COMMENTARY | I really thought the party would go on. I thought the Los Angeles Lakers would always win. The weather was just too nice for it to all come crashing down like this.
Whether it was Magic's "Showtime" Lakers, the quick rebuild into the Nick Van Exel-Eddie Jones-Cedric Ceballos trio that spawned "The Lake Show," or the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, I ate up the winning like a high school kid at In-N-Out.
But everything changed this Summer. It was really the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement about 20 months ago that set the stage. With any amount over a $71.748 million roster salary now being charged a higher tax penalty than ever (up to a $3.25 to $1 tax rate and progressively higher past $20 million), large-market teams like the Lakers lost the advantage of overspending on star-studded rosters.
Then David Stern vetoed a trade to bring Chris Paul to the Lakers -- his lowest moment in the eyes of many basketball fans (even non-Lakers fans) this side of Tim Donaghy.
With the supporting cast aging around Kobe and Pau Gasol, the Lakers brought in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. I love Steve Nash as a human being, and in his prime he was indeed a two-time MVP of this league, but a 3-year, $27 million contract for a 38-year-old point guard that's a defensive liability was a grave mistake in cap management.
And Dwight Howard has always been a sensitive manchild whose bolt to Houston should not have come as a shock -- he was a calculated risk that, unfortunately, did not pay off. Playing under Kobe is too stressful for fun-loving smiley people like Howard. It's tolerable if you're winning championships. When you're struggling to make the playoffs? Time to join James Harden and the no-pressure Houston Rockets.
So here stand the Lakers, all of their advantages stripped. In the past, they'd lean on the genius of Jerry West to get them out of this. Jim Buss now calls the shots -- with Mitch Kupchak helping at his side, in case Buss needs someone to let the greatest coach of all time know that they are going to make Dwight Howard stay by hiring a perimeter-oriented coach over the Zen Master. If the Lakers' management couldn't get that decision right, are they really going to find draft-pick steals like San Antonio does or methodically build a team like the Houston Rockets?
The Lakers are in danger of turning into the New York Knicks. An attractive location for star players, but just not the game-changing superstar players. Maxing out a then 36-year-old Kobe Bryant, but not LeBron James. Getting Danny Granger, but not Paul George. Paying more attention to the antics of Jack Nicholson in the second round of yet another playoff exit than realistically eying the NBA Finals.
Fear not, Lakers fans, as there is a solution to all of this.
Here is what the Lakers can do to get back to contention:
Drive a Hard Bargain with Kobe
"The Black Mamba" will be 36 years old next year. Here's a fact: As great as he is, he can't be one of your two best players on your team at that age if you realistically want to win a championship. So handing him a $15-$20 million a year contract is a death sentence for the Lakers' championship aspirations. The Lakers must offer Kobe an $8-$10 million a year two-year extension before the summer of 2014 rolls around.
Drive a Harder Bargain with Gasol
Pau is an effective, creative power-forward. But he'll be 34, and his already-suspect defense has been a half-step lower these previous two seasons. Defense should be a priority if the Lakers want to seriously contend. Also, Gasol is not Kobe Bryant. So if Kobe can be locked down for around $9 million a year, it's realistic to sell Pau on the super-team and convince him to sign for $7 million a year for two years.
Max Out Only Tier 1 Superstars
That would be LeBron James. Included are Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, if you have to. Every other All-Star, the story for Lakers' management should be that they need everyone to take a little cut to fill out the rest of the roster with stars. As the game has changed, the plan could be for Anthony to see some duty at power forward, with a player like Paul George (or Luol Deng or Danny Granger) playing small forward.
Realize It's Not About 1 Year -- It's About Building Blocks
Guess which team was less than a minute away from the NBA title up by 5 points? The San Antonio Spurs, who probably only have one player presently in the league's top 10 best players -- Tony Parker. Duncan turned back the clock for a series, which Kobe and Gasol could arguably do. But why did the Spurs reach the Finals? It's because they've built a team based on today's NBA.
A) Great individuals and even better team-defense players.
B) At least one player that can consistently create a high-quality, efficient shot (Tony Parker shot 52% from the field, compared to Kobe's 46%).
C) Good shooters (Spurs were fourth in the league with 37% 3-point FGs made).
Sure, great defenders that could shoot the ball well are not easy to find. But it's time to eye draft prospects that can turn into Kawhi Leonard over fitting D'Antoni's offense.
It won't be easy, but with a few smart pickups and a splashy free-agency signing (Carmelo Anthony seems more realistic than James at this point), the Lakers could very well be back in title contention. But, for now, here's to a year of watching my Lakers fight for that eighth seed.
Narbeh Avanessian lives in Los Angeles and covers the Los Angeles Lakers. You can find his Lakers obsessed pop-culture time travel blog at www.mylakeshow.com.
- Sports & Recreation
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Kobe Bryant
- Dwight Howard
- Paul George
- Pau Gasol