The aftermath of a disappointing season is always difficult. And, for the third straight season, the Lakers’ season ended in a manner that not only qualifies as disappointing but also leaves everyone grasping for answers as to what went wrong and what the future holds in terms of fixes to try and ensure these results don’t repeat themselves next season.
In the exit interviews the Lakers players, head coach, and general manager had earlier this week, there were many different topics discussed. Everyone reflected on the season that was and touched on various topics of import related to next season. In watching all those interviews with the media, there were several questions raised that linger without answer at this time. Here are a few that I think are most pertinent in terms of preparing for next season…
1. When will Dwight Howard make a decision? The Lakers’ stance on Dwight was reiterated several times by all the key people. Mitch Kupchak, Mike D’Antoni, and Kobe all issued the same talking points in reference to Dwight: they all want him back, the all think Los Angeles is the place for him to be, and they all respect his space in making this decision.
However, it was that last part where Mitch Kupchak also gave a bit of a nudge in stating that the sooner Dwight does decide the better it is for everyone. Mitch specifically referenced how a quick decision would allow the organization to plan better for next season while also stating it would allow Dwight to establish roots in the community and make the contacts outside of basketball that could benefit him in a market like L.A.’s.
Dwight, however, doesn’t seem in that big a hurry. He said he wanted to get away from the game for a while and tune out everyone around him when trying to make this decision. In the past he’s also hinted at wanting to get a sense for the market for him and to hear the pitches of the various teams that would court him.
This creates a bit of a dilemma for the Lakers in that there are ways to make over a team that come well before when free agency begins on July 1st. Draft day, for example, is in June and is a time where trades can be made to change the landscape of a roster. If the Lakers had a commitment from Dwight before the draft, that could change how they approach that day and could lead to a reworking of their personnel. Conversely, not knowing could leave them without the solid footing they’d need to makeover their roster on a day when a lot of teams are willing to deal.
This is just one example, but it’s true no matter what the date is. The Lakers want to know what Dwight’s going to do because it’s difficult to build a roster when you don’t know if one of your foundational building blocks will be playing for the team in the coming season or not. It’s Dwight’s right to make the choice in whatever manner he sees fit, but delays may end up being problematic.
2. What will happen with Pau? The Spaniard’s exit interview offered good insight into the organization’s thinking about his future. In short, Pau is the Lakers’ best trade asset and will be treated as such. If a team wants him, he’s available and if the right offer is made he could easily be on another team next season. I for one, wouldn’t be happy about this, but it’s the reality of the situation. I see Pau as a fantastic teammate and a championship level player. That said, I also see him as a player with positional overlap with Howard and someone who needs to be a focal point of the team’s offense to be at his absolute best.
If that can’t happen with the Lakers — be it due to coaching, the other players on the team, or any other factor — it may be best that he’s moved.
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see which direction the organization goes in when it comes to Pau. He’s an expiring contract and the fact that his deal expires the same year as Kobe’s offers an opportunity for what would be a $50 million commitment to two players turn into a lot of financial flexibility in the summer of 2014. That said, cap space is just that: cap space. It’s not a contributing player and isn’t a key part of the future. The Lakers will need to figure out what matters more to them between Pau the player with the expiring contract and the financial flexibility they’ll achieve a year from now when his contract comes off the books and Pau the asset who could net a player via trade who could potentially be a nice fitting part for the future success of the franchise.
There’s no perfect answer here, only a preference. Which way the Lakers’ lean isn’t yet known and it will all be complicated by what other teams try to offer for Gasol, but it is clear the Lakers will listen.
3. When will Kobe be back and how well will he play when he does get on the floor? This is probably the greatest unknown and any answer at this point is speculation. History tells us that few players come back as good or better than they did before this type of injury. History also tells us there are few players as dedicated to training and who have had the type of success working back from injury as Kobe Bryant. These truths will collide at some point and the outcome will shape next year’s roster and, potentially, ones for the next few years.
If I were to guess, I’d say Kobe comes back as less the athlete but the same level a competitor with the same refinement and craft in his game. When it’s all combined, I see a very effective player who can still be a cornerstone piece to a contender. Of course, that may just be wishful thinking. But I’d add that no one has, historically, come out looking smarter for doubting what Kobe can accomplish.
4. Will someone get amnestied? The Lakers only have 4 candidates for the amnesty provision: Kobe, Pau, Ron, and Steve Blake. Kobe isn’t getting amnestied. Pau is the team’s best trade asset and can be of value as a contributor while Kobe heals. He’s not getting amnestied either. That leaves Ron and Blake. Dealing with the latter first, Blake is coming off his best season as a Laker. He shot over 40% from behind the arc and really took well to Mike D’Antoni’s system. He also showed solid defense in the playoffs and down the stretch of the season. For $4 million next season, I could see the Lakers hoping he duplicates that effort and holding onto him.
Ron is a trickier player to evaluate. If you look at some of the more advanced metrics that measure team performance and lineup construction, Ron was one of the more important players on the team last year. Numbers that measure on/off court team production show Ron having nearly as much a positive impact on defense as Dwight Howard. And when you look at lineup data, Ron is part of nearly every single one of the team’s best performing lineups. That said, Ron is aging and his individual production is slipping. His defense isn’t at the elite level it was in 2010 and he doesn’t have the same ability to lock up wing scorers. His versatility on that end is still impressive, but that doesn’t completely override the fact that he gets beat more now than he did in the past.
If the Lakers do amnesty anyone, Ron is the likely target. His salary is nearly double what Blake makes and when you add in the luxury tax payment, a lot of money could be saved from making that move. However, the Lakers are in a position where they have major holes on the wing already. To willingly give up a wing player for nothing weakens the roster with no ability to bring in a replacement besides using one of their free agency exceptions (which, theoretically, would already be used to try and sure up the roster they have, not to replace a player they pay to go away).
I can see both sides of this argument, but if the team is really looking to save the money, I’d imagine they make the move to cut him loose. We shall see.