Biggest Questions L.A. Lakers Must Answer in 2013 Offseason
The Los Angeles Lakers 2012-13 season is about to go down as one of the most over-hyped, over-anticipated, enormously disappointing campaigns in team history.
Forget the tacos: Los Angeles Lakers management should be offering deep discount refunds to all 19,060 people who attend the Lakers' so-called playoff game today against the San Antonio Spurs.
Friday's 120-89 loss to the Spurs goes down as the worst in Lakers home playoff history—what an utter embarrassment
Granted, the team needed a M.A.S.H. unit to deal with the pile of injured guards, forwards and centers who used to make up the front line of players in Los Angeles. But injuries are a part of the game, and the good teams find a way to win with deep benches—something the Lakers know nothing of this year.
Can you name one player on the Lakers who went the entire season without some sort of calamity? Oh yes, those strangers in Lakers uniforms sitting at the end of the bench who never got into games: Robert Sacre, Devin Ebanks, Chris Duhon and Darius Morris.
And isn't it ironic that even the Lakers' not-so-new-anymore head coach Mike D'Antoni arrived limping in L.A. after having just undergone his own knee surgery prior to getting the call and gig from team general manager Mitch Kupchak back in November?
We can all sit back and place blame for this disastrous season on injuries and a coach with no training camp, but you can also lay blame at the feet of owner Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak for assembling the wrong players in the first place and then not making moves at the trading deadline this past February.
Any way you slice it, the Lakers of today look like Swiss cheese dressed in purple and gold. With one game to go before we can turn out the lights and shut down the gym for a few months, there are enough question marks to keep management very busy.
1. Dwight Howard: Is He Really the Answer?
While there's no question that Dwight Howard is healthier and playing better than he did early in the season, there is still the lingering question of whether or not he re-signs with the Lakers after the season is over.
The Lakers grand plan of putting four future Hall of Famers on the court together played out even worse than their ill-fated attempt to win a title by bringing in Gary Payton and Karl Malone near the end of their careers in 2003. At least that crew went to the NBA Finals before losing to the Detroit Pistons in five games.
Howard is thought by management to be the centerpiece and the future of the franchise. They'll offer him around $25 million more than any other club is capable of doing. But is D12 really the answer to the Lakers' problems, and will he even want to stay in L.A. given that the team looks to be quite a ways from contending again?
Through three playoff games, Howard is averaging 20.3 points on 60 percent shooting but only 11.7 rebounds. He's been in major foul trouble every game and has gone to the free-throw line just nine times per game against the Spurs.
The Lakers will offer Howard the max contract to stay in Los Angeles. With Kobe Bryant on the very long road to recovery from surgery to repair a torn Achilles, Howard will start the season as the main man in Lakers Nation.
Dwight Howard alone is not the answer for Los Angeles, but he is a big piece of its ever-growing puzzle. At 27, he is just entering the prime of his career, and when healthy, he is the most dominant defensive big man in the game.
There is still upside to his game: He needs to be healthy, surrounded by the appropriate complement of teammates and coached by someone who understands his strengths and weaknesses.
2. Head Coach: Do the Lakers Bring Mike D'Antoni Back?
This question has been asked at least a thousand times since November when D'Antoni became the Lakers third head coach of the 2012-13 season.
For some unknown reason, GM Mitch Kupchak publicly endorsed keeping D'Antoni around for at least another season. He told the L.A. Times Mike Bresnahan:
Yeah, he's back. I think he's done a great job, There's been no discussions otherwise. He's made adjustments. He's been flexible. He's evaluated how he coaches as the season's progressed. He's listened to the players. He's very easy to work with and we think in particular since the meeting the day of the Memphis game, yeah.
Well Mitch, that's great. Your coach is easy to work with and listens to the players. Is Kupchak talking about the same Mike D'Antoni who isolated and insulted Pau Gasol the first week of his tenure when he benched him late in the game, saying the reason he did that was because he wanted to win?
Is this the same Mike D'Antoni who kept insisting the Lakers would run his uptempo, quick shooting offense through the 39-year-old Steve Nash even after the point guard went down with injuries that kept him off the court for long stretches?
Wasn't it Mike D'Antoni who was okay with allowing Kobe Bryant to play entire games down the stretch of the regular season because Bryant felt he had to help get his team into the postseason? Isn't it up to the coach to sometimes tell a player he must sit for the sake of the team and his own health?
And wasn't it Mike D'Antoni who, after two losses to the San Antonio Spurs in Games 1 and 2, said that the playoffs don't start until a road team gets a win?
It seems unlikely that Kupchak and the Buss family would backtrack now and fire D'Antoni.
But fans of Phil Jackson may consider that, since former coach Mike Brown signed a deal with Cleveland last week. Now the Lakers would only be obligated to pay one ex-coach should they decide to fire D'Antoni.
There's some food for thought.
3. Do the Lakers Use the Amnesty Clause and for Which Player?
If the Lakers are going to let anyone go via the amnesty clause rule, it should be Metta World Peace.
The former Ron Artest is due $7.7 million in 2013-14, but his best days are behind him, and the Lakers desperately need a stopper.
The Lakers could decide to cut MWP and re-sign him to a multi-year deal at a much lower rate. Or they could just cut him outright.
