COMMENTARY | Now that the Dwightmare is over, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing reality.
A healthy Kobe Bryant barely got the Lakers into the playoffs last season, so the question remains what should the Lakers do this offseason and during the upcoming season?
Some critics have suggested "tanking" the season in hopes of possibly landing high school phenom Andrew Wiggins and waiting for the summer of 2014 when several big names - LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins - can become free agents. But even if Bryant were to miss the entire season recovering from a torn Achilles, the Lakers will still have a better regular season record than at least a handful of NBA teams.
Based on NBA Lottery percentages, if the Lakers finished with the sixth-worst record, they would have no better than a 6.3 percent chance of snagging the first pick of the 2014 NBA draft.
They could get lucky.
Since 1985, there have been 10 teams that had less than an 11 percent chance of snagging the first overall pick and managed to walk away with the top pick. (See attached graph.)
The Lakers still have a relevant roster, however, especially after the Lakers reported agreed to a one-year deal with center Chris Kaman for the mini mid-level exception of just under $3.2 million. The 31-year-old center, who averaged 10.5 points per game on 50.7 percent shooting and 5.6 rebounds in an injury-plagued season with the Dallas Mavericks last year, automatically gives the Lakers a scoring threat in the post. This season also isn't a wash because given Bryant's competitive nature - and possibly wanting to prove the naysayers wrong who say he won't bounce back - he will come back with a vengeance.
Best case scenario, Bryant, 34, comes back 100 percent opening day and everyone else remains healthy, especially Steve Nash, 39, Pau Gasol and Kaman. Even then, the Lakers may finish at best fourth in the Western Conference regular season standings.
Likely scenario, Bryant comes back in December and misses about a quarter of the season. With a seemingly deeper Western Conference next season, the Lakers could find themselves in a similar position to last season, jockeying between the sixth to eighth playoff seed.
With NBA teams now plugging holes in their rosters - though free agents Monta Ellis and a healthy Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden could make a huge impact on whichever team signs them - the Western Conference pecking order is becoming clearer.
Here is a snapshot of the Western Conference bucketed in five tiers thus far:
Tier A (Playoff Homecourt Advantage):
Los Angeles Clippers: A busy offseason bringing in Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison and re-signing Chris Paul and Matt Barnes may make the Clippers a better team. Sure they traded Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler, but the team is gaining consistency with these new additions. Last season, they finished with the fourth best record in the West (featuring a 17-win streak and two inconsistent stretches where they went 3-8 and 6-7).
San Antonio Spurs: The ageless ones continue to be drinking from the fountain of youth. Manu Ginobili tweeted that he will return to San Antonio for two more years is a huge. Kawhi Leonard, 22, Danny Green, 26, and Tiago Splitter, 28, will only get better.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Depending on Russell Westbrook (torn meniscus in right knee) coming back healthy, the Thunder should finish in the top four. Question is will Serge Ibaka become a solid third-scoring punch?
Memphis Grizzlies: Remains to be seen how coach David Joerger will do in his first season at the helm. All core Grizzlies players are back and likely hungrier after their franchise's first appearance in the Western Conference Finals last season.
Tier B (Middle of the Pack):
Golden State Warriors: Addition of veteran Andre Iguodala is huge to go along with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes. If they can get any production out of Andrew Bogut, the Warriors will give opposing teams matchup nightmares. Notable Losses: Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.
Houston Rockets: For a team that just eked into the playoffs last season, the Rockets should jumpy into the middle of the pack with the addition of Dwight Howard. Center Omer Asik asked to be traded, but Rockets want to hold onto him.
Tier C (Fighting for the final 2 playoff spots):
Minnesota Timberwolves: A healthy Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio with newly-acquired shooter Kevin Martin will be tough covers for any team. If free agent center Nikola Pekovic re-signs, the Timberwolves will be in great shape to snap a league-leading, nine-year postseason drought.
Denver Nuggets: Lost Iguodala, hired a new coach in Brian Shaw and will sign J.J. Hickson. The health of Danilo Gallinari (torn ACL out/meniscus damage until December) will be vital to the Nuggets making the playoffs. Not being able to re-sign Corey Brewer will hurt too.
Dallas Mavericks: No splashy moves this offseason, yet. Reports state the Mavericks are interested in Bynum. Mavericks did reach a verbal agreement with point guards Jose Calderon and Devin Harris, but they lost a key player, O.J. Mayo, who was Dallas' second-leading scorer, to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Tier D (on the fringe):
New Orleans Pelicans: A potential starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis has huge potential for not only the present, but the future. Lots of firepower. Teams facing the Pelicans won't be facing last season's 27-55 team.
Sacramento Kings: A level-headed DeMarcus Cousins, with the additions of Carl Landry and Greivis Vasquez, and Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton will be a fun up-and-down team to watch. Cousins' maturity will be the key to whether they are a 0.500 team and have a shot at sneaking into the postseason.
Portland Trail Blazers: No splashy offseason trade or FA agent signing yet for a team that finished 11th in the standings last season. Last season's Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, are solid players, but can they defend (fifth worst defensive rating last season)?
Tier E (bottom feeders):
Phoenix Suns: Finished last in the West and had the fourth worst regular season record at 25-57. Big man Marcin Gortat disappeared last season. Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Caron Butler will be going through some growing pains.
If Bryant makes a full recovery, which is expected, the Lakers are still a dangerous team. Some Vegas bookies still have the Lakers as 15-to-1 shot at winning the NBA title even with Dwight Howard going to the Rockets. To help bolster their chance of even being relevant in the postseason, the Lakers need to get more athletic and younger.
