It seems that every article about the Los Angeles Lakers’ future must start with some analysis of last season.
The 2012-2013 Lakers were either snake-bitten or cursed by an old gypsy in a black and white horror movie. It may also be a case of karma coming back after all those lucky, injury-free years of championship seasons. It happened. So, get over it and stop blaming Jimmy Buss, although he certainly shoulders a large portion of blame.
Last year's Lakers started with one foot in the bucket with Howard recovering from back surgery, a worn-out Pau Gasol and a slew of injuries that converted Showtime into an episode of M*A*S*H*. Then, in a moment of being shortsighted, Mike D’Antoni played Kobe as if he were a common plow horse until, like a horse, he broke down in the home stretch.
Now, pundits, sportswriters and nearly every Angeleno in their car listening to talk radio are exercising their divine right to morph into a member of the cast of any of the CSI shows and do a lengthy autopsy on the nightmare season past. The operative question is whether the 2013-2014 Lakers’ team will suffer from the past season or find good health and an offensive system that fits their twin towers.
But, first and foremost, Dwight Howard will re-sign with the Lakers because he has nowhere else to go that can offer him the additional $29 million that the Lakers can offer, plus revenues from advertising and the other financial perks that go with living in Los Angeles or New York.
Lakers fans, on the other hand, need look no further than the NBA playoffs to see the importance of a "traditional" center who can defend, rebound and block shots.
Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert have demonstrated the need for strong "traditional" center play in the playoffs when the game typically slows down and points in the paint are a premium. Both the Pacers and Knicks gave the Heat fits in the regular season, with more to come from Hibbert in the conference finals.
The Pacers took the Heat to a sixth game last year on the strength of Hibbert’s play. This year, Hibbert forced the Knicks into a jump-shooting team and beat them in six games, partly because of Hibbert’s 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. Meanwhile, Marc Gasol turned the Westbrook-less Thunder into a mediocre jump-shooting team by shutting down the paint, rebounding and blocking shots.
A healthy Howard is as good, if not a better defensive player than both of them.
It should be noted that the weakness of the Miami Heat is at the 5 position, where Hibbert, Gasol and Howard excel. The secret to beating the Heat is at the center position, where good big men shut down the drives into the paint and control rebounds.
It also helps to have a strong 4, such as David West, Zach Randolph or Pau Gasol, who can match up with Chris Bosh. When Wade and James cannot drive to the rim, or shoot short jumpers in the paint, the Heat are just another jump shooting team, but with an effective bench.
While going small and spreading the court may produce results in the regular season, it is not a recipe for winning the NBA championships. Fans should look no further than the playoff losses by the Warriors and the Knicks to see what happens to jump-shooting teams in the playoffs.
Defense, rebounding and protecting the paint are the principal ingredients of a title-winning team. Without Howard, the Lakers have simply no chance of winning an NBA title while the Heat play their style of game and Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert play theirs.
The first change the Lakers should make is to amnesty Metta World Peace. Any Laker fan who thinks that World Peace will opt out this summer fails to see how much he likes the "Hollywood" culture and that he has no place to go. He is now an old, slow one-dimensional player who is worth no more than the veteran minimum.
If the Lakers are going to keep Pau Gasol at the 4, then it is time to experiment by moving Earl Clark to the 3 and playing a power lineup. With Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison as backups, the Lakers would have a tall, offensive-minded front line that could rebound and play defense. This front line could reduce easy baskets in the paint, rebound defensively and stop the opposing team's layup line that haunted last year’s team.
The next step would be to clean out the dead weight at the end of the bench and stop experimenting with Darius Morris at point guard. He is not that good a defensive player, cannot initiate the offense and is a horrible jump shooter. Every time he graced the court last season, the Lakers dropped further behind or lost a lead.
Mike Brown made a mistake picking Morris over Andrew Goudelock last year. At least Goudelock can score and is a competitive player. Chris Duhon was worthless on offense and defense, while Devin Ebanks has not panned out despite numerous opportunities.
