Blueprint for LA Lakers to Go from Playoff Joke to Title-Worthy Team

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2013

Blueprint for LA Lakers to Go from Playoff Joke to Title-Worthy Team

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    The Los Angeles Lakers' roster provided us with $100 million worth of NBA playoff jokes, only none of the punchlines were funny.

    Injuries left the Lakers depleted, unorganized and on the precipice of implosion all season. Once Kobe Bryant went down with a ruptured Achilles, they finally reached a breaking point.

    Clad with the knowledge that Dwight Howard's future is up in the air, their roster compromised by the health and age of their players and that they have absolutely no cap space, Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers must devise a plan. Just like they did last summer. Only this time, they need to put themselves in a position to stick to it.

    Hollywood's finest—whoever they may be—will enter next season shrouded in ambivalence. Will the Lakers be title contenders? Can they rebound from last year? How is Kobe's Achilles, Metta World Peace's knee, Pau Gasol's foot and Steve Nash's entire body?

    Those are just a few of the questions that will be posed. And the Lakers can't avoid them. What they can evade is a personnel flux. 

    By settling any roster issues over the offseason and establishing a clear direction that won't be susceptible to public corruption before next year, the Lakers will put themselves in a position to win.

    Thereby distancing themselves from the disaster that was the 2012-13 season.

    *All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, and unless otherwise noted.

Step 1: Re-Sign Dwight Howard

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    This is obvious.

    Dwight Howard still has no idea what he's going to do in free agency, but the Lakers have to know that they need to retain him.

    It doesn't matter how you feel about Dwight now—even after that Game 4 ejection—the Lakers need him. They can't allow a perennial All-Star who is considered one of the best big men to ever play the game to just walk away for nothing. That's bad business.

    Howard is in the prime of his career. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are not. He is Los Angeles' future, the one who the organization will build around and sell prospective free agents on. That he makes a pitiful defense significantly better should only increase the urgency behind his return.

    Dwight on his free-agent future: "I'm focused on me and making the best decision for me, and that's not going to be today."

    — Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) April 30, 2013

    Does he have a lot of maturing to do? Of course. But the Lakers knew that when they traded for him.

    His first season in Tinseltown wasn't ideal by any means. But if the Lakers fail to bring him back next year, this season will seem like a cakewalk compared to what they'll endure next.

Step 2: Do Nothing with Mike D'Antoni

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    You read correctly.

    Perhaps some of you out there are a fan of playing musical coaches, but I'm not. And the Lakers shouldn't be either.

    The pressure to win in Los Angeles is greater than anywhere else (save for maybe New York) and the impatience is completely understandable, but Mike D'Antoni needs a training camp and a healthy roster before the Lakers go making any brash decisions...again.

    Phil Jackson isn't coming back to coach. The Lakers had the opportunity to bring him back this past fall, and they didn't. It's time to move on.

    I'll be the first to admit that a precedent needs to be set between Magic Mike and Dwight Howard. They don't seem to be jiving as well as they should.

    Dwight on D'Antoni: "We had to sell out to whatever he wanted, whether we liked it or not"

    — Dave McMenamin (@mcten) April 30, 2013

    Knowing how important Dwight is to Los Angeles' future, any beef between these two needs to be squashed.

    Aside from that, D'Antoni has to remain flexible in his teachings and use training camp to prepare the Lakers for battle in a way that reflects favorably upon him as a coach.

    Kobe thinks D'Antoni should still be the coach, pointed to the adjustments he made as the season progressed and turnaround.

    — Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) April 30, 2013

    If he fails to do that, then let the calls for his job commence. For now, he shouldn't be going anywhere.

Step 3: Understand What You Have in Pau Gasol

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    Pau Gasol's situation in Los Angeles is complex.

    He and Dwight Howard began to play better toward together the tail end of the season, but there's no use denying the Lakers could use him as fodder to land a traditional stretch forward (spoiler).

    Now, I'm not saying they need to keep him. Nor am I saying they shouldn't. I'm saying they need to make a decision, understand it and stick with it.

    Gasol's contract expires after next season and while that makes him a commodity by itself, there's no telling how much he's actually worth on the trade market. And if he only garners a mediocre package, there's no use dealing him.

    Los Angeles' future also comes into play here. The Lakers are poised to have $30-plus million in cap room after next year. Dealing Pau in favor of any longer term deals would taper their future ambitions considerably.

    Let's also not forget that Gasol toiled with triple-doubles on a daily basis to close out his 2012-13 campaign. He can still help the Lakers as well.

    If the package is right, then of course you consider pulling the trigger. If it's not, then you listen to Kobe Bryant and keep Gasol in the City of Angels.

    Kobe says he would love to see core guys back and has been clear with Mitch he wants Pau back.

    — Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) April 30, 2013

Step 4: Take a Long Hard Look at Amnesty Options

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    Before the Lakers begin adding to their roster, they must first decide if they're going to make some surprise subtractions.

