With the Los Angeles Lakers falling lower and lower on the Western Conference ladder, now is a good time for them to ramp up the development of their young players and figure out whom they want to retain moving forward.
While tanking the season has never been a part of the team's culture, especially with Kobe Bryant on the roster, the Lakers may still be headed to the lottery even with the second return of the Black Mamba looming.
While older and more experienced hands like Pau Gasol have developed good chemistry with the energetic young talent and kept the Lakers competitive through the first 20 games of the season, the Lakers have struggled as of late. Now is the time for the Lakers to start managing the minutes of their veterans and their prospects in order to find a workable balance if they want to salvage the season.
Other than Kobe Bryant, most of the veterans on the roster aren't expected to be integral parts of the Lakers' future. However, some of the young talent like Nick Young and Jordan Farmar have shown that they could be important rotation players as the Lakers proceed into the Black Mamba's final run with the team.
The following players should receive less playing time for a variety of different reasons. These could vary from lack of productivity to extenuating circumstances.
Nobody is doubting Gasol's ability to produce when healthy. In fact, the big man has been on an absolute tear as of late. Averaging 18.9 points on 47.0 percent shooting from the field and gobbling up 10.9 rebounds per game in his last seven games, Gasol looks like he is in All-Star form. Unfortunately, the Lakers only won two of those seven games and are still out of the playoff picture.
Despite his productivity, if the recent trade rumors, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc J. Spears, were any indication, it doesn't look like Gasol is going to be a part of the Lakers' long-term future.
In fact, Gasol himself has indicated that, although he would like to stay with the Lakers, he wouldn't be adverse to exploring other options that could afford him the greatest chance of winning a championship, per NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper.
Therefore, a reduction in minutes could work out best in a variety of aspects. A reduction, in this case, wouldn't mean regulating Gasol to a bench role or anything drastic like that. It would just mean having Gasol play 30 minutes per game or less rather than the 36.7 minutes per game he has been averaging in January.
The Lakers would allow for Gasol to still be a dynamic player on the court while not running him ragged as they try to fight their way back into the playoff picture. In fact, a reduction in minutes doesn't mean Gasol wouldn't be playing in the clutch; reducing his minutes could make him more fresh once the fourth quarter hits.
It could also mean a little more time for Robert Sacre and Jordan Hill to continue to play huge and meaningful minutes for the Lakers. Sacre and possibly Hill are the Lakers' developing projects and could be cheaper options to re-sign than Gasol if the Lakers are still looking to sign another max-level player to pair alongside Bryant.
While Gasol is still going to be the second-best player on the team and the most talented big man on the roster, playing less minutes makes sense because the Lakers are losing anyways. Even though Gasol has been putting up All-Star numbers and producing like he hasn't produced since the Lakers' recent championship runs, the team has still lost two of their last seven. It would be a different story if Gasol's production correlated to wins.
Once Kobe Bryant returns, Gasol should play as many minutes as he can while they try to reintegrate the Black Mamba and make one final push for the playoffs.
However, with the Black Mamba and most of the other guards on the roster out with injuries, it doesn't make sense to overexert Gasol in losing efforts. The Lakers should reduce his minutes to rest him while the rest of the roster gets healthy.
No disrespect to the young prospect, but there is no way Ryan Kelly should be playing more minutes than Chris Kaman. While this may be counterintuitive to the idea of developing younger prospects in losing efforts rather than overexerting veterans in futile attempts, Kelly simply isn't ready to play as many minutes as he has.
While it may make sense to play Kelly an extended amount of minutes, there are already two young prospects manning the frontcourt.
Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre are clearly more talented, have more upside at this point in their careers and are rightfully playing huge minutes. The Lakers need veterans to help steer the ship if they want to have any hope of making the playoffs.
The team is already relying on two young and unproven big men in Hill and Sacre. Sacrificing the contributions of a proven veteran like Kaman in order to develop three big men on a team that isn't sure if it has enough in the tank for a final playoff push doesn't seem too prudent.
It would definitely be understandable to give Kelly the 27 minutes he played against the Dallas Mavericks on January 7 on a consistent basis if the Lakers were going to tank the entire season. However, by retaining Gasol despite the trade rumors, the Lakers look like they're ready to give it one last shot.
Kaman is a proven interior scorer and has a decent jumper that allows him to stretch the floor. While he isn't a stretch big man like Kelly is, he rebounds, defends, sets picks and does almost everything else better than Kelly does. At the very least, Kaman should be seeing an equal amount of minutes as Kelly instead of racking up DNP's like nobody's business.
If the Lakers are still unable to succeed when Bryant, Young, Farmar, Xavier Henry and Steve Blake return from their respective injuries, then Kelly should get all the playing time he can handle.
However, if the Lakers are looking to tread water until they can make one more push when completely healthy, they should consider reducing Kelly's minutes and allocating them to Sacre, Hill and Kaman.
All stats are accurate as of January 7, 2014 and are from stats.NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.