It’s a weird time here in Los Angeles to be a basketball fan. Both local teams' seasons have drawn to a close. Moreover, both are in a state of turmoil.
The Los Angeles Clippers, perhaps the most relevant basketball-wise that they have been in years, have been completely overshadowed by the Donald Sterling-versus-the-NBA drama. (And let me pause here to note: I am NO relation.)
Who knows how that is going to play out? Hopefully, the basketball side of the organization can have a restful summer, recharge and get ready under the radar while Sterling versus Silver continues to make headlines. They’ve got a solid team, a solid coach and every reason to look forward to next season in spite of the awful situation with ownership.
The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, are at a crossroads and face a daunting series of unanswerable questions.
For instance, Kobe Bryant is coming back. Will Kobe be Kobe? (My answer: yes.) Who is the starting point guard for this team? (Steve Nash is unreliable in terms of health at this stage in his career. It should be Jordan Farmar.) Who will protect the rim? (I have no idea, but they need to figure that out.) What to do with the No. 7 draft pick? (I leave this in your hands, Mitch Kupchak.) Whither Kevin Love?
And perhaps the biggest question of all: Who is going to coach this team? This is a crucial test for head of basketball operations Jim Buss. The Lakers cannot go 0-for-3 on his watch with bad coaching choices. They cannot strike out.
My preference would be Byron Scott. I think his past association with the Lakers makes him a good fit. He knows the Lakers' history and expectations. He’s been a head coach in the league. And, oh yeah, he can co-exist with Kobe Bryant. That’s pretty important.
Don’t believe all these declarations from the front office that Kobe will have no say in who the head coach is. Of course they are going to run the top candidates past him, regardless of what ESPN is reporting. It’s all kabuki theater, and both sides know it. Kobe even upped the ante on Jimmy Kimmel recently, noting that they haven’t consulted him on the last two hires.
Left unsaid was: “Wanna include me in the process this time, guys? I’m only your most important player, the face of the franchise. I promise I’ll keep our back-channel discussions out of the headlines. Whaddaya say we get a coach that knows how to put together the pieces that Mitch assembles rather than trying to shoehorn a bunch of square pegs into round holes in seven seconds or less.”
So, yeah, that was a shot at Mike D’Antoni. I was never on board with that hire. But now he has ridden off into the sunset, and the Lakers can start fresh.
What does that mean?
One thing I always say is build your basketball team for the opponents you are likely to see in June. By that directive, it is instructive to watch the conference finals. The Lakers need to build a team that can be a credible threat to any of the four that remain standing. D’Antoni’s Lakers teams (even if they hadn’t been as severely injured as they were) would never have been able to get past Oklahoma City or San Antonio, much less whoever comes out of the slugfest at the top of the East.
My problem with D’Antoni’s philosophy of shoot, shoot, shoot is that there is no fallback for those nights when you don’t have the hot hand. Without that, you cannot win championships.
The answer (which would make Phil Jackson proud) is balance.
Look at both San Antonio and Oklahoma City—both teams are balanced. There are guys who can create their own shots, guys who can defend and others who can come off the bench and contribute. Ironically, losing Serge Ibaka to injury only underscores the point. The Thunder have lost their balance and are going to lose the series to the Spurs assuming Tony Parker’s hamstring doesn’t explode.
Building a balanced team is now Kupchak’s riddle to solve. Somehow he has got to blend together Kobe’s desire for another shot at a title with laying the groundwork for the future. That’s a pretty tall task, but you underestimate Kupchak at your peril. Maybe he can talk Pau Gasol into giving the Lakers a significant hometown discount.
Under no circumstances can they let Nick Young walk away. You want Showtime? He’s Showtime. I assume all of Lakers Nation is following Kobe on Twitter. Now you need to follow Swaggy P. Seriously, it’s delightful. Whether he is trolling local pickup games or just recounting his exploits about town, it is worth it.
Plus, his game is good right now. Can you imagine how much better he can be under Mamba’s tutelage? I don’t want to live in Lakers Nation without Swaggy P. Make it so, Buss family.
So, here we are dreaming of 2014 and pining for another parade down Figueroa. The future is cloudy. In this town, the expectation for the Lakers is championship or bust.
Not making the playoffs (although understandable given the astronomical number of injuries) is unacceptable. Minimally, in 2014, the Lakers have to contend with the best of the Western Conference. But we won’t know if that is realistic until June 26, the day of the NBA draft. That’s when Kupchak will start dealing and we’ll get a clearer picture of what the Lakers will look like going forward.
Until then, all Lakers talk, whether on the air or in print, is nothing but rumor, speculation and misdirection.
Mark your calendar for June 26. That’s when the Lakers' new season begins.
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