The Lakers still need to improve their backcourt, where Kobe is now questionable, Steve Nash is entering his senior citizen, injury-plagued years, and Steve Blake, despite a terrific return to action from groin surgery, is another year older and another year slower.
The Lakers would have been better served signing Jarrett Jack as a free agent last year than trading for Nash. That mistake will haunt them for the next two years because of salary cap issues and the lack of availability of a good point guard in free agency.
If point guard is now a problem, then the potential loss of Kobe Bryant, or the Achilles injury turning him into an average player, is the greatest threat to the Lakers’ future. I saw what an Achilles tendon injury did to Elgin Baylor and Dominique Wilkins. It wasn’t pretty.
Kobe may be the only player I have seen with the mental and physical ability to come back from this injury. But he is not invincible, especially at his age.
This brings us to coaching. Mike Brown was horrible, and Mike D’Antoni should have never been hired. His foolhardy attempt to mold the Lakers into something they were not caused them so many losses that the team never recovered. It was obvious to Laker fans by March that the Lakers could go nowhere in the playoffs and it was time to play for next year.
Instead of a common-sense decision to wait until next year, D’Antoni played Kobe Bryant until he suffered an Achilles injury. Had D’Antoni listened for just one moment to James Worthy and Robert Horry on the pregame shows, when they warned that Kobe's minutes may lead to an injury, fans would not be worrying about Bryant’s health today.
Certainly Worthy knows a little about playing too many minutes. Playing the last part of a season with a bad leg, which doctors told him would not get worse, shortened his career by a few years and damaged the Lakers' post-Magic Johnson transformation for several years afterward. No Laker fan wants to see a repeat of the early '90s teams. They were ugly and not representative of Laker basketball.
The Lakers' problems in 2012-2013 were simple. Howard returned to the lineup way too soon. He should have rehabilitated his injury until at least January before playing. Pau Gasol should have rested more after the Olympics and dealt with his knee issues sooner.
Furthermore, Mike Brown should have been fired in the offseason or the minute he decided to run the Princeton offense with the Lakers line up. Every Laker fan could see the Princeton offense was going to be a disaster.
Mike D’Antoni should not have been hired as a square peg being forced into the round Lakers roster. If D’Antoni is to remain the coach, as GM Mitch Kupchak says, then he needs to reinvent himself and fit his coaching into a style that fits his lineup, like George Karl and Larry Brown have done for years.
Any less will result in failure again. As they say, being foolish is doing the same thing over and over again in the face of failure.
The Lakers need to find a good young point guard to take over for Nash and Blake as soon as possible. Neither Jody Meeks nor Goudelock are tall enough to play the 2-guard position against most other 2-guards in the league. Look no further than Klay Thompson, a 6'8" shooter, who could and would score easily over both of them.
Both could be good backup guards, with Goudelock a candidate to move over to the point guard position, where he could be a fruitful backup at the very least. He was a better candidate to become a point guard than Darius Morris. It is unlikely Goudelock can stay in the league if he must play defense on shooting guards.
The Lakers need to take some lessons from Greg Popovich and the Spurs by making small changes that allow its players to get healthy and play up to their potential, which can easily happen for a Laker team with a front line of Howard, Gasol and Clark.
Their inherent size must be peppered with younger, quicker guards who can shoot. It is the search for young point and shooting guards that will define the Lakers in years to come, or immediately, if Bryant is not effective upon his return to the lineup.
The Lakers succeeded under Jerry Buss by keeping their lineup steady while searching for the missing part. In the '80s, those missing parts ranged from Bob McAdoo to Mychal Thompson. In the '90s, it was Shaq and a teenage phenomenon named Kobe Bryant. A few years ago that missing part was Pau Gasol. Who will be that missing part now?
Who knows, but the Lakers better start searching far and wide, even across Europe, to find such a player. Until then, the Lakers will be close every year, but no cigars. Hopefully, Jimmy Buss will receive an apparition from his father and turn himself into the Lakers leader he has failed to be so far in his brief career at the top.
Though the Lakers have many good pieces in place, they need to amnesty World Peace and improve their guard position with younger, more athletic players this offseason in order to put themselves in a good position going forward.
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