The Biggest Takeaways from Los Angeles Lakers' 2013-14 Regular Season
Are there silver linings to the Los Angeles Lakers' 27-55 campaign?
Is there a chance that head coach Mike D’Antoni could actually return, despite seemingly endless vitriol from the fanbase?
Will Kobe Bryant and/or Steve Nash be able to overcome health issues and bounce back in 2014-15?
Lakers fans are searching for answers to a variety of questions after years of championship contention and a number of Larry O’Brien trophies, but they'll have to spend the next few months focusing on the biggest takeaways from an abysmal season.
Losing Dwight Howard for nothing in return via 2013 free agency doomed the team’s short-term and long-term future. His departure for the Houston Rockets has sent the organization into a tailspin marred with injuries and blowout losses, but the Lakers always seem to find a way.
The franchise needs a makeover from top to bottom. At the very least, it can bank on the fact that a swift turnaround has happened before.
Solid Role Players?
Despite finishing with the worst record in franchise history since the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, a collection of role players experienced career years under Coach D’Antoni.
Jodie Meeks, for instance, notched career highs in points (15.7 per game), field-goal percentage (46.3 percent) and three-point percentage (40.1 percent). A 42-point explosion against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 9—when he cashed 6-of-11 treys and all 14 of his free-throw attempts—highlighted his best year in the pros.
Kendall Marshall made it look as if he was throwing shots into the Pacific Ocean from beyond the arc before going ice-cold down the stretch. He continued to do what he does best, however, by dishing out 8.8 assists per game.
Nick Young led the team by scoring 17.9 points per contest, Jordan Hill had a career year, despite not getting rewarded with big minutes and even Kent Bazemore showed flashes of promise after the trade that sent Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors.
The question now is whether those guys broke out because of D’Antoni’s favorable offensive system or due to their own maturation and confidence.
The role players did a tremendous job for L.A. throughout the year. The second unit even managed to finish second in the league by scoring 42.3 bench points per game, according to HoopsStats.com.
There are clearly some promising pieces here, but management needs to narrow down its choices and avoid re-signing fool’s gold.
Mike D'Antoni Out?
“Mike is under contract for two more years,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said, per Yahoo! Sports’ Marc J. Spears. “If anything changes, we will let you know.”
Mum has been the word out of L.A. with regard to D’Antoni’s job security—that is, at least from Lakers management.
ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith, for instance, cited a source in March that said D’Antoni would be “gone at the end of the season,” per Lakers Nation’s Corey Hansford.
On top of that, Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported shortly afterward that Bryant has “no interest” in playing for the offensive-minded coach next season, according to a source.
D’Antoni is still under contract through the 2014-15 year, but if the majority of fans had their way, "Mike D" would have been relieved of his duties long ago. It’s not his fault that the roster was crippled by injuries and had no viable defensive talents to begin with, but he’s been the scapegoat for an abysmal campaign.
Through every loss and negative headline, however, there’s a chance he’ll get to stick around.
B/R’s own Kevin Ding wrote the following of the situation earlier this month:
D’Antoni has one more guaranteed season left on his Lakers contract, and the club is leaning toward retaining him despite some privately disgruntled players and massive public disdain. It’s not clear which way the organization will go with him.
Talented coaches are available—Lionel Hollins and Stan Van Gundy, to name two—but the Lakers may have enough to worry about in terms of filling a 12-man roster this summer.
A coaching search would only distract from free agency, because higher-ups wouldn’t know what coach they’re building a roster for until bringing in a new name.
The Future of Nash and Gasol
Nash and Pau Gasol—two accomplished veterans with 12 combined All-Star appearances—are poised to experience very different offseasons.
Nash is under contract through next season to the tune of more than $9.7 million. Despite recurring back problems that have hampered him significantly since leaving the Phoenix Suns, the former two-time MVP doesn’t plan on retiring.
“I’m not going to retire because I want the money,” he said in a Grantland.com video documentary. “It’s honest.”
The Lakers could release the aging floor general via the league’s stretch provision, thus stretching his salary across the next three seasons instead of paying one lump sum in 2014-15.
Despite having that option, B/R’s Kevin Ding reported in March that the Lakers would rather give the 40-year-old another shot at producing:
“Nash will get one last chance to play next season with the Lakers, who are not planning a free-agent spending spree this summer and are therefore thinking it does not make sense to use the stretch provision to waive Nash.”
The veteran point guard will spend his offseason trying to get healthy for one final run with the Lakers. Gasol’s time in L.A., meanwhile, may be coming to an end.
The Spaniard is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Kupchak has said there’s "great interest" in re-signing him, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, but the 7-footer may opt not to return if D’Antoni is still the head coach. The two butted heads through the media all season long.
Despite Kupchak's "great interest," the Lakers desperately need to inject the roster with some youth to counterbalance Bryant (who will be 36 in August) and Nash (who will be 41 next February). Pau—who will be 34 in July—isn’t an ideal fit unless the Lakers reload with All-Star-caliber players to make another title run.
At this juncture, I simply can’t see that happening until 2015 at the earliest.
Kobe Bryant Is Human
That’s all “The Black Mamba” was able to appear in during 2013-14—a stint sandwiched between recovery from an Achilles tear he suffered last April and a fractured lateral tibial plateau in his left leg that has kept him on the shelf since December.
So what’s the biggest takeaway from the most disappointing campaign of his professional career?
Bryant is human.
Five championship rings, 11 All-NBA First-Team nods and 31,700 career points are legendary achievements, but they’re all in Bryant’s past. Now the question is whether he can return to All-Star-caliber form during the length of his two-year, $48.5 million contract extension.
Because his new deal soaks up so much of the available cap room, the Lakers will have limited options during free agency this summer. As a result, Bryant’s role as an alpha dog and No. 1 option within the offense needs to continue if L.A. is going to have any hope of making the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference.
While the 16-time All-Star said via Twitter, "Next season will be epic," the Lakers' success wholly depends on what he'll be able to do on the court following two severe injuries.
Plenty of Work to Do
While the storied Lakers franchise will continue to make headlines regardless of how putrid the on-court product becomes, that’s not something the fans—or management—will tolerate.
In fact, owner Jim Buss took the pressure of rebuilding to another level by saying the following, per the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan:
I was laying myself on the line by saying, if this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on the top—and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship—then I will step down because that means I have failed.
Bryant and Nash are battling the injury bug and, more importantly, Father Time. They’ll have to work harder than ever to return to form at an advanced age.
Kupchak will spend his summer filling out a roster essentially from scratch, because Bryant, Nash and Robert Sacre are the only guys with guaranteed contracts.
D’Antoni may be back next season, but if he’s not, someone else will have to step into the fold and create a winning culture from the get-go.
Question marks abound from the top of the pyramid all the way down to the roster’s 12th man. The Lakers have rebuilt the foundation in no time before, and they at least have a lottery pick in the 2014 draft.
Flipping the script from 27 wins to playoff contender in a short window, though, is an unenviable task. The “#bussfam” as Kobe calls his bosses, has plenty of work ahead.