Composed of a cabal of human DVDs from the video store's $5 bin, three aging Hall of Famers playing out their twilight years and an ornery coach who was best known to some fans as "Not Phil" last season, the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers are nothing if not adaptable.
Mike D'Antoni's rotating cast features 11 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game (minimum 10 games played). On any night Xavier Henry could play 30 minutes or 12 depending on the situation. When Jordan Hill's special brand of energy is best served towel-waving instead of banging bodies, his minutes could cut in thirds.
The state of flux has only increased since Kobe Bryant's return.
With Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and Steve Nash all out with injuries, D'Antoni was forced to move Bryant essentially to a full-time point guard role. Keep in mind that point guard is the deepest position in the league, a never-ending run of young, athletic players who could run any 25-year-old man ragged—let alone one a decade older coming off an Achilles injury.
"I don't really have a choice right now," Bryant said, via USA Today's Adi Joseph. "I've got to get out there and do a lot more than expected in terms of handling the ball and doing significantly more running."
Bryant's first couple forays into running the point was a mixed bag. He and his Lakers teammates were dreadful in a 122-97 loss to Oklahoma City on Friday, with Bryant finishing with 13 assists but nearly double as many turnovers (seven) as points. Things went a bit better a day later against Charlotte, as Bryant had 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and a somewhat misleading seven turnovers. The Lakers, particularly Pau Gasol, seemed to have a case of the dropsies in Los Angeles' 88-85 win.
That said, it's been a layup line for opposing point guards. Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook both got to the rim with ease, finding open teammates and getting themselves easy scoring opportunities.
The implication is clear: The Lakers need help. And not just at point guard. This roster is a leaky faucet, slowly dripping life that Bryant just can't inject at this point in his recovery. For all of his willingness to adapt and develop into a new role, the reality is that Bryant is no longer one of the handful of NBA players whose presence single-handedly guarantees playoff contention.
That's just fine. He's 35. Michael Jordan was entering his second retirement at this age. Kobe needs help; the Lakers need help. Unfortunately, it takes just one look at this roster to calcify the stance that the cavalry isn't coming.
When ESPN's Chris Broussard reported that the Lakers engaged the Knicks in trade talks for guard Iman Shumpert (via Pro Basketball Talk's Brett Pollakoff), you could see the machinations. Shumpert is the exact type of player the Lakers have eschewed in their quest for instant gratification but would have found a home with D'Antoni.
He's an athletic wing who can guard three positions when committed (not a small deal), has some experience as a primary ball-handler and can shoot the three. I have little doubt that not only would Shumpert welcome the move to Los Angeles, but he'd also thrive in D'Antoni's system.
And then you look at the Lakers' roster. The Knicks, like the Lakers, are trying to compete for a playoff spot now. Any Shumpert deal is going to bring in a veteran, preferably one who can help in the defensive middle when Tyson Chandler is off the floor. New York isn't going to ship Shumpert out for future first-round picks, and the Lakers' selections are tied up through at least 2015 due to the Nash and Dwight Howard trades anyway.
Hill is the only Laker for whom you can squint really hard and talk yourself into a Shumpert deal, but he's basically persona non grata in Madison Square Garden. Knicks fans will always see him as the guy their team wasted a lottery pick on and then traded for the decaying Tracy McGrady.
More interesting was the theory floated by Broussard that the Lakers could engage New York in a possible Gasol-for-Chandler swap, but that's also quickly refuted by simple logic.
Gasol's expiring contract (his calling card as a trade chip) is meaningless to the Knicks; any Carmelo Anthony re-signing will automatically put them back over the cap, even with Gasol coming off the books. New York would rather keep Chandler for next season and then allow him to expire in the summer of 2015—when the Knicks' clouded cap picture starts to clear.
It's just one trade scenario with one team, but it carries over.
Even in a league that has employed Billy King for the better part of two decades, you're going to have trouble finding a general manager incompetent enough to send a real asset to Los Angeles in exchange for an Xavier Henry-Wesley Johnson package. Here is where you mention Kwame Brown-for-Pau Gasol and get all misty-eyed, but good luck finding that deal today.
Clichè as it is to say at this point, the NBA is getting smarter. In the past, Masai Ujiri probably could have fleeced an unsuspecting general manager for multiple future first-round picks for Rudy Gay. Now Ujiri is trading Gay in an obvious salary vomit and we're all praising him.
That's how the NBA works now. Teams lacking in assets are purposely tanking to obtain assets, ones they hope will either develop into superstars or be later flipped for an established, disgruntled player.
Every general manager wants to be his team's Daryl Morey. And a majority of the teams that aren't tanking either have a legitimate shot at winning the title, are looking to add assets to get to that plateau or are merely competing for a playoff spot to save their general manager's job.
The Lakers are none of those things. They are the worst of the murky middle. They aren't going to be bad enough to have a legitimate chance of landing Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker—the team is a 35-win fit in D'Antoni's system. They aren't going to be good enough to make the playoffs—the Western Conference is just too fierce.
These things aren't changing, partially because the Lakers don't want them to. It may be prudent to start throwing All-Stars overboard Danny Ainge-style, but that's not the way this management group works.
This is the reason why I've backed off my criticism of the Bryant extension a bit. I still dislike the deal in a vacuum (as everyone should), but it's starting to seem like the Lakers have finally taken stock of their post-Howard situation. Kupchak, Jim Buss and others can paint a rosy, LeBron-colored picture, but Kobe's fat extension was an acknowledgement that the King won't be taking his talents to Los Angeles. Neither will Carmelo. Or likely any free agent that will bring the Lakers back to championship contention.
The behind-the-scenes shuffling point, instead, to a big run at either the summer of 2015 or 2016—or even both. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Brook Lopez and many others comprise a list of the players who will come available in the next couple summers—all of whom you could talk yourself into being L.A.-bound for one reason or another.
At the very least, this restructuring is more realistic than any LeBron fantasy.
Admittedly, asking for that patience is a lot because the current reality is bleak. The current reality is a creaky Kobe averaging more than six turnovers a game at point guard. The current reality is waiting for a Pau Gasol rejuvenation that looks more unlikely by the day. The current reality is employing a series of also-rans who work their behinds off but cannot overcome the fact they are not very good at professional basketball.
That may change someday, but today is not that day.
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