Crystal Ball Predictions for LA Lakers' Franchise-Defining Offseason
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The Los Angeles Lakers' 2012-13 season was among the craziest in modern NBA history. It started with a franchise-altering trades for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Then came the Sports Illustrated cover and widespread predictions that Miami's one-year reign on the top was about to end.
So much for that.
Instead, Nash and Pau Gasol struggled through early-season injuries, coach Mike Brown was canned five games into the season, and Mike D'Antoni was hired amid fans begging for Phil Jackson to return.
It didn't help. In some ways, things got worse as D'Antoni prioritized his system over personnel while alienating Gasol. Oh yeah: Bryant and Howard seemed to be locked in a public cold war in which neither man seemed to care for the other's approach to life, let alone basketball.
The team couldn't win many games and floundered below .500 throughout the year. It got better near the end, as the Lakers rallied, won a few games and set themselves up to sneak into the playoffs.
Then Ron Artest tore his meniscus, Kobe blew out his Achilles, and none of the team's other perimeter players could stay healthy. The hard-earned playoff berth was for naught. The San Antonio Spurs swept Los Angeles, nary breaking a sweat.
How will this team look come next season?
Kobe Bryant Returns, Healthy and Productive
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Achilles' injuries have ended careers. Hall of Fame careers. Isiah Thomas ruptured his on April 19, 1994. “I felt like I got shot with a cannon,” he said, according to the NBA's Hang Time Blog.
I just can't see Bryant's career ending like this.
He has trained too hard, sculpting his physical being into a conduit for his borderline-psychopathic drive to stay on top. He has had a singularly focused mentality to maintain his body at all costs for far too long throughout the twilight of his career to not come back.
He has to.
The question is how much explosiveness he will have. That will matter. His defensive abilities have already fallen off a cliff since his younger days, and if he loses even more quickness in his lateral movement, he could become a complete liability on that end of the court.
On offense, he could be still be productive playing in flip flops, so the only worry is whether he will adopt more of a creator's mind set if his impeccable footwork and savvy don't trump a loss of mobility as he recovers. Kobe as scorer will need to take a backseat to Kobe as facilitator.
As for the idea that the Lakers would amnesty Bryant in an attempt to just move on, well, if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Dwight Howard may not be having the time of his life in Los Angeles, but re-signing with the Lakers is his most-sensible move.
I know, I know.
It's Dwight, so "sensible" need not apply.
But given the amount of money involved (his max deal in Los Angeles would be more than $30 million above what he would be guaranteed anywhere else, due to league salary rules) and the other options, remaining a Laker seems preordained.
The Houston Rockets' showing in this year's playoffs adds quite the wrinkle.
Houston can afford him, and he must be enticed when thinking about playing alongside James Harden, Chandler Parsons and company. That roster has a lot more long-term promise than the old folks' home that general manager Mitch Kupchak has assembled in Staples Center.
But if Howard leaves, he knows his reputation will again take a hit.
While he wasn't born and raised in Los Angeles, nor does he have a long history there, he knows what happened to LeBron James when he bolted for a sweeter situation. And he definitely knows how he is now viewed in Orlando.
Few players seem to battle more with how they are perceived than Dwight. So with the allure of Hollywood, a still-capable roster of Hall of Famers, the Lakers' ever-present threat to acquire more marquee talent and the vast sums of extra money involved, Dwight remains a Laker.
Pau Gasol Remains a Laker
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There has to be a segment of the Los Angeles Lakers' front office that supports trading Pau Gasol for the best asset possible.
Kobe Bryant could never be the same, Steve Nash is 75 years old, and not even Dwight Howard can lead a team to a title by himself. In Los Angeles, that is all that matters: championships.
So if the current roster can't win one, time to get a new roster.
The long-term future indeed does depend on getting some young players into the franchise. I'm sure that if there were good offers, Mitch Kupchak would feel the same way and seriously consider any move for Gasol that returned a blue chipper.
But there won't be any.
Gasol is too old for any upstart team to build around, and the contenders across the league are generally in the same position as the Lakers: they, too, need to ensure that the cupboard doesn't run bare.
No team is going to give up a young, potential stud or any high draft picks for a soon-to-be 33-year-old who was limited last season by injury to the point that he needs offseason knee procedures.
That market doesn't exist.