    Los Angeles can still amnesty any contract that was in effect prior to the 2011-12 season and has some options to ponder.

    One of those options is not Kobe Bryant. End of story. 

    Pau Gasol shouldn't be one either, because he still holds trade value and can make a substantial impact on both ends of the floor when he's healthy. Shedding his salary would save the Lakers tens of millions of dollars in luxury tax, but paying a four-time All-Star to leave and then play somewhere else makes little sense.

    The two most likely candidates are Steve Blake and Metta World Peace. My problem here is both are on expiring deals and could be traded if need be. They're also important to the Lakers' game plan.

    Hollywood isn't hard-up for cash (that we know of) and parting ways with either Blake or World Peace doesn't get the Lakers under the salary cap, or even the luxury tax threshold. Amnestying Pau would (though not if they re-sign Dwight Howard), but I already told you how I feel about that.

    Yes, the Lakers must consider all possibilities, but it's my belief they'll come to find holstering that amnesty of theirs makes more sense than actually using it.

Step 5: Shooters, Shooters, Shooters, Rinse, Lather, Repeat

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    I'm only half kidding with my picture of Kyle Korver.

    The Lakers need shooters. And lots of 'em. Or least one lethal one. They didn't have that this year. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash don't count. They're not complementary pieces.

    Only two players that attempted at least two threes per game shot better than 36 percent from deep this season (Nash and Steve Blake). Los Angeles as a team converted on just 27 percent of their threes during the playoffs. That's a problem.

    Assuming Howard re-signs, the ball will be running through the post just as much as it was in the postseason. Defenses will converge on him (and maybe Pau Gasol) and he needs to be confident that the shooters he is kicking the rock out to are dangerous long-ballers.

    Guys like Antawn Jamison (36.1 percent) and Jodie Meeks (35.3 percent) were solid from beyond the arc, but they weren't what you would consider exceptional.

    Once the Lakers figure out what to do with Pau (see Step 3), they must then figure out how to acquire a potent three-point threat(s).

    Could they convince someone like Randy Foye or Kyle Korver to sacrifice like Jamison did this season, or must they use Gasol as bait to strengthen their attack from outside?

    Whatever the means, the Lakers must ensure they get their hands on some more efficient shooters.

Step 6: Some Youth and Athleticism...Please

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    To be clear, any youthful presences aren't likely to be used as prominent cogs in Los Angeles 2013-14 machine. But they still need them.

    Reserves like Earl Clark and Darius Morris provided youth and athleticism off the pine, and the Lakers would do well to retain them if their free-agency price tags aren't too high. There aren't a lot of affordable free agents that fit such a bill, so hanging onto the minimal amount you already have will prove key.

    However they do it, though, it has to be done.

    The Lakers were neither young nor athletic this season and in order to prepare themselves for similar hardships next season, they need bodies that can add depth by simply being able to last.

    Kobe said team's No. 1 lacking area is "length, speed and athleticism"

    — Dave McMenamin (@mcten) April 30, 2013

    From Morris to Clark to anyone else that Los Angeles can get its hands on, bringing in a younger crowd that can enhance the fast-break attack and help re-write a fragile health bill are a must.

Step 7: A Cheap Defender or Two

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    The Lakers will never define themselves by playing defense. Not because Mike D'Antoni is their coach, but because they're not built that way.

    Dwight Howard is more than capable of protecting the rim on his own. We watched him do it for the better part of a decade with the Orlando Magic. What he and the Lakers need are perimeter defenders to prevent dribble penetration, so that the opposition isn't reaching the basket in the first place.

    Metta World Peace remained a viable wing defender even after his surgery, but the Lakers need another specialty guy. They may need more than one if Earl Clark signs elsewhere.

    My recommendation (though not iron clad) is Ronnie Brewer. He's cheap, reliable on defense and his jump shot is ugly. I'm obviously asking the Lakers to ignore that last part.

    Once again, Los Angeles is never going to be a defense-first team. Kobe Bryant (yes even Kobe) and Steve Nash aren't programmed to fit within such a dynamic.

    They do, however, need to reach a juncture where they're not relinquishing 101 points a night like they did this season. To try and do that, they must reach deep-down into the bargain bin and hope they pick out someone shiny.

Step 8: Establish a Pecking Order

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    Once the Lakers have their final product in place, it will be time to establish a chain of command.

    Rumors of distrust and fractured relationships aren't indicative of championship contenders, they're emblematic of teams that begin the season 17-25 and nearly miss the playoffs.

    For this star-studded convocation to work, each and every member of the team must understand their role, none more so than Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.

    There needs to be a clear, mutual understanding between the Black Mamba and Superman. Not just publicly either. They can say the right things all they want, but it's in the locker room and on the court where they must be on the same page.

    Are the Lakers now Howard's? Are they still Kobe's? Will they steer this outfit together? Los Angeles needs to figure all that out.

    The days of internal bedlam must be put behind these Lakers. And that starts with Kobe and Dwight, and ensuring that this team can no longer be crippled by matters of the ego.