Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for 2013-14 Lakers If Disaster Season Continues
A 15-20 record and a spot behind 10 other teams in the Western Conference will do that to a squad that came into the campaign with championship expectations.
As if that weren't bad enough for Kobe Bryant and company, they'll likely be without the frontcourt trio of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill until they return home from a midweek Texas two-step. Howard has a separated labrum that will be re-evaluated next week, Gasol is recovering from a concussion, and Hill's hip is giving him fits.
All of which leaves the Lakers seemingly on the brink of collapse...again.
They'll have little choice but to lean on the likes of Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison, Robert Sacre and Earl Clark to hold the fort upfront amidst dates with an intimidating slate of playoff contenders and talented spoilers.
Should the upcoming slate treat L.A. poorly—as it did during a 125-112 loss to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday and a 108-105 loss to the Spurs the next night—and the team as a whole take a turn for the worse, the Lakers may have to reconsider their once-brilliant plan to push for a title prior to the expiration of Kobe's current contract.
That was the whole idea behind bringing in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash over the summer. The Lakers had hoped to maximize their assets this season and next, when Bryant is scheduled to earn nearly $28 million and upwards of $30 million, respectively, and Gasol will pull in a combined $38.286 million.
Doing so will be difficult if Gasol can't reclaim some semblance of his former self. How much of his career-worst struggles this season are due to misuse and how much to age-related regression is difficult to ascertain.
Nonetheless, it wouldn't exactly be a shock if the front office pushed the panic button and moved Pau elsewhere prior to the February trade deadline. Because, frankly, that's what such a move will probably require.
The Lakers need young(er) shooters and perimeter defenders in a bad way right now, but they're unlikely to find such a suitable package for Gasol. His poor play and exorbitant salary, combined with L.A.'s own lack of draft picks to sweeten the pot, practically guarantee that no general manager in his right mind will make a deal with Mitch Kupchak unless it involves a bad contract coming back.
Which doesn't seem like much of a "Mitch Move" at this point. The Lakers are set to be flush with cap room after the 2013-14 season, and any trade that brings back big money would jeopardize L.A.'s pursuit of a marquee free agent at that time.
Then again, you never know what might happen with Jim Buss at the controls. Maybe he and Dr. Jerry Buss—two-thirds of the Lakers' basketball "brain trust"—will see a player like, say, Amar'e Stoudemire and think that the former Mike D'Antoni protege will confirm the quality of their coaching hire if they swap him for Gasol.
One can only hope the Busses wouldn't be so foolish as to pull the trigger on such a deal. But then again, they hired Mike Brown to succeed Phil Jackson, fired Brown five games into the season and subsequently passed over the Zen Master for D'Antoni...so, there's that.
Speaking of panic moves, there remains the possibility that the higher-ups will get nervous about Dwight Howard's exit. The big fella's public gripes and not-so-private struggles might just spoil his image of playing in L.A., much as Roger Sterling ruined his estranged wife Jane's new apartment during the fifth season of Mad Men.
Will Howard be so keen to wear purple and gold for the foreseeable future if doing so means enduring Kobe's putdowns without the carrot of championship contention? Is there greener grass elsewhere?
Certainly not, at least as far as money is concerned. The Lakers can offer him more money than anyone else can, and they still boast the sun, fun and pop-culture cachet that led Howard to make his offseason home in L.A. to begin with.
But, hey, the guy has fickle tastes. That much was made perfectly clear last season, when he put the Orlando Magic through the ringer while hemming and hawing over his future in the NBA.
Maybe he'd prefer to play for the soon-to-be-cap-flush Dallas Mavericks, even though they're on pace to miss the postseason for the first time in the Mark Cuban era. Maybe he's keen on a contract with his hometown Atlanta Hawks, who currently employ two of his closest friends, Josh Smith and Anthony Morrow.
Maybe those possibilities (and others) will be enough to pull Dwight away from L.A. come July or for the Lakers brass to preempt such a departure by trading Howard beforehand. Jim Buss has something of a reputation for paranoia, so a Howard-related trade freakout remains well within the realm of possibility.
And we've yet to discuss the Lakers' fading playoff prospects. The loss in San Antonio dropped L.A. to 15-20, four-and-a-half games out of contention for the eighth seed. Chances are, they'll need at least 46 wins to be in the mix for that last spot, which—if my math is correct—means that the Lakers will have to go 31-16 the rest of the way to avoid the lottery.
Which wouldn't yield anything for them anyway, since their 2013 first-round pick belongs to the Phoenix Suns, by way of the Steve Nash trade.
With the way the Lakers have been playing, particularly on the defensive end, and the rate at which their list of infirm has lengthened, winning at such a clip may be beyond their capacity.
To recap, if everything goes awry, the Lakers could begin the 2013-14 season with a 35-year-old Kobe, a 39-year-old Nash, no Dwight, no Pau, no impact draftees, no playoff run on which to build, another bad contract or two on their books and a massive luxury tax to pay.
And if things get really bad, they could have yet another new coach on the bench, as well.
Perhaps Howard, Gasol and Hill will all be back in action within a similar span. Let's say Dwight's back improves, just as Gasol's ego recovers from the season-long bruising. Time on the court with Nash leads to pitch-perfect pick-and-rolls—and plenty of easy baskets—for both. Gasol finds his niche as a high-post passer when Howard's on the floor and as a low-post scorer when he has the paint to himself.
Or the Lakers swap out Pau for Josh Smith, Paul Millsap or some other impending free agent from a team that's tricked into making a trade with Mitch Kupchak.
Kobe and Nash won't start playing like All-Defensive performers, but perhaps as their chemistry grows, so, too, does their understanding of spacing, positioning and timing in relation to one another. And if Howard is even close to healthy, his mere presence at the rim makes it easier for the old guys up top to jump passing lanes and gamble for steals.
And if the Lakers start winning a bit and morale picks up, then maybe, just maybe, everyone (Kobe included) starts hustling back on defense to avoid getting beaten to a pulp in transition.
With each successive win, the pressure on the Lakers to simply win abates and the team is finally given some room to breathe. The Lakers jell more easily, more naturally, under those circumstances. Maybe they don't become best buds, but they do learn each other's tendencies and come to respect and (gasp!) play for each other rather than simply with one another.
How will the Lakers fare the rest of the season?
This might not lead to some late renaissance, with the Lakers scurrying to the title. But it could be enough to get L.A. into the playoffs. Once in, the Lakers, with their talent and experience, would put up a fight in the first round and might even advance further, by some miracle.
Such events would spark some optimism going into the summer, enough to convince Dwight that L.A. is the place to be for the foreseeable future. Everyone spends the summer resting and healing, while Kupchak peruses the market for inexpensive ways to bolster his team's roster at the fringes.
The Lakers get a full training camp under D'Antoni, during which they learn his system and establish a greater sense of trust on both ends of the floor. They don't begin the season with the weight of otherworldly expectations on their shoulders, but early success vaults them back into the championship conversation before too long.
Then, one thing leads to another and...well, there the Lakers are, in the mix for their 17th NBA title at season's end.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?
Such expectations would've been exceedingly modest had they been set a few short months ago, when the basketball world seemed destined for a purple-and-gold paint job.
Nowadays, it's the Lakers themselves who could use a blank canvas.
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