ATLANTA — The conservative expectations for this Los Angeles Lakers team are altogether different from last season. In 2012-13, Kobe Bryant’s fully functioning foot and Dwight Howard’s upside raised the Lakers roof for the entire sports world.
Not that there still isn't pressure, which can lead to panic. When the Lakers lose, the massive fanbase isn’t inclined to be patient—even though that was probably Jerry Buss’ greatest skill, to wait and wait and wait until just the perfect time to make the big, bold move and change the franchise’s fortunes.
For this final generation of Bryant’s Lakers, there may or may not be a true all-in moment for Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak before No. 24's contract expires in 2016.
Bryant certainly hopes so, which is why he slipped Saturday night in Charlotte and cited his ongoing desire to play in June and the need for improvements. He said, “whether it’s with the guys we have in the locker room or whatever management wants to do.”
Maybe Bryant knows something’s percolating; he has been informed in the past when the Lakers are cooking a trade. He tried quickly to backpedal on the comment by adding, “I have no idea about that. It’s not my job to focus on that.”
It is obvious to Bryant that the Lakers lack size and defense. He asked for more length and speed after last season and got some of that stuff. However, the NBA’s eighth-worst team in rebounding percentage, the Atlanta Hawks, just took it to the Lakers on the boards in the second half Monday night.
Shocking? No. The Lakers are fifth worst in rebounding percentage coming in, according to TeamRankings.com. That’s why they keep turning back to Jordan Hill for interior energy, even though Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni prefers a stretch 4 and isn’t sold Hill can sustain his gusto as a 30-minute-per-night player.
If the Lakers can make a trade, their primary need is to land an athletic big man who can rebound and defend like crazy. Further, he can't disrupt an offense that has a long way to go in melding D’Antoni’s quick-passing tempo with Bryant’s ball-stopping creativity. (That’s a cruel reminder how Howard was supposed to be just that guy…but, well, he wasn’t.)
Second best would be an athletic wing player who can rebound and defend like crazy and shoot threes. The fallback option there is needing Wesley Johnson to morph into an in-his-prime Shawn Marion by, like, next month.
For all the Pau Gasol rumors, the Lakers are perfectly fine keeping him the rest of the season, which would allow Bryant to believe he still has a fighting title chance here and now. The Lakers hope the Kobe-Pau magic re-emerges, but they’ve long ago embraced the financial benefit of just letting Gasol’s $19.3 million salary slide off the books.
Not only is it difficult to find a landing spot for a salary that big, even if it is expiring, but the Lakers are limited in the kind of players they would want back. They are determined not to have salary beyond 2016, hopefully not beyond 2015 and preferably not even beyond 2014.
The Lakers are intent on dropping below the luxury-tax plateau this offseason. They do have flexibility to add one huge free agent to go with Bryant—without Gasol. Another topic, way premature for now, would be a losing Lakers team maybe dumping salary come February to avoid paying luxury tax this season.
That’s why stringing Gasol along makes sense. It allows the Lakers to let the market—no one knows who will want to come to Los Angeles and when—dictate to them instead of force-feeding a move in a specific year.
The recent offseason was proof that the Lakers, still a desirable destination, can bring in decent guys with potential despite offering only one-year, low-pay deals. As a result, they can keep living year to year while awaiting their big splash.
But if a trade can be made—whether with Gasol or somehow with Steve Nash or more realistically Chris Kaman (under contract for just this season at $3.2 million)—the Lakers are interested in improving the team this season. They just don’t have many future draft picks to sweeten trade offers, so they’re very limited.
It’s not a tanking plan—it’s more a patient plan.
So does Omer Asik, an interior defensive force ready to be traded from the Houston Rockets, make sense for the Lakers to pursue?
He’d be a huge upgrade for the current team. But unless Houston or a third team in the Asik trade has a magic pill to cure Nash’s nerve problem and wants to trade for him, the Lakers would be committing to paying Asik an extra $8.4 million next season. That isn’t necessarily ideal for them.
The Lakers want so much future flexibility and have so few current assets besides Gasol that it’s a mighty challenge for them to make a great trade right now. And Gasol’s value doesn’t match his pay, making it even harder.
Nevertheless, like a skittish horse who has been lashed too many times, Gasol knows anything can happen when the Lakers’ pressure point reaches panic. He has been playing a lot better as his ankle sprain improves and Bryant continually pushes him on the court to reach for more, and Gasol believes he and the team need more to improve his odds of staying through the season.
“Trying to get wins,” he said Monday night, “so things don’t get messy.”