Believe it or not, the Los Angeles Lakers are better off in 2013-14.
Sure, the losses of both Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace would cripple just about any franchise. But the Lakers may be the exception.
Let’s just call it addition by subtraction.
Los Angeles is coming off its worst season since 2007. The team finished 45-37, needed all 82 games to lock up a postseason berth and was swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. Not exactly the results GM Mitch Kupchak was looking for when he brought in Howard and Steve Nash over the summer.
Now, the Lakers are spending their entire offseason prepping for a future littered with questions.
Just fine. More than likely. Yes.
While it’s easy to speculate that the Lakers are heading towards a monumental disaster next season, there are several reasons to believe otherwise.
Moving the Rock
There’s no doubting the significant impact Howard has on a team. He's not only a dangerous low-post scorer but also a tremendous rebounder and great shot-blocker.
However, with Howard in the lineup, Los Angeles struggled to move the ball.
Over 2,722 minutes with the big man on the floor, the team averaged just 21.7 assists and committed 15.4 turnovers per game. During the 1,229 minutes Howard was on the bench, the Lakers averaged 24 assists and 13.2 turnovers per game.
Not only does the team distribute the basketball a lot more easily in Howard’s absence, but there were fewer mistakes made in the process.
As Nash mentioned to Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell, part of the problem could be due to Howard’s unwillingness to run the pick-and-roll—a staple of head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
The decision itself makes little to no sense.
For starters, Howard played in a similar offense during his eight seasons with the Orlando Magic. Then there’s the fact that nobody runs the pick-and-roll better than Nash.
As you can see, Nash helped both Gortat—with the Phoenix Suns—and Gasol increase their efficiency when he was on the court. The same cannot be said for Howard.
One possible reason could be traced back to Howard’s favoritism towards taking on opponents one-on-one down low. It was a strategy that left Nash without the ball more often than not.
Besides eliminating Los Angeles’ chances for easy buckets, Howard’s tactics take away one of the biggest advantages of having Nash on the floor. If you recall, this is the same guy who helped Amar’e Stoudemire increase his scoring from 20.6 points per game to 26.1 during their first season together on the Suns (2004-05).
And Howard couldn’t reap the same benefits?
Injuries to both Howard and Nash surely prevented the duo from really clicking. However, even 100 percent healthy, Howard seemed to be too stubborn to give into a system that likely could have made the Lakers a real threat in the Western Conference.
It was his way or the highway.
Luckily, the team doesn’t need to deal with that going forward. And better ball movement is likely the reward.
Will the Real Pau Please Stand Up?
One of the biggest effects of Howard’s stint in Los Angeles was Gasol’s diminished role in the offense.
After averaging 36 or more minutes a night for four straight seasons, he logged just 33.8 last year—his lowest total since 2005. Furthermore, Gasol’s 11.8 field-goal attempts per game ranked as his worst mark in his 12-year NBA career.
As expected, Gasol didn’t have the most impressive stat line, averaging 13.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He also shot a career-worst 46.6 percent from the field.
Sure, injuries could have played a large part in the poor play—Gasol missed 33 games due to knee injuries—but his positioning on the court is far more to blame.
Ever since trading for Gasol back in 2008, the Lakers have experimented with him at both center and power forward. With Howard last year and Andrew Bynum the year before, Gasol was utilized primarily at power forward.
Going by some of the 33-year-old’s most recent numbers, that’s a crying shame.
It’s obvious that Gasol is most efficient at center. By playing him at forward, Los Angeles is basically surrendering Gasol’s quickness and athleticism advantages almost every night.
The presence of Howard on the court didn’t seem to help matters much either.
Over 994 minutes with Howard on the court, Gasol averaged 18.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.5 turnovers and 1.5 blocks per 48 minutes. He also shot 45.9 percent from the floor while posting an offensive rating of 103.5 and a defensive rating of 104.2.
On the other hand, over 661 minutes with Howard on the bench, Gasol averaged 21 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.3 turnovers and 2.2 blocks per 48 minutes. He also shot 47.8 percent from the field while registering an offensive rating of 110 and a defensive rating of 100.8.
Now, without Howard or Bynum to stand in his way, expect Gasol to re-assume his position as the top center on the Lakers depth chart.
It’s a simple move that could prove far more effective than landing Howard last summer.
Making Peace with Less
The news that Los Angeles chose to part ways with World Peace didn’t sit well with many. One of those not too happy about the news was the Black Mamba himself.
Regardless, it was a move that was quite necessary for the Lakers.
By waiving World Peace via the NBA’s amnesty provision, the team will save about $15 million in luxury taxes. However, Los Angeles is still responsible for paying the 33-year-old’s $7.7 million salary next season.
While World Peace won’t be an easy player to replace, the team has done well to bring in some low-cost additions.
First, the Lakers utilized their taxpayer mid-level exception ($3.2M) to sign Chris Kaman, per the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Pincus. For a player that has averaged 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game over the past four seasons, Kaman is an absolute steal.
Los Angeles found another bargain by adding Nick Young on a one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum, via ESPN.
Young possesses the scoring ability of Jamal Crawford and Brandon Jennings. Although he averaged just 10.6 points per game with the Philadelphia 76ers last season, he posted marks of 17.4 points and 16.6 points with the Washington Wizards in 2010-11 and 2011-12 respectively. At 28, Young still has a lot to offer.
Although the Lakers still want to be competitive next season, the team also wants to set itself up to be big spenders for next season’s free agency. It’s a class that’s headlined by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Zack Randolph.
As of now, per Hoopsworld, Los Angeles only has the contracts of Nash ($9.7M) and Robert Sacre ($915,243) on its books for next year. That’s a guaranteed total of just $10.6 million.
Winning may be the team’s biggest priority next season. However, if all else fails, the Lakers are sure to make a splash next summer.
Summing It All Up
Los Angeles isn’t likely to win the NBA title next season. But the team’s not likely to be at the bottom of the standings either.
There still is a lot of talent remaining on the roster.
Although they are all in their 30s, Bryant, Gasol and Nash are still very capable of leading the Lakers to success. Just two seasons ago, the Boston Celtics came within one game of the NBA Finals with a trio—Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen—all on the wrong side of 30.
Last season shouldn’t be the measuring stick to determine just how successful this team can be. Don’t forget that Bryant, Gasol, Nash and Howard all dealt with injuries throughout the season. Yet the team still managed to finish eight games over .500, capturing the franchise’s eighth straight postseason bid in the process.
It’s never wise to bet against Los Angeles. Especially in a season where Bryant will feel he has a lot to prove.
Hey…stranger things have happened in sports.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com’s Media Central (subscription is required).