Another casualty to injury, 33-year-old MWP is just not the same player he once was. As reported on BlackSports Online:
If World Peace does not terminate the deal, he immediately becomes a candidate to be cut under the amnesty provision. If he does terminate, likely (one would hope) after conversations with team officials to gauge the chances of getting more years at a lot less money annually, it is nearly impossible to imagine the Lakers committing more than two seasons on a new deal to maintain the possible cap room in the summer of 2014.
MWP may surprise everyone and terminate his current player option for next year. That would allow him to sign a longer deal with the Lakers.
I wouldn't count on it but think it is highly probable. The Lakers are flush with major problems that need addressing now.
I think MWP is on his way out.
4. Pau Gasol: Will the Lakers Keep Him for 1 More Year or Look to Trade?
This could become one of the Lakers' biggest issues in the offseason.
On one hand, Pau Gasol seems to be healthier and playing much better than he has in over a year.
But sidelined for two months with plantar fascia, Gasol was thought to be on his way out of the game. Yet he bounced back and found himself back in the starting lineup within two months of the injury.
Gasol has one year and $19 million left on his Lakers contract. Before he came back from the injury, it was hard to imagine any club taking a chance on a big salary like that. Those sentiments are much different now that Gasol has bounced back. For the month of April (eight games), Gasol averaged 17.5 points and 51 percent center shooting.
Gasol's 12 rebounds and 7 assists per game were much stronger than his 8.6 rebounds and 13.7 points with the Lakers over his full season with L.A.—which ended up being just 49 games.
Sam Amick of USA Today witnessed the rebirth of the old Gasol on a night when the Lakers beat New Orleans at Staples Center in early April.
But the Lakers' 104-96 win Tuesday night against the New Orleans Hornets at Staples Center did more than put them back in playoff position. It offered a reminder that — contrary to all prior skepticism herein — they may have a few reasons to still believe in themselves after all: Pau Gasol can still play like Pau Gasol, and this whole notion of momentum being a prerequisite to postseason success that they'd been holding onto may be overrated.
Lakers management reaches out to teams who have shown interest in Gasol about a possible blockbuster trade.
Gasol remains a Laker after the team realizes it is better off with two of the best big men in the league.
5. Point Guard: Is It Deja Vu All over Again?
The Lakers have desperately sought a top-notch point guard since 2011. They almost had Chris Paul coming to L.A., but someone named David Stern nixed a deal with New Orleans that would have brought him to the Lakers.
The feeling around basketball circles when the Lakers traded for Steve Nash last July was that somehow the team had found the missing ingredient it needed to make a major push towards a 17th NBA title. This was a bad case of wishful thinking on the part of Los Angeles.
Lady Luck has been missing from this team all year, and Nash was no exception to the rule. The normally durable 17-year veteran missed 32 games this season with various injuries.
When he did play, Nash averaged 32.5 minutes, 50 percent shooting (44 percent from three-point range), 92 percent from the charity stripe and 6.7 assists per game.
Here is the dilemma: Steve Nash will turn 40 next February and may be degenerating in terms of his health and skills. Is this the guy you want to run the show for your team in 2013-14?
The depth at PG for the Lakers is razor thin. Behind Nash is Steve Blake, who should remain a Laker based on him playing some of the best basketball of his life this past month.
Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, Chris Duhon and Jodie Meeks all have moments of brilliance. But winning in the NBA is not about a few moments of stellar play.
Steve Nash retires from basketball this summer, unable to play at full strength again.
The Lakers find themselves back at square one, looking for that ultimate superior PG to run the offense. It's not coming from the current roster, though Steve Blake will fill that role until L.A. finds itself the proper fit.
This should be their biggest concern in the offseason. Chris Paul is a free agent: Would he consider the Lakers, and if so, how could Los Angeles afford him?
Oh right, I'm dreaming again.
6. Kobe Bryant: Do You Pay Your Franchise Player $30 Million to Sit and Rehab?
Kobe Bryant is at a crossroads in his career, and he knows it.
If anyone can come back strong following a torn Achilles and surgery, it is No. 24 of the Los Angeles Lakers. Dwight Howard may be known around the NBA as "Superman," but the real man of steel has to be Bryant.
The question one has to ask, though, is whether or not the Lakers might consider using the amnesty clause on Bryant. There is the possibility that Kobe could take upwards of a year to recuperate and be ready to play again, so why not let him sit until the start of the 2014 season?
Using the clause on Kobe Bryant would allow the Lakers to clear $30 million off their books next season, giving them the opportunity to bring in several new, younger, athletic players. Bryant would still get his money for the season, and he could negotiate a new deal for the 2014-15 season—when the Lakers will be much lower in salaries owed.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll asked readers if the Lakers should use the amnesty clause on Kobe Bryant, saving themselves $80 million in luxury taxes. While the majority said no, another 47 percent said they should consider doing it.
A mini-polling of sportswriters from various papers around the country all seemed to support Bryant and his rehab process. As Shandel Richardson of the South Florida Sun Sentinel wrote in the L.A. Times:
Bryant is the face of the franchise. He’s helped it win five championships. He’s one of the greatest players in Lakers history, joining Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West. The Lakers owe it to Bryant to allow him to rehab before making a decision as such.
As tempting as it may seem, as logical as it may seem, the Lakers would be foolish to use the clause on Bryant.
This man of steel could very well prove the critics wrong again and return to the starting lineup as soon as November. And even if he is 80-90 percent of the old Kobe Bryant, that will still be better than 90 percent of the other players in the NBA.
Kobe Bryant will not be amnestied by the Lakers this summer. He'll be back by January and will average 22-25 points per game.