LA Lakers on the Lookout for Leadership as Big Changes Loom

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LA Lakers on the Lookout for Leadership as Big Changes Loom
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Kent Bazemore’s for-style-only glasses were on his face, and MarShon Brooks wore bright red sneakers that showed he even has the same attention-grabbing fashion as shoot-first teammate Nick Young.

Some of the young Los Angeles Lakers, including new arrivals Bazemore and Brooks, were huddling before leaving the locker room at Staples Center about late Friday night social plans, the sort of thing it makes sense to do if you’re a young Los Angeles Laker.

The Lakers had just beaten the Sacramento Kings, in part because of Bazemore’s defense and Brooks’ offense. The superficial recap is that Pau Gasol scored 22 points, Brooks 23 and Jordan Farmar 30 to lift the Lakers to a rare victory—and yes, the points were definitely part of it.

The leadership of Gasol and Farmar was more of it.

And it was a reminder that if his next season is going to be much better than this one, Kobe Bryant is going to need more than good health and more athletic teammates.

Flashback to Bryant’s tweet a week ago about being “not cool … AT ALL” with the Lakers trading feisty veteran Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for prospects Bazemore and Brooks.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Few knew much about Bazemore and Brooks at the time. Heck, in nearly a half-hour news conference with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak at the trade deadline, not one reporter asked him why he wanted Bazemore and Brooks—the media focus locked on the Lakers’ greater struggles and rebuilding challenges.

Kupchak’s job, though, is to find young talent for the rebuild. Kupchak’s tougher task might well turn out to be finding anyone to share the leadership responsibility with Bryant.

There’s currently no reason not to use the stretch provision to waive injury-weakened, albeit proven leader, Steve Nash this summer.

The Lakers aren’t going to be out there offering multi-year deals to average veteran players given the club’s goal to maintain salary-cap space for future years. They aren’t sure they’ll even go after a top free agent such as Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh (if he opts out), or even the lesser types such as Luol Deng or Kyle Lowry, essentially to replace Gasol as Bryant’s partner atop the hierarchy.

It wasn’t just better talent that got the Lakers bouncing back from that horrid non-playoff 2004-05 season. Ask Bryant and he’ll tell you that there was a culture shift from a roster of too many kids trying to do their own stuff toward guys who understood how to build a collective team work ethic.

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Gasol was a late part of that change, and now he is trying to appreciate his likely last days as a Laker. Gasol tried on defense far harder Friday night than in most games this season. That tenacity is something the Lakers have been missing in their paint, as explained by Mike D’Antoni after the game: “We have a hard time guarding the rim. We have a hard time being tough.”

To that end, Emeka Okafor, 31, would be an ideal acquisition in free agency. Having missed all season because of a herniated disc in his neck, Okafor might well be available on a contract with only one guaranteed year—and he is a proven defensive paint presence who covers up others’ mistakes.

The Lakers will be in dire need for defensive leadership next season, but they’ll also need their point guard to create more than shots.

There is belief within the organization that Farmar, 27, can legitimately play at this sort of consistently high level in D’Antoni’s system, and there’s no doubt that the fire Farmar brings to the court is something the Lakers also are lacking.

Don’t forget that Farmar, drafted by the Lakers in 2006, has been in Kobe’s camp for even longer than Gasol. Farmar’s consistent positivity during what has been a woefully disappointing season for him with a twice-torn hamstring has been shocking for those who remember him resisting and complaining under Phil Jackson.

“We have a young group, and he’s not one of the young ones anymore,” Gasol said about Farmar.

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Farmar will also be a free agent, but his desire to be in his hometown Los Angeles is plain. The onus will be on him to stay healthy the rest of the season and show he’s not just someone the Lakers might be able to re-sign for cheap, but rather someone who could be a leader for this team in the future.

D’Antoni allowed he might soon start Farmar over faltering and defensively woeful Kendall Marshall but intends to keep Farmar’s minutes to fewer than 30 per game with the hamstring history.

“Whoever’s playing better finishes the game,” D’Antoni said about Marshall and Farmar.

That’s hardly the best-case scenario for a Lakers team that has been hurt by D’Antoni’s tendency to wait for guys to earn minutes as opposed to knowing what the team needs and being able to elicit it from the better players.

D’Antoni is, however, good at freeing role players to grow, and one of the goals for the rest of season will be to develop wild horses such as Bazemore and Brooks.

That’s the Bazemore who offered this eye-opening evaluation about Brooks after his big game: “He’s like a young Kobe, and he showed it. He made big shots down the stretch.”

Brooks, meanwhile, backed that up with his words: "Since my sophomore (NBA) year, I was in and out of the rotation, and it wasn’t ever because I was playing bad. It was just luck.”

OK, then. Those two might help, but they aren’t likely to be Lakers leaders real soon. Who is? Chris Kaman, the only current player besides Bryant, Gasol and Nash with more than six years in the league? Please. With the direction D’Antoni is heading with his rotation, we’ll probably never see Kaman on the court again.

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Jodie Meeks and Young have brought laudable efforts and pride to the Lakers this season, but neither fits the mold to help drive a team. They also might not be back next season.

You can see why Bryant is so sensitive about his team losing leadership voices.

But one guy was berating Robert Sacre on Friday night for a mistake in just the way Bryant has done time after time with Gasol and many others. It was Farmar, who has been coaching Sacre hard since training camp, and he did later explain his point on the court more clearly.

And before heading home to his wife and two daughters, Farmar referred this way to Brooks, who started 47 games to Farmar’s five when they were 2011-12 New Jersey Nets teammates: “He’s a good kid. I want to see him do well.”

By both actions and words, Farmar is announcing his candidacy. And there sure are vacancies for future leadership of the Lakers.

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