The following is Part II of a three-part series on the future of the Los Angeles Lakers, written by Kevin Ding, who has covered the team since 1999. Part I was on the front office, Part III on the upcoming draft.
LOS ANGELES — The issue for the Los Angeles Lakers used to be how well guys could play alongside Kobe Bryant when he possesses the ball so much and the team's personality even more.
Bryant's absence for all but six games this season foiled the Lakers' plans for playoff contention and pretty much expunged all joy from Lakerland, but it did create a whole new dynamic:
No Kobe. Let's see what you other guys got.
Some, such as Jodie Meeks and Nick Young, jumped at the chance. Others, such as Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill, blew golden opportunities to establish themselves on a higher level in this league.
Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar pretty much sat in the training room in pain instead of running the pick-and-rolls that would've formed the team's creative identity. Pau Gasol reaffirmed he's never going to be a No. 1 option on any team anywhere again.
Problem is, for the pure tryouts to result in pure team basketball, you need a strong coach and good health—leading to stability to evaluate everyone fairly. Mike D'Antoni's inability to identify his top players coming out of training camp, followed by an avalanche of injuries, made it impossible for the Lakers to establish a structure this season. They used 35 different starting lineups.
You could also make the argument that most of these guys just aren't very good—and cemented that status this season. When the Lakers lost their recent games without Bryant, Gasol, Nash and Chris Kaman because of injury, Hill ($3.6 million) was the only Laker making more than $1.65 million, which is pretty amazing.
The Lakers were nearly paying Chris Duhon ($1.55 million) that much not to play for them. For context, the average NBA salary is more than $5 million.
That's not an excuse, though, for so many of these players to not be playing consistently harder. Meeks was the only one who had the kind of flat-out effort on a consistent basis that leads one to walk away at the end, saying, "That guy really brought it this season."
A free agent, Meeks is the Laker most likely to have earned a significant salary increase. With incentives this season, Meeks is making $1.65 million.
Who could've imagined that Meeks over the course of the next two years would be a more meaningful contributor to the Lakers than the guys who arrived at the same time: Dwight Howard, Nash and Antawn Jamison?
This season, Meeks stepped up as a scorer—showing why he has always believed he is a scorer, not just a shooter—with 15.6 points per game (previous career high: 10.5) on a career-high 45.8 percent field-goal shooting. He was also valuable on defense, often asked to hound the opposing point guard and consistently deliver steals.
Young was crucial to the team in a different way. Despite a selfish-gunner reputation that D'Antoni admitted even the coach believed preseason, Young was absolutely impressive with his pride in being a Laker.
He also showed his scoring, which D'Antoni calls a "special talent," is for real: Young can jump-start any team, as seen by him averaging 18.5 points this season when he doesn't start (highest in the NBA among players coming off the bench at least 20 times, according to the Lakers). Young is tied for fourth in the NBA in points per touch (0.44).
Even though Young regressed as the season wore on, his defensive alertness started falling off at the same time his locker-room tardiness spiked, he fought through a late-season knee injury, and he was invaluable for his ability to bring lightness to the locker room without being a total joke.
Both Young, who is expected to opt out of his contract paying him $1.2 million next season, and Meeks like the idea of staying with Lakers, but the Lakers plan to be awfully picky about offering deals that go beyond just next season. The Lakers' plan is to preserve salary-cap space for 2015 offseason and free-agent runs at the likes of LeBron James (if he opts out), Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol.
That short-term approach could inhibit the returns of Meeks and Young and definitely will hurt the Lakers even in pursuing mid-range free agents who make sense such as Shaun Livingston, Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce. The Lakers are likely to let players such as Meeks and Young go out and gauge their market value and come back to see if the Lakers are willing to pay the going rate to keep them.
Meeks is more likely to cash in than Young, who still carries his past stigma with him; Farmar wants to stay also, and it would make sense for him to try to prove himself again with the Lakers next season.
With as much as Bryant wants to see some meaningful action, there are home run moves that could be made this offseason: James opts out and wants to come to the Lakers. They decide they can and should make a run at Bryant's buddy Carmelo Anthony or bet big for restricted free agent Gordon Hayward or possible restricted free agent Chandler Parsons.
They come up with a way to land or even trade for restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe despite a dearth of trade assets, except for their first-round draft pick they are limited in their ability to trade, by NBA rule.
But if nothing big shakes out, the Lakers are expected to keep Bryant, Nash, Kent Bazemore, Farmar or Kendall Marshall, Sacre and Kelly. They would probably fill out the rest of the roster in a similar style as last offseason, when Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sought out post-hype sleepers such as Johnson, Young, Farmar and Xavier Henry at minimum salaries with some jackpot potential.
If D'Antoni and his speed-ball style don't return, the type of players would change, but the Lakers still need upgrades in athleticism and defense, however you look at it. For all his physical gifts and highlight moments, Johnson was consistently without courage or heart; Hill couldn't keep his energy or defensive rotations up.
The Lakers unquestionably will need size and rim protection with Sacre, the only classic big man projected to return. Pau Gasol's chances of re-signing improve if D'Antoni is out, but the shallow pool of free-agent bigs and a sense from both parties that it's time to move on make it likely Gasol's tenure as a Laker ends at six-and-a-half seasons.
Here's a projection of what the Lakers roster, not including their first-round pick, might look like next season based on the limited terms under which the Lakers could be shopping:
|PG||Ramon Sessions||Jordan Farmar||Steve Nash|
|SG||Kobe Bryant||Kent Bazemore||Manny Harris|
|SF||Al-Farouq Aminu||Nick Young||Chris Singleton|
|PF||Michael Beasley||Greg Smith||Ryan Kelly|
|C||Emeka Okafor||Robert Sacre|
No doubt the Lakers will be looking for a better second option than is listed there to help Bryant carry the scoring load. But if the club is intent on protecting its 2015 cap space to follow through on the promise not to settle for less than championship-level talent, the roster might not be much prettier next season than now.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.