The Lakers' best hope in trading him would be to find a guy like Tobias Harris, a diamond in the rough that the Orlando Magic plucked from the Milwaukee Bucks when dealing J.J. Redick in February. But that is a lot easier said than done, plus Gasol's massive contract will complicate the money end of any potential deal.
Instead, they keep him, hoping that the sequel to a Dwight Howard/Gasol front line, paired with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, will be better than the first movie.
Mike D'Antoni Coaches Next Year
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There are some Los Angeles Lakers fans who want major change. Fire Mike D'Antoni and bring in someone who can run an offense through the twin towers. They agree with Kobe Bryant's tweets: "Post. Post. Post."
For better or worse, that is unlikely to happen.
Axing D'Antoni, on top of paying Mike Brown not to coach, would be throwing a lot of money down the drain. The Lakers have a lot more money to throw down the drain than most, but no business is going to make that decision lightly.
And the options on the coaching market just aren't great enough to justify the cost.
If Dwight Howard made hiring a new coach a prerequisite before re-signing, the franchise probably acquiesces, but a guy as image-conscious as Howard within an organization as large, and with as many leaks, as the Lakers probably will play the good soldier and let the front office handle that decision.
The same goes for Mitch Kupchak, the long-tenured Lakers general manager.
He has been with the franchise since Show Time and the lead architect of player personnel for over a decade. He put this team together. It will remain his job to fix it.
Lakers Make No Marquee Acquisitions This Offseason
Mike Dunleavy, Jr: The type of player Lakers fans can look forward to landing this summer
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The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the NBA's wealthiest teams, but they probably won't be able to flex their financial muscle much this summer.
If they re-sign Dwight Howard and don't amnesty Kobe Bryant (which I bet they won't), they will lack wiggle room under the collective bargaining agreement to add talent.
Pau Gasol also has a massive contract. They could trade him, but league rules mean that they will likely have to take back a similar amount of salary in a trade. If they wanted to get out of Gasol's 2013-14 salary cap hit, last season really would have been the time to do it.
Now, they are fairly locked in.
There are three increasingly strict levels of "locked in:" Being over the salary cap, being over the luxury tax and being over the "apron."
Being over the apron kills flexibility the most.
With Bryant getting $30 million, Gasol close to $20 million, Steve Nash pushing $10 million, according to Sham Sports, that's where the Lakers are. And that's why they won't be able to make many significant moves in free agency.
The one and only Larry Coon, CBA expert extraordinaire, explained on his CBA FAQ Blog.
Taxpaying teams now have a smaller Mid-Level exception, and can’t use the Bi-Annual exception at all. And starting this summer, they can’t receive a player in a sign-and-trade transaction either. In other words, all the tools that GMs of capped-out teams use to maneuver have become inaccessible.
The union did manage to negotiate a higher tripping point for these system changes. Rather than taking effect right at the tax line, they are triggered at a point $4 million over it – a point they call “the apron.” Once a team is over the apron, they can’t use their Bi-Annual exception, they can’t trade for another team’s free agent in a sign-and-trade, and their Mid-Level exception is a lot smaller than their peers’.
That's the main tool the Lakers have: a smaller mid-level exception. Also known as the "mini" mid-level exception. With it, they can entice free agents who want to earn $3 million per year.
It's a small number. Chris Duhon, for example, made $3.5 million this year. Some other, more-valuable players around that range last season: Vince Carter ($3.1 million), Ray Allen ($3.1 million) and Chauncey Billups ($4.0 million).
Meanwhile, players like Jason Terry ($5.0 million), Jamal Crawford ($5.0 million) and Nick Young ($5.6 million) are making more than the Lakers can afford to pay.
The biggest ray of hope: O.J. Mayo, who signed with the Dallas Maverick last offseason for $4.0 million. Mayo himself is unlikely to be available this summer for the price Los Angeles can play, but there could be a younger, productive guy in the market who, for whatever reason, ends up signing for less than expected.
But it will be more likely to see the Lakers improve by finding an older player who has already made a bunch of money and now just wants to fill a role on a good team.
Someone like Carter and Allen would be a good get.
Looking at this summer's free agent crop, someone like Mike Duleavy, Jr. is a good projection for the type of player that Lakers fans may welcome to the roster.
A Possible Los Angeles Lakers 2013-14 Opening Day Roster
Kobe Bryant (inactive)
Metta World Peace