Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Shape of Things to Come

Another NBA season, another first round matchup vs. Phoenix, and another early exit for the Lakers. Not that it's all that surprising though, considering they were playing a Suns team that has had their number all season long (not counting the fluke opening night win without Kobe).

Even though this series with the Suns ended earlier than last year's series which stretched to 7 games and was ultimately the Lakers' series to lose (which is exactly what ended up happening), and the Lakers' regular-season record of 42-40 was 3 wins less than their record in '06-'07, I have to say that I'm more optimistic about the Lakers team that will head into the '07-'08 season than I was about this past season's team approximately one year ago, when I put this together in a drunken stupor following the Lakers' embarrassing Game 7 loss. [Well, technically I thought it up in drunken stupor, then sobered up and typed it out the next day. My record is clean, no BUI's (blogging under the influence).]

While the '05-'06 Lakers played to their best abilities and still came up short, this past season's Lakers had a lot of promise that, though it stuck around until about the All-Star break, ultimately went unfulfilled. Though optimism doesn't win championships, there were a lot of "what if" questions that we'll never know the answers to -- questions that didn't apply to the '05-'06 Lakers the way that they did to this recently-eliminated Lakers team. What if Kwame Brown didn't miss 41 games? Perhaps a full season's worth of playing time would've kept him motivated and allowed him to develop some sort of consistent offensive game, not to mention taken some pressure off of Andrew Bynum, who clearly wasn't ready for so much responsibility just yet. What if Vladimir Radmanovic weren't an idiot? Perhaps he'd be providing something more than just his dashing Euro flair, like some much-needed outside shooting to take some of the double-team pressure off of Kobe. What if the team wasn't without Lamar Odom and Luke Walton -- easily their 2nd and 3rd best players -- for long, and at times overlapping, stretches of the regular season?

Perhaps they wouldn't have dropped from fighting for 1st-round home-court advantage early in the season to nail-biting their way to the #7 seed at the end of the season. I think it's fair to say that Dallas wouldn't have topped 60 wins without Jason Terry and Josh Howard each missing 20+ games, nor would Phoenix have done the same without Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion each missing significant time.

But, once again, these are all "what if's", and relying on all key players being 100% healthy for an entire 82-game NBA season is not realistic. As part of the aforementioned drunken stupor I was in following last year's Game 7 loss, I thought that it would be best for the Lakers to just overhaul the whole roster, and build something new around Kobe. I admit that such a view was short-sighted, but not entirely off -- the Lakers made very few changes to their roster during the last off-season and their lack of progress has shown as a result. I think it is clear that there needs to be some new players wearing purple and gold next year, and that Laker mainstays like Brian Cook and Sasha Vujacic have done all that they can. I'm not saying that those 2 in particular need to be gone, but more so that they just can't be depended on to play sizeable roles on a playoff team.

First off, Luke Walton is a free agent, and he needs to be kept. His play was huge early in the season when Odom got injured. Luke has shown a vastly-improved offensive game, and though his once-reliable 3-point shot wasn't the same after his injuries, his mid-range game was still fairly in tact, and he has a good eye for taking advantage of mismatches. Overall, he has improved in every area, and has proved to be key in the effectiveness of the Triangle offense.

Smush Parker is a free agent, and he needs to go. Somewhere far away. Put some miles on that Smushcalade. His "humble beginnings" background story and the fact that he's been a starting point guard while playing for minimal NBA money for these past 2 seasons might keep him well-liked amongst die-hard Laker fans, much in the same way we tipped a 40 for the departures of players like Slava Medvedenko and Devean George, but it's time to say goodbye to Smush -- the longer he stays, the more defensive assignments he misses, the more open shots he passes up with the shot-clock winding down, the more headbands he throws, the more he's going to be disliked by much of the greater-LA area.

There aren't too many options available on the market for the Lakers to improve their roster too dramatically, but there are a couple that stand out as being hopeful. Bonzi Wells could be had for cheap considering how he ran himself out of Houston this season. As has been pointed out several times by sportswriter Roland Lazenby in his fabulous blog Lakernoise, it is the feeling of Laker assistant, and Phil Jackson's mentor, Tex Winter that the Triangle offense would be most effective with Kobe at small forward (as noted here). While this move may cut into Luke Walton's minutes, it is worth noting that when Maurice Evans (at shooting guard) was on his game and playing alongside Kobe (at small forward), the Lakers were very dangerous. I don't think too many would disagree that Bonzi is an improvement over Evans. A big question mark to all of this, though, is Bonzi's checkered past as a bit of a "problem child" amongst the teams he's played on, with this recent episode in Houston being the latest episode.

There's also some potential to take advantage of the sorry situation that the Seattle Sonics are in, what with their 2 potentially-starting point guards who hate each other, and their future in Seattle dependent on a "miracle". If the Sonics are ready to implode, the Lakers should definitely be first in line to pick up the scraps. Earl Watson (a UCLA grad) and Luke Ridnour are both upgrades over what the Lakers currently have at point guard, as Jordan Farmar, much like Bynum, is looking promising but isn't ready for starter minutes just yet.

And of course, trade rumors surrounding names like Jason Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal, and Kevin Garnett likely won't die out anytime soon -- that seems to be Kobe's preferred path to improvement. Who knows, maybe something will actually come to fruition this off-season.

You've got to crawl before you ball, and, optimistically speaking, the Lakers are in the process of getting both feet firmly planted on the ground -- I see them as being a couple of key role players (whether or not those players come from this current roster or from elsewhere reamins to be seen) or just one other superstar (see above picture) away from reaching the 2nd round, and if growth continues, maybe a couple seasons away from title contention. Whether or not Phil Jackson will be there when that time comes is anybody's guess, but honestly, and I may be in the minority here, I don't think that will make as much of a difference to the Lakers' long-term success as getting the right players will make. Phil just doesn't seem healthy enough to be an effective coach, nor does it look like his heart is in it anymore. The whole hands-off, "sit back and watch the Triangle work its magic"-approach may have worked wonders with MJ and Scottie, as well as with Kobe and Shaq, but with this current Lakers team, I think it's taken them as far as it can.