Chris Kaman's first season with the Los Angeles Lakers wasn't the audition he was hoping for. He's played in just 39 games this season due to a combination of injury and head coach Mike D'Antoni's preference for small lineups. His averages (10.4 points, 5.9 rebounds) are respectable but underwhelming. And he doesn't seem to be having a good time.
Regarding his situation and limited playing time in Los Angeles, Kaman said in December, "It's absolutely not what I was looking for," according to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. Most signs point to a disaffection with D'Antoni, an utter failure to understand how his talent could go wasted on a team that's badly needed all hands on deck.
From D'Antoni's standpoint, Kaman just seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
D'Antoni's explanation suggests that he's making player development a higher priority than winning (per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan and Eric Pincus):
When you do the math, if you're going to play Pau 30 minutes, that leaves 18 minutes someplace. You'd like to play Robert [Sacre] because he's developing. Even if you play Robert 10 minutes, that leaves eight or nine for Chris. He said he didn't want to play that.
But that kind of breakdown has been of little consolation to a 31-year-old looking to make the most of his remaining prime. You can understand Kaman's frustration. He's clearly better than either Sacre or Kelly, and the Lakers clearly haven't been winning.
Kaman reasons to be one of the few solutions for a coach who's fresh out of options. Only he hasn't been, even remotely.
The Lakers could let Kaman walk as a free agent, but they'd be wise to do otherwise. Counterintuitive though it may seem after a season like this one, there are good reasons to keep the Caveman in the fold. That may become even easier now that he's at least sounding more agreeable when it comes to D'Antoni and his system.
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding writes that Kaman's tone has changed radically:
It’s been a tough year for him, as it has been for a lot of guys. Me, in particular, just being in and out, in and out, just trying to figure my way through all of this, I can sort of put myself in his shoes and try to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘What would I do if I was him?’ And it’s hard to answer that question; it’s a tough position.
Especially with all the injuries we’ve had and all the different things we’ve had to go through, I think it’s no easy task for a coach. Especially with the Lakers. This is a first-rate organization, and they do things better than most. They’re used to winning, and it’s a lot of pressure. And all these injuries didn’t make it any easier for him.
It's anyone's guess how much of that Kaman actually believes. He may have just decided a change of attitude was in order. He may just be feigning that change of attitude. Either way, the sentiments represent a marked improvement over what was apparently a broken relationship.
Kaman now sounds like someone who's at least amenable to having a working relationship with his coach. That's progress, and it's significant progress for a guy as outspoken as Kaman.
Good feelings aside, Kaman can still play—at least when given the opportunity. He put up 28 points, 17 rebounds and six assists in Sunday's victory over the Phoenix Suns, looking every bit like a player who deserves way more than the $3.2 million he's making this season.
Back in February, Kaman scored 25 and 27 in back-to-back games, demonstrating that the most recent explosion wasn't entirely a fluke. The last time Kaman played anywhere near 30 minutes per game (2011-12 with New Orleans), he averaged 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. Those are solid numbers for a starter.
The seven-footer has long been capable of scoring in a variety of ways, either with his back to the basket in the post or from the mid-range. In many ways, he's a slightly less mobile version of Pau Gasol.
And that's been part of the problem. While Gasol was recently intrigued with the prospect of playing alongside Kaman, both big men agreed that the experiment didn't go particularly well Tuesday night.
Kaman was only 6-of-16 shooting from the field, and Gasol was just 4-of-9 shooting. The Portland Trail Blazers collapsed to the paint and prevented any sustained attack in the post, perhaps reaffirming D'Antoni's commitment to smaller lineups in the process.
Of course, one game is a small sample size, and there are surely ways to find minutes for both should they remain on the roster in 2014-15.
At the very least, Kaman could develop into something of a sixth man. If the Lakers do re-sign Gasol, they'll have to keep an eye on his minutes. Kaman would make it easier to do so, potentially playing somewhere on the order of 25 minutes a night, most of which without Gasol on the floor.
That seemed to be the plan coming into this season before things fell apart. With a better working relationship between Kaman and D'Antoni, however, there's no reason in principle the arrangement couldn't work out.
Then there's the very real possibility that Los Angeles doesn't bring Gasol back.
Speaking to ESPN LA's Dave McMenamin about free agency, Gasol said, "It would be nice to be in that position," intimating that he is intrigued by the possibility of controlling his fate. That sounds like someone who's at least entertaining the notion of leaving Los Angeles, regardless of the organization's intentions.
If Gasol goes, Kaman becomes that much higher a priority.
What if Sacre doesn't work out? Even if he takes a step forward next season, it's hard to argue he'll be better than Kaman.
You also have to wonder whether the emphasis will remain on player development when Kobe Bryant comes back. It's one thing for D'Antoni to talk about getting Sacre minutes in a year like this, but will Kobe stand for that when wins and losses are on the line?
The reality is Kaman's a bargain—and the Lakers need every bargain they can get. They can live with his sometimes sour attitude. They can afford to spare him the minutes he deserves, with or without Gasol around. And they can afford to keep him around for another two or three years without seriously jeopardizing their prized cap space.
Skilled big men who can score don't grow on trees. Those who aren't sold on Kaman would be wise to ask themselves what the alternatives are. Where else will they find a guy consistently capable of putting up 10 and 5 at a rate of less than $5 million per year?
Patience is a virtue in this league, and that cuts both ways. The organization should understand Kaman's frustrations with uneven playing time. Kaman should similarly accept the circumstances under which that uneven playing time came. Given time to regroup and find a rotation that works, Kaman could be on his way to much bigger and better things.
The Lakers certainly will be.