If you were told the Lakers were better off now than they were this time last year, you wouldn't believe it, because it's not true.
Despite the disappointing 45-37 finish, Los Angeles hasn't put itself in position to contend for a championship by bidding goodbye to Dwight Howard, Earl Clark and Metta World Peace. In parting ways with some of their more prominent pieces, however, they've abated expectations and opened the door for a number of new acquisitions to make an impact.
One of Los Angeles' greatest flaws during the 2012-13 campaign was the absence of a definitive pecking order. Decimated by injuries, the Lakers were rarely seen at full strength, yet even when they were, they struggled to establish a concrete on-court hierarchy.
Dwight's role in the offense was unclear. He didn't fit Mike D'Antoni's description of a palatable center. Averse to running the pick-and-roll, not apt to passing out of double-teams, and unable to connect on shots that weren't taken at the rim, Howard was left battling against his natural tactical inclinations—as was D'Antoni.
Kobe himself waffled between primary scorer, central playmaker and resident chucker. On any given night, he was assuming a different role.
Impacted by the Black Mamba's teetering guise was Steve Nash, who, depending upon the night, was either tasked with distributing the ball as himself or expected to shoot and score like he was Kobe.
When healthy, Pau Gasol struggled to impersonate any number of identities, including that of a stretch forward, sixth man and high pick-and-roll catalyst.
Then there were Earl Clark and Metta World Peace. Desperate for a stretch forward to emerge, D'Antoni relied heavily on both.
Clark's per-game minutes nearly doubled from the season before, and Magic Mike expected Metta to revert back to his All-Star days, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:
"He should be wide open every time," D'Antoni said after World Peace scored 17 pts on 6-of-13 shooting in the Lakers' 95-90 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. "He was 4-for-9 on 3s. He'll get 10 a game and I told him he needs to make 4-of-10 every game. And he can do that. That's 40 percent and that's pretty good so he'll do that. I think he'll do that every game. He's going to be up there (averaging) 17-20 points."
After World Peace and Clark, there was Antawn Jamison, another role player who was relied upon extensively. Prior to joining the Lakers, he had averaged under 15 points per game just twice in his career. He was supposed to be the ideal sixth man
By now, you've obviously spotted the problem: Much of Los Angeles' supporting cast wasn't really a supporting cast.
Jamison spent most years as a No. 1 or 2 scorer and was all of a sudden asked to come off the bench. World Peace was rarely, if ever, counted on for his scoring in Los Angeles, but you had D'Antoni expecting him to drop 17-20 points a night.
I'm afraid to even get started on how the Big Four comes into play.
Nash, when healthy, was reduced to a role player—almost purely a spot-up shooter, when he shouldn't have been. Sacrifice needed to be made up front between Gasol and Howard, but it wasn't. And it just would've been nice to see Kobe not have to seesaw between two different players as frequently.
In other words, it was a mess on any given night. The Lakers didn't have an authentic supply of role players. Rather, they had an influx of stars and egos that weren't able to balance the give with the take, and vice versa.
One look at the Los Angeles' current roster and depth chart, and it's clear it won't have the same problem next season.
Yet again, additions like Wesley Johnson aren't going to make the Lakers title contenders.
Bellow the "Never Say Never" chorus if you must, but that's not a realistic expectation. Not with Kobe a question mark for the first time ever, and not with Gasol and Nash returning from injury-plagued campaigns themselves.
Hollywood does have something going for it, though—an actual supporting cast. Mitch Kupchak has assembled a roster that preaches sensibility, addressing needs with players who will actually be open to filling them.
Gasol will move back to center, where he excels the most. Sans Howard, Kobe won't be jostling for position as the primary scorer. And with Kobe (mostly) shooting, the ball will be put back in Nash's hands, where it belongs.
The stars will be allowed to be the stars. More importantly, the supporting cast of actual role players will be asked to assist, not borderline carry, the team.
D'Antoni won't expect Johnson to defend the way World Peace could or score in excess of 17 points. Nick Young won't be asked to give the Lakers an edge over every other complementary scorer in the league the way Jamison was. Chris Kaman won't be expected to put up All-Star numbers next to Pau the way Howard was supposed to.
Tinseltown's incoming set of talent, however unproven or checkered, is accustomed to playing the roles they'll be asked to. Not to mention they may be better suited for them as well.
Habitually inefficient shooters like Young are crucified for the inordinate number of shots they carom off the rim, but he's just as equipped to score as Jamison—though likely within the starting lineup—and he's nearly two years removed from the unconditional green light he had in Washington.
Let's not pretend like Chris Kaman isn't a far better fit for D'Antoni's purposes than Howard was, either. He might not be able to run the floor as well, but he can score outside of the restricted area and may even be willing to come off the bench behind Gasol if the Lakers elect to run small (which they should).
To that end, the Lakers roster isn't entirely finished. They lack a model stretch forward, which is a must in D'Antoni's system, hence his heavy reliance on World Peace and Clark last season.
Something's there already, though. Los Angeles has a makeup of a team that can work together. With everyone healthy, they have the capability of running Nash at point, Kobe at shooting guard, Young at small forward and Pau at center. From there, they can start Jordan Hill or Chris Kaman at power forward or find a typical stretch 4 to provide some extra shooting.
That's what the Lakers needed really—options.
Guaranteeing a starting spot for a Big Three is a cinch. Doing so for a Big Four, especially when they don't complement one another, is more difficult. Toss in the fact that the Lakers finally have a number of interchangeable parts that are in no position to gripe or bemoan their playing time or role, and this could work.
It will work.
The Lakers aren't necessarily better off for shaking up their roster on the heels of Howard's departure, but they are still playoff worthy, able to at least duplicate last year's performance (health permitting).
They got younger, a bit more athletic and are prepared to field an outfit D'Antoni's pick-and-roll heavy, shoot-first-ask-questions-later offense won't clash with. They have a slew of Jodie Meeks types, meaning: actual role players. And they have the luxury of tapered expectations.
Few believe this team will do something, that their supporting cast can round out the rotation well enough to make the playoffs. Free from the impractical standard last year's assortment of conflicting role players, and team in general, were held to, the Lakers may just surprise some people.
Playoff berth and all.
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