One of the most obvious hallmarks of Mike D’Antoni’s time with the Los Angeles Lakers was the way he used, or didn’t use, frontcourt players. Now that the coach has left the building, will the equation change for the Lakers' big men?
It’s just one of many questions swirling around a team in transition.
The Lakers need a new coach, and they also need a roster, with ten players heading into free agency. Among that group are Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill, representing a combined 750 pounds of traditional low-post basketball.
Before D’Antoni’s exit, it seemed a given that the tall trio would not be returning—they hadn’t fit into the coach’s small-ball system or, seemingly, the team’s forward-thinking rebuild plans.
Now, however, the picture seems a little less certain.
Gasol and Kaman won’t be a part of any team’s true long-range blueprints—that’s a simple reality of age and basketball mortality. Hill, on the other hand, would seem to have plenty of road ahead—he’ll turn 27 in July.
On the other hand, there is the immediate future to think of. Kobe Bryant is heading into his final two seasons and has a close connection to Gasol—the only other holdover from the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship runs.
Gasol turns 34 this July and is coming off a viral inner ear infection that caused him to miss 12 games with vertigo symptoms. The versatile big man is now back in his native Spain and looking forward to World Cup basketball this summer with the Spanish national team.
This will be Gasol’s first free-agency experience, and while he has 13 NBA seasons under his belt, there will be plenty of suitors during a summer that’s short on available quality players.
Earlier in the week, Gasol spoke with Jesus Sanchez for the Spanish daily sports publication Marca, addressing the departure of D’Antoni: "Mike leaving was not the be-all and end-all, but it is another factor. What is certain is that we are without a coach and I say 'we' because I'm still thinking of myself as a Lakers player.”
Gasol was never a good fit with D’Antoni and also had to play through a seemingly endless stream of trade rumors in recent years. He’d have to take a sizable pay cut from his present $19.3 million salary in order for the Lakers to be even remotely active in pursuing other players this summer—a fact further complicated by the number of roster vacancies that have to be filled.
It seems like a long shot for the former All-Star to return for one more dance in Los Angeles, but the odds have certainly improved with D’Antoni’s departure.
The return of Kaman seems even less probable—the 7-foot journeyman signed a one-year deal for $3.2 million last summer, fully expecting to play. The inconsistency with which he was used by his coach this season was especially perplexing—racking up stretches of double-doubles before being banished to the bench, sometimes for weeks at a time.
His stats weren’t bad, averaging 10.4 points and 5.9 boards in 18.9 minutes per game. The main issue was that he appeared in just 39 games.
Rarely one to self-censor, Kaman went on record a number of times, expressing disappointment at falling so far out of the rotation, especially during what he had hoped would be a resurgent season.
As Ramona Shelburne for ESPN LA reported, Kaman second-guessed his decision to sign with the Lakers: "Never did I think I would come here and not play, otherwise I probably wouldn't have come. I had a bunch of other options, but I saw opportunity here."
While Kaman wasn’t shy about his discontent, his comments never felt truly toxic. Still, it’s hard to picture him coming back at this point, even with his onetime coach out of the picture.
Hill is a different story. The high-energy big man tends to play in intense bursts for limited minutes. While his style of defense-oriented basketball was not a natural fit with D’Antoni, he mostly kept his feelings to himself, playing hard whenever he was given the opportunity.
As a result, Hill had his best season yet in the NBA, averaging 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 20.9 minutes per game over 72 games.
Toward the end of the season, however, as reported by Mark Medina for the Los Angeles Daily News, the reserve big man succinctly made it clear that he wouldn’t have an interest in returning under similar circumstances, saying, “Of course not. Who would?”
Of the three frontcourt players, Hill would seem like the most likely target for the Lakers to try and re-sign. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2009 draft is still young and has plenty of athleticism. He’s been working off incremental salary bumps ever since his rookie year, earning $3.5 million last season.
Hill will likely receive a lot of interest this summer, but it’s unclear just how much the market will offer. He’s still a somewhat raw player, has often been injured and can’t really play extended minutes with his crash-and-burn style.
Still, he’s highly effective as a second-unit guy, altering shots on defense, attacking the glass on the other end and often scoring off putbacks. Whether he can develop into a reliable starter is yet to be determined and wholly dependent on who the Lakers bring in as their next head coach.
The Lakers do have a couple other bigs at their disposal. And no, Wesley Johnson doesn't count, even if D'Antoni did insist on playing him as a power forward this season.
For now, the only frontcourt player under contract for next season is their No. 60 pick in the 2012 draft, Robert Sacre. Management will also likely extend a qualifying offer to Ryan Kelly, their No. 48 pick last year—thus making him a restricted free agent.
Sacre and Kelly were given the opportunity to develop this season, but they’re not obvious starters in the league, and they certainly can’t fill the gaping roster holes on their own.
Regardless of who the next Lakers coach is, management will have its work cut out as they try and solve the big-man equation. D’Antoni’s exit may allow them to reel at least one of the departing trio back in again.
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