Thursday, September 29, 2011

What Lockout? Previewing The 2011-12 Los Angeles Lakers

Team Name: Los Angeles Lakers

Last Year’s Record: 57-25

Key Free Agents: Shannon Brown, Joe Smith, Theo Ratliff

Team Needs: Starting point guard; Frontcourt depth; Young, NBA-caliber talent

1. What are your team's biggest needs this offseason? What a difference a year makes.

A Lakers roster that a year ago seemed unfair in its depth and versatility is now woefully thin in some key areas and aging rather quickly (Andrew Bynum is the only guy with a guaranteed spot in the rotation that will be under 31 by mid-November) from top to bottom. In addition to some well-chronicled point guard issues (more on this momentarily), the Lakers are severely undermanned in the paint- I mean, just look at “key” free agents #2 and 3.

Given the team’s precarious financial situation (in 2010-11 they were $30+ million over a salary cap that’s far more likely to fall than rise, and are committed for another $91.3 million in 2011-12) and the paucity of desirable trade chips (~$75 million of the aforementioned $91 million is tied up in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Bynum, Lamar Odom and My Man Metta), the Lakers are unlikely to find significant help from anyone not already on the roster.

This leaves Derrick Caracter as the lone candidate to bolster the depth chart inside. The 58th pick in the 2010 draft, Caracter is “upside” personified, though he’s had issues in the past with motivation, as well as his weight. He’d trimmed down to 265 lbs (from 300+) last summer, with a goal of playing himself down to 250-255. Unfortunately, those issues do not appear to be behind him, as he’ll enter this season around 275, on the heels of a rookie campaign in which he appeared in just 41 games (5.2 minutes per), averaging two points and one rebound. However, if the 6’9” Caracter gets it together and plays to his 36-minutes rookie averages (13.6- 7.2) in about 20 minutes a night, he could be a nice complement to Gasol and Bynum.

What are the team’s biggest strengths & weaknesses? This one is pretty straightforward. What the Lakers lack in youth, they make up for in talent- at least at the top of the roster. Barring an unforeseen series of events, the 2011-12 Lakers top four will once again rank among the league’s very best. Say what you will about the effects of advancing age and last spring’s embarrassing playoff exit, the Lakers still boast a top-two shooting guard, center and sixth man, as well a top-five power forward that is one of the most versatile at his position. That’s pretty good.

Meanwhile, at the risk of pureeing an already whipped equine carcass, the Lakers are sorely lacking at point guard. Derek Fisher is the Lakers' rock, a catalyst for five titles and the only player with both the will and the permission to tell Kobe what’s up. He has secured some prime real estate in Laker lore and, as far as I’m concerned, a roster spot for as long as he wants one. With that said, however, after 15 NBA seasons, a dozen of them in purple and gold- and it sincerely pains me is to type this- D-Fish is no longer worthy of a starting spot in the NBA.

I am the rare Laker whose faith in Steve Blake remains intact, though even I'll admit that at his best, Blake is no better than a backup. Sadly, this, combined with the departures of Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown (presumed; opted out of his contract), the sorry state of 2011’s free agent point guard crop and the team’s lack of trade chips, barring a trade of Andrew Bynum (and his $16.4 million team option for 2012-13), don’t expect this issue to be resolved via acquisition before the summer of 2012.

That said, all hope is not lost. With the 41st pick in June’s draft, the Lakers grabbed a first-round talent and a potential long-term solution at the point, Los Angeles’ own Darius Morris. At 6’5”-190, Morris, a true point guard, is without a doubt physically prepared for the NBA game. He exhibited excellent court vision at Michigan, where he set the single-season assists record (235 in 35 games), and led the Big Ten with 6.71 dimes per game. He’ll need to develop an outside shot (just 25% on 3-pointers last season) to keep defenders honest, but Morris, who is just 20 years of age and plays a mature “floor leader” game, should develop into a solid NBA point guard.

If there is no season in 2011-12, how is your team set up for 2012? Not well. Of their top eight guys, Andrew Bynum is the only player under contract through 2012-13 (assuming the team picks up his $16.6 million option) that will be under the age of 33 in November. What’s more, the Lakers have $67.6 million committed to Kobe, Gasol, World Peace (this is not gonna get old), Luke Walton, Steve Blake and Derek Fisher, with ~$25 million in team options on Bynum and Lamar Odom. Not a lot of youth. Not a lot of financial flexibility. Not a lot of trade chips.

The Lakers are a collection of aging, high-priced talent that is designed to win now. Anything that stands in the way of that is potentially devastating.

If you could make one change the NBA's new CBA, what would it be? The unabashed Laker fan in me says “dump the cap and all restrictions, adopt the MLB system and let’s Yankee up!” Alas, in doing so, I don’t think I’d be answering the question in the spirit in which it was asked.

While the current CBA admittedly leaves little room for complaint from Laker fans, the impact of an ill-conceived long-term contract, like the one ensuring Luke Walton a $6 million salary through the summer of 2013, is more damaging to the health of a franchise in the long run than the actual dollars paid out over its duration. For the Lakers, the most brutal thing about Walton’s contract, and there are dozens more like it leaguewide, is not the almost $12 million that he’s owed, but the fact that he’ll be an untradeable anchor on the payroll until age 33, despite scoring just 486 points over the past three seasons.

(For an excellent take on the subject, check out this post from Inside-Out Game’s Greg Wissinger)

Is Andrew Bynum the cornerstone of the post-Kobe era? Jimmy Buss thinks so, and in the end that’s all that’s going to matter. While on paper it’s tough to dispute, it would be nice to have seen him carry a team for any meaningful period of time before handing over the reigns. But Bynum is “Buss’ guy,” the only member of the squad’s top seven under the age of 30 (he’ll be 24 on October 27) and the recipient of more than $26 million in salary the past two years, and up to another ~$31.6 million ($15.1 million in 2011-12, with a $16.5 million team option for 2012-13) in the two to come.

Bynum is arguably the NBA’s most skilled pure center and when healthy (etch these words into your brain) is a major factor in the paint and on the glass (he’s averaged at least 9.7 rebounds/36 minutes each of the last five seasons, topping 12+ twice) at both ends of the floor. He’s incredibly gifted physically (7’, 285 lbs), highly skilled and has exhibited an ability to dominate in short bursts. When healthy, Bynum’s a double-double machine and a constant threat to throw up a 25-15 with a handful of blocks.


That whole “staying on the floor” thing? To say that it’s been challenge for young Mr. Bynum is to describe Jimmy Buss (Dolan West) as “kinda creepy.” Over the past four years, injuries have sidelined him for 37.8% (124 of 328) of the Lakers’ regular season games, cost him the entire 2008 postseason, and limited him to less than 18 minutes per game in the Lakers’ 2009 title run. If Bynum could be counted on to suit up in 75+ games, there’s little doubt he’d be a perennial All-Star and a true franchise player.

When healthy.

As enticing as it is to try and build around one of the NBA’s last true centers, with the likes of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and maybe Deron Williams in play in the trade market, it might not kill the Lakers to try and swap their eight-figure lottery ticket for a bona fide superstar.

If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out...

Southwest Division Previews

Mavericks- MavsMoneyball
Hornets- At The Hive

1 comment:

Emin Tanahan said...

The Lakers do lack youth, but could have been made up by Pau Gasol's play, Steve Blake's play, and just some time off for rejuvenation last year. Unfortunately none of these came through and can be fixed in this up coming season, if there is a season. Wtih a full team playing to it's capabilities, Kobe get's to be Kobe and be much more efficient and deadly, especially in the 4th quarter.