With only seven players with guaranteed contracts (Robert Sacre and rookie Ryan Kelly could bring the Lakers total to nine) after reportedly using their one-time amnesty clause on Metta World Peace, the Lakers need to reach the league minimum of 13 players per team. Los Angeles is in dire need of athletic wings who can shoot, especially at the small forward position, and another big man to go along with Gasol, Kaman, Sacre and Jordan Hill. They will be looking to sign someone at no more than the veteran's minimum of $1.4 million.
Here is a list of players who the Lakers might be able to sign under market value.
Free Agent Big Men:
Lamar Odom, 33: Reports are that the Lakers have reached out to Odom, who has played 14 years in the league. If he returns to the Lakers, the team hopes it gets the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year who averaged 13.8 and 9.5 in seven seasons with the Lakers and not the post-Lakers Odom (Mavericks 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds and Clippers 4.0 points, 5.9 rebounds). Odom works if three things happen. One, he is mentally willing to come back to the team that traded him first to the New Orleans Hornets and then to the Dallas Mavericks. You could tell how emotional and hurt he was after being traded. Two, he is physically in shape; he can't be the candyman who showed up nearly 30 pounds overweight for Clippers training camp last year. Three, he is willing to take the veteran's minimum.
Andrei Kirilenko, 32: Stat stuffer with range. He opted out of the final year of his two-year, $20 million contract with the Timberwolves to become a free agent. It's been reported, he may be seeking a longer-term deal. He will be a highly sought after veteran.
Elton Brand, 34: The 14-year veteran averaged 7.2 points per game and six rebounds in 21.1 minutes. Clearly on the tail end of his career, but could be a solid reserve. Lakers would like to pay him the veteran's minimum, but Brand may draw suitors who will be willing to pay him in the $5-million range.
DeJuan Blair, 24: Was on his rookie contract that paid him a little more than $1 million last season. The undersized forward has developed a nice 10-foot floater and is willing to sacrifice his body and hit the glass hard. In four seasons with the Spurs, he averaged 7.8 points per game on 52.8 percent shooting and 5.6 rebounds.
Kenyon Martin, 35: A late last season signing by the New York Knicks, Martin averaged 7.2 points on 60.2 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds a game. Martin provides toughness inside. A few teams might offer Martin more than just the veteran's minimum.
Jason Maxiell, 30: Has yet to break into the double-digit scoring and rebounding averages. Undersized forward who has career averages of 6.1 points per game and 4.4 rebounds in 19 minutes. Last season's salary: $5 million with the Detroit Pistons. He would be a bruiser that the Lakers need.
Byron Mullens, 24: He is a poor-man's Ryan Anderson. He averaged a career-high 15.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and one steal in 31.4 minutes per game, but those numbers are inflated since he had the green light in Charlotte, which did not extend Mullens a $3.2 million qualifying offer. Lakers drafted Duke's Ryan Kelly, whose game is similar to Mullens'.
Free Agent Wingmen:
Corey Brewer, 27: Versatile scorer who was a huge spark off the bench for the Nuggets last season. Brewer averaged 12.1 points in 24 minutes per contest and scored 17 or more points 26 times last year. Has the potential to have a breakout season if given a larger role. Last season's salary: $3.2 million.
Nick Young, 28: Athletic guard who shoots 37.4% from 3-point range. In his final two seasons with Washington (2010-12), he averaged 17.1 points per game in 31.2 minutes. Against the Lakers, Young has scored 27 points, 30 and 30. Went to USC. Last season's salary: $5.6 million.
Anthony Morrow, 27: If given consistent minutes, Morrow has proven he can get buckets. He is an expert marksmen, draining threes at 42.4 percent clip. Problem is he provides little elsewhere. Last season's salary: $4.0 million.
Reggie Williams, 26: Led the nation in scoring his junior (28.1 points per game) and senior year (27.6) of college at VMI. In 24 games his rookie season at Golden State, Williams averaged 15.2 point per game. He hasn't done much the past three seasons, but that's mainly due to inconsistent playing time. Last season's salary: $2.5 million.
Alan Anderson, 30: Late-bloomer in the league. Played four seasons and had his most productive season last year, averaging 10.7 points per game with the Toronto Raptors. Not as athletic as Brewer or Young, but will likely come at an inexpensive price. Last season's salary: $885,120.
Leandro Barbosa, 30: The Lakers could go small and have the 6-foot-3 Barbosa play the two-guard spot for spurts at a time. Provides a scoring punch and can be snagged at the veteran's minimum. Last season's salary: $1.3 million.
Corey Maggette, 33: Unlikely that the 14-year small forward will garner anywhere near last season's salary of $10.9 million. He is an athletic wing with a muscular frame who seemingly gets to the free-throw line at will. Maggette has been injury plagued the past two seasons, playing only 50 games. No leaked reports of teams being interested in Maggette, who did contemplate retirement after last season with the Detroit Pistons, so he could be a steal if the Lakers can lure Maggette back to Los Angeles at the veteran's minimum.
Bryan Chu is a multi-award winning journalist who has covered the Los Angeles Lakers for NBA.com and worked as a sports and criminal justice reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News and the Albany Times Union. During his career, the Los Angeles native has covered everything from Jeremy Lin (pre and post Linsanity) to Lance Armstrong. You can follow him on Twitter: BryanChuNBA.
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