COMMENTARY | Nearly two weeks have passed since Dwight Howard ungracefully rid the Los Angeles Lakers of his presence. Lakers fans are either happy, or at least secure in the franchise's ability to quickly regain championship form. Either way, his departure is already forgotten because the Lakers focus on the future; this isn't Cleveland.
Looking ahead to the 2013-2014 season, even the most ardent Lakers fan would be hard-pressed to project a deep playoff run next year. Granted, Dwight's departure may prove to be addition by subtraction, and the Lakers have made some interesting one-year deals with Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar and Chris Kaman. Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks should return, and those six players could nicely compliment Kobe, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash after a full off-season in Mike D'Antoni's system.
On paper, I like this roster at least as much as the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns squad that pushed the Lakers to 6 games in the Western Conference Finals. But even with that silver lining, the Lakers' success will heavily depend on players who (i) are returning from a major injury (Kobe), or (ii) have shown a recent propensity for injury (Gasol, Nash, Kaman and Jordan Hill). That doesn't bode well for fielding a consistent rotation of starters and role players, and consistency is vital to long-term success.
Thus, the odds on championship contention in 2013-2014 are slightly longer than the list of Charlotte Bobcats' season-ticket holders. Still, the upcoming season is worth watching for its impact on how the Lakers plan for another title run during Kobe's last stand. Let's review five questions whose answers could shorten or prolong the Lakers' timetable on raising banner #17.What will Kobe's fair market value be for his final contract? The Lakers' ability to attract premium free agents next summer will partially depend on the cost to bring back Kobe for his final run in Tinseltown. Many headlines have highlighted Kobe's recent proclamation that he won't take any discount on his next (likely final) contract. But refusing to take a discount isn't the same as demanding max money. The question is what will other contenders be willing to pay him?
Next summer, Kobe will be an 18 year veteran about to turn 36 years old, and those numbers don't usually entice max money offers. Then again, Kobe has routinely defied all stereotypes about the aging athlete. Most players fall off a cliff after eclipsing 35,000 minutes, but Kobe merely coasts downhill at a 1% grade, despite accumulating 53,000 minutes (regular season and post-season combined). Accordingly, there is no litmus test for predicting his fair market value.
Kobe is playing at a much higher level than the bargain basement production of Reggie Miller, Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen at this stage in their respective careers. Even looking to Tim Duncan for guidance is no help, because Duncan's pay cut in his last deal followed two subpar seasons that questioned whether his days of dominance were over. Conversely, Kobe's motor is high as ever, and his production has tailed off only slightly. The answer to question one goes hand-in-hand with the answer to question two.
Will Kobe return to "Mamba" form in 2013-2014? When will Kobe be back, and when he returns how great will he still be? Though many might predict Kobe's Achilles tear as the beginning of the end, that's just wishful thinking. I won't doubt Kobe until he gives me reason to, and he never has.
When Kobe tore a wrist ligament in his shooting hand prior to the strike-shortened 2011 season, I remember Jalen Rose saying he suffered the same injury and missed 17 games. Kobe missed none. When it comes to battling the adversity of injuries, Kobe has always been prickly as a thorn, not delicate as a Rose (Jalen or Derrick).
Aside from salary repercussions on his next contract, Kobe's performance next season also impacts the Lakers' allure to potential free agents. Three years ago, Chris Bosh and LeBron James flocked to Miami to play with already-NBA-Finals- MVP Dwyane Wade. But would they have been as quick to join Wade in his present condition? In last year's playoffs, it seemed 20 points and 6 assists was a godsend from Wade. Stars combine forces so they can rely on each other without needing to be perfect every night. Any big stars considering a move to L.A. will want the benefit of a comrade who can command double-teams, and one of the most clutch performers in NBA history. Will Kobe still be that guy? I would take the minus-500 odds and bet "yes".
Auditioning to stay, or for other suitors; Mike D'Antoni? With Dwight gone, Pau resumes his role as the dominant post player, and his unselfish nature is perfect for D'Antoni's offense. With a healthy Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks, the additions of Nick Young and Wes Johnson, and the return of Jordan Farmar, the Lakers have enough youth to push the tempo. They also have six shooters (Kobe, Nash, Meeks, Young, Farmar and Steve Blake) whose outside range is at least respectable. Finally, Kobe, Kaman, Gasol, Hill and Wes Johnson should bring enough intensity on defense to present cheesecloth resistance, which is better than a sieve and can suffice if the offense is clicking. In sum, this roster is better suited to D'Antoni's philosophy than last year's disastrous chemistry experiment.
But this roster isn't built to last. If the Lakers are dismal by Christmas, then D'Antoni may not finish the season. The more intriguing question is - what if he's successful? Does success with this roster earn him a chance to chase banner #17 with a better roster? 18 of the last 23 championships have been won by Phil Jackson, Greg Popovich, Pat Riley or his protégé (Erik Spoelstra). Three of those four aren't coming to L.A., and the chances of Phil returning are more dubious the longer he stays retired. Unless Phil returns or the Lakers find the next prodigy of coaching, there may not be significantly better options. But D'Antoni needs to earn it first . . . with a roster built for one year.
Auditioning to stay, or for other suitors; key role players? With regular playing time, Nick Young, Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks can all make significant contributions to their box score stats. Jordan Farmar can resurrect his NBA career, as can Chris Kaman (assuming he stays healthy). But will these players have the contract year mindset of most free agents-to-be, showcasing their talents for others with the hope of cashing in the following summer? Or will they - realizing the Lakers' status as perennial contenders and financial ability to lure more stars - be auditioning for a permanent place with a championship contender? Kobe's not taking a discount, but a couple of these guys might.
Will the next Derek Fisher please stand up? Following Dwight's departure, another popular headline making its rounds is Kobe's selfishness and unwillingness to defer to other players. Never mind that he's a shooting guard who averaged 6 assists per game last year, highlighted by back-to-back triple-doubles in March. These accusations aren't new, and they're no more valid now than in 2002, 2004 or 2007. The truth is Kobe is a fierce and fearless competitor that demands the same effort from his teammates; not the same brilliance or same ability, just the same effort. Many players, some of whom wear number 12, simply crumble under the expectations.
Derek Fisher understood and rose to the challenge, and that's why Kobe respected him, even deferred to him for taking big shots in the final minutes of big games. Kobe respects Pau and Nash, but Nash is nearly 40 and Pau's stay with the Lakers beyond next year is highly suspect (the first two questions on Kobe apply to Pau also). Kobe plans to play at least 3 more years, and he needs someone to stand up and demand his respect with a fearlessness and competitive drive not seen since Derek Fisher. Is he on the current roster? We should know by Christmas.
What is the timetable on raising banner #17 to the rafters in Staples Center? Kobe is confident it runs parallel with the remainder of his career. What transpires next season may determine if he's right.
Lucas Tucker has been a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers since 1983, and has witnessed several transitions in championship rosters during that time.
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