Pieces Los Angeles Lakers Must Acquire to Become True Contenders
The Los Angeles Lakers will not be be true contenders for the NBA title until after the dust from 2014 free agency settles. GM Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss are hamstrung by financial inflexibility until the books clear after next season, when they can fully reinvent themselves for the post-Kobe Bryant era.
This offseason, the buzz around the front office is mainly concerned with wooing Dwight Howard to return. He's not worth the $116 million that the Lakers can pay him but for whatever reason has Kupchak convinced that he is the future.
When compared with the true contenders of 2013—namely the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers are clearly a team with significant holes. Although many thought that the formation of superstars in Los Angeles would compete for a title in 2013, it turns out that the Lakers have some serious remodeling to do.
How can the Lakers plug the roster holes that separate them from greatness? With patience and the usual knack for scooping up the league's best talent at below market price.
Here's what they need to do.
Return All Injured Pieces Fully Healthy
The Los Angeles Lakers limped into the postseason and saw nearly every member of the starting lineup go down with one injury or another.
Moving forward, it will become increasingly important to maintain the health of the players the Lakers have already guaranteed money in 2013. This means that Jordan Hill, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol need to make the most of a full offseason's rest.
At no point during the 2012-13 campaign were all five of those cogs fully healthy at the same time. Given that all are on the books for next season, one crucial element of propelling this team forward will be to get them all to full strength as soon as possible.
A new cast of athletes will soon be joining the Purple and Gold. Until then, the players on contract need to help successfully bridge the gap between eras. If all five of the aforementioned Lakers return fresh, it will hasten the gap year until 2014 free agency begins.
This Team Needs a Big Man?
Dwight Howard is apparently the front office's preference for an interior rebounder and rim protector. Howard has yet to expose his true intentions; thus, Mitch Kupchak may have to look for a suitable replacement.
If Dwight walks, the Lakers will likely ride out the remainder of Pau Gasol's hyper-expensive contract. Despite owing Gasol slightly upward of $19 million next year, without Howard the Lakers would be forced to add a big man to clog up the paint.
As far as immediate fill-ins go, Andray Blatche and DeJuan Blair would be suitable role players who could thrive with additional minutes. Adding a healthy Jordan Hill back into the mix will surely supplement any interior help the Lakers can gather this offseason.
Should the Lakers successfully sign Howard, a potential move with Toronto involving a swap of Pau for Andrea Bargnani and an athletic guard like Kyle Lowry would seem fitting.
Either way, the Lakers need to add depth to the big man position on their roster.
Small Forward Depth
Metta World Peace will turn 34 next season and deserves to be relieved of some of the grinding effort he has put forth in his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers should certainly re-sign Earl Clark to a reasonable contract—the young forward's contribution was a small bright spot during the 2012-13 mess. He attacked the glass on both ends of the floor and was one of the only consistent sources of hustle game in and game out.
Having that said, a small forward corps of World Peace and Earl Clark is not going to get it done in the NBA anymore. Given that the league is trending toward athleticism, the Lakers need to make it a priority to get a young and versatile forward to complement the guards.
What L.A. needs to pass the time until 2014 is a small forward the likes of Ronnie Brewer. Brewer is a solid defender and capable on offense if given a fair amount of minutes and touches. He may be the best option in 2013.
The Lakers really should try to keep the budget as low as possible before 2014, when a player like Luol Deng will fill the athletic small forward role perfectly.
Who Will Run the Point?
Let's face it. Steve Nash is old, getting older and won't stop being old. Although one of the most accomplished point guards in NBA history, Nash's time as a centerpiece on a contender is over.
He can still be very useful in pick-and-roll but can no longer absorb heavy minutes. Nash is best used as a leader and mentor for younger players, a trait that the Lakers front office should capitalize on before he hangs 'em up after two more seasons.
The Lakers were once rumored to be interested in Devin Harris when in discussions for Josh Smith. Harris could provide the athletic spark that L.A. needs from its primary ball handler and could lead an effective fast break. Another option would be to move Pau Gasol for a younger point guard, but finding somebody to accept his salary will be no easy task.
The Western Conference is chalk full of top-tier point guards. Chris Paul—an unrestricted free agent in 2013—heads a list that includes Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry. Nobody L.A. can acquire this season will be on that level.
However, next season, watch out for a potential move to acquire Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers or a simpler signing of Kyle Lowry from the Toronto Raptors. Until the Lakers have a stud point guard who can keep up on defense they will have no shot to come out of the West.
Fixing the Coaching Situation
Of all of the blunders that occurred during the 2012-13 NBA season for the Los Angeles Lakers, the coaching debacle was the highlight of them all.
Not only did Jim Buss jump ship too quickly on Mike Brown and his Princeton offense, but he also snubbed the greatest coach in NBA history in Phil Jackson. The Lakers were out of sync all season and it came as no surprise. Coach Mike D'Antoni was not fit to get L.A. where it needed to be with the personnel at his disposal.
While D'Antoni still has two years and $8 million left on his contract, making a change this offseason might allow the Purple and Gold an opportunity at a fresh start. If not Phil Jackson—he says he's done for now—then the Lakers should seek somebody who is aware of what it takes to win and thrive in one of the nation's biggest markets.
Former Laker player and current assistant coach of the Indiana Pacers Brian Shaw is just what the doctor ordered. He learned from Phil Jackson both as a coach and player and would be able to impart his wisdom on a floundering Lakers roster.
Convincing him to return could be a bit tricky after snubbing him too the first time around. However, the familiar allure that Los Angeles has to Shaw could eventually bring him home.
The strategy that the Lakers take on in the immediate future will largely have to do with what coach is leading the way. If L.A. wants back in the NBA Finals, Mike D'Antoni is not the guy for the job.