a contract that pays him $38 million over the next two seasons, the Lakers’ lack of salary cap flexibility, possibly his own desire to move to a more nurturing environment – it would appear that Gasol’s Laker days are drawing to a close. I find this to be profoundly saddening, for unless the magic beans for whom Pau is traded play the point while rocking a weird, sprayed-on hairdo, the Lakers will replace neither Pau’s skills, nor his (all too rare on this team) selflessness, nor his unwavering professionalism.

3.What was your favorite Kobe Bryant moment of the 2011-12 season and/or thoughts about the season overall?

David Murphy: Kobe. This is the most complex topic, no? For me, it was those moments within games, rather than games in their entirety. The difference in his knee this season was remarkable. I haven’t seen him sky like that in a while. And, the time he stuck up for Pau, when he spoke to the press about the trade rumors, and what Pau meant to the team. It wasn’t in-game but it felt like a breakthrough leadership moment, the place where he filled Derek’s gap. It didn’t last though, because it’s just not in his nature to accept what’s less than what’s needed. By the end of it all, you only had to see the expression on his face, the withering stares. And know that change is going to come.

J.M. Poulard: With five seconds left on the game clock and the Detroit Pistons leading by two at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Kobe took the inbounds pass in the middle of the floor, sized up Tayshaun Prince, got himself to the right elbow and fired a beautiful jumper — this should make every Kobe Bryant highlight reel — over the outstretched arms of Prince that went in and sent the game to overtime as the red lights came on to signal that time had expired. The beauty of this shot was that Kobe not only knew it was good once it left his hands, but he seemed completely unimpressed with his achievement as he walked back to the bench as if he had done this for oh maybe 16 years and counting.

Many will debate in the next few weeks whether Bryant has lost the title of best closer in the league at the expense of Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, considering his age and the erosion of some of skills; but when push comes to shove and he is faced with single-coverage with the game on the line, you would be hard pressed to come up with a player better equipped to handle the moment than Kobe Bean Bryant. The game in Detroit served as a reminder of that.

Emile Avanessian: This year more than ever it became apparent that, while Kobe retains his ability to dial up the dominance, his ability to do so on demand is no longer what it once was. Given this, and taking into account the Lakers’ uncertainly up front, tenuous salary cap situation and limited talent pool, any blockbuster move made this summer, while strengthening one area of the roster or another, will carry a hefty price tag elsewhere. Except for one.

By stealing a page from the book of another Laker legend and taking to the post, Kobe Bryant could breathe new life in the dynasty he’s killing himself to keep alive. We saw it intermittently during the regular season as well as during the playoffs. Kobe Bryant – like Magic two decades ago – has both the intellect, size and skill set to transform a game once predicated on speed on the perimeter into one powered by elite footwork, resourceful shot-making and catching-and-kicking. It’s unlikely that Kobe will ever willingly cede top dog status to an up-and-coming superstar. It’s equally unlikely that we, in our heart of hearts, would ever truly want him to. In one fell swoop, however, Kobe could ensure his ongoing status as the focal point of the Laker offense while reducing the wear on the oldest soon-to-be 34 year-old body in NBA history.

Bonus:  If you could choose one Laker FA to keep next year (Sessions, Hill, Ebanks, Barnes) who would you choose & why?

David Murphy: When it comes to our free agents, the one that jumps out is Jordan Hill. By a mile. I was one of the naysayers when he arrived. It was really more about the way that Derek was traded – I was so disappointed in how that went down that Hill was a convenient target. And then came the OKC game at the tail end of the regular season, the fourth quarter and overtime and it was a revelation – this guy means something to the team in very tangible ways. He’s young, has a great attitude, has natural talents and instincts and I suspect, is very coachable. We have to bring him back. 

J.M. Poulard: Given that it seems all but certain that one of the starting big men will be gone by the time the training camp rolls around, it will be important for the Lakers to have a productive big man they can count on; and that has to be Jordan Hill. Between his rebounding, effort, energy and willingness to play his part, it seems like a no-brainer that the Lakers will do everything possible to retain his services and it’s the right move.

Emile Avanessian: At his best, Ramon Sessions is the point guard the Lakers desperately need. Unfortunately, his best vacated the premises some time ago, replaced by something between “middling” and “subpar.” Were Ramon to have years left on his current contract, the prospect of bringing him back would be welcome, but what he’s delivered at the price he’ll likely command on the open market (I’m guessing $6M per?) do not represent outstanding value.

Jordan Hill, on the other hand, is still growing into NBA adulthood, and he too delivers so much of what this team lacks. Hardworking, unselfish, aware of his limitations. These traits are often in short supply in Lakerland. To secure these – and some much needed depth and, if necessary, roster flexibility – in the form of a young, strong frontcourt banger that’s unlikely to command more than $3-$4M on the open market? From where I sit, that’s too good to pass up.

J.M. Poulard