During Mike D’Antoni’s time with the Los Angeles Lakers, there was a fairly obvious plan—to create an exciting, free-flowing brand of basketball while simultaneously shedding salaries and building for the future.
There were some problems along the way, however. Like a 27-55 season.
Now, the Lakers are trying to sort things out again. They’ve got just a handful of players under contract, one of whom is Kobe Bryant. They also have no coach and a bunch of free agents who are heading out the door.
Of that group, three are generally regarded as quality frontcourt players who will soon comprise a major portion of this summer’s paltry big man free-agency pool.
Should the Lakers rethink their strategy of letting Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman abscond to the land of plentiful dollars?
There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest the Lakers’ front office may be considering adjustments to their previous small ball master plan. It just takes a simple connecting of the dots.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recently talked about the importance of Bryant to the organization, as relayed by Arash Markazi of ESPN LA: “We have a player on our team who is proven in this league offensively that he can score. That certainly is a consideration; obviously I'm talking about Kobe.”
Kupchak smoothly segued into the team’s search for their next head coach, still referencing the Mamba:
He's under contract for two more years, and we think he's a very integral part of this team and we have to make sure whoever we hire as the coach really gets the most productivity out of him, whether it's scoring the ball or playmaking or the threat that he may score. That's probably of primary importance right now.
Next, let’s consider some of the coaching candidates that the Lakers are currently interviewing.
Lionel Hollins was all about maximizing a big front court when he coached the Memphis Grizzlies—grinding out wins the old-fashioned way.
Byron Scott spoke with Sam Amick for USA Today Sports about Bryant and their mutual philosophy: “He knows that I'm an old-school coach who's very demanding on the defensive end and knows that defense and rebounding wins championships, so I think from that point of view we see eye to eye.”
And as Mike Dunleavy pointed out while discussing the Lakers' coaching situation on 710 ESPN’s Max & Marcellus: “For me, I play a power game. It’s an advantage. I love to play that way. I thought Kaman and Gasol were a great fit.”
This past season, Bryant expressed his general distaste for the new trend of basketball, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN LA:
It's more of a finesse game. It's more small ball, which, personally, I don't really care much for. I like kind of smash-mouth, old-school basketball because that's what I grew up watching. I also think it's much, much less physical. Some of the flagrant fouls that I see called nowadays, it makes me nauseous. You can't touch a guy without it being a flagrant foul.
Will the Lakers move back to what worked for them in the past? The first step is fortifying their ranks.
The only frontcourt player under contract with the Lakers for next season is Robert Sacre—the No. 60 pick in the 2012 draft and a useful guy off the bench. Management can also extend a qualifying offer to rookie Ryan Kelly, thus making him a restricted free agent.
Kelly was the team’s No. 48 draft pick last year—a willowy stretch-4 who developed nicely in D’Antoni’s spread-offense system.
And that’s the extent of the front line.
So what is the implied solution—will corralling Gasol, Hill and Kaman solve all the team’s woes?
Of course not. However, signing at least one of those guys to an affordable contract would be a good place to start. Bringing back two would be even better. And while it has been repeated ad nauseam, Gasol and Bryant have been a pretty effective duo over the years.
The Lakers might also consider drafting a player like Julius Randle—a stocky power forward who likes to bull his way to the basket.
Does anyone think that a coach like Hollins would not be able to utilize Randle?
There’s also the matter of other Lakers free agents—re-signing scorers like Nick Young and Jodie Meeks would work just fine within the context of a more disciplined system. Just because Kupchak wants to maximize Bryant’s productivity, doesn’t mean there’s no place for shooters.
Don’t forget—Phil Jackson’s half-court sets and inside-out philosophy allowed players like Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and yes, Sasha “the Machine” Vujacic to knock down timely 3’s.
Speaking of Vujacic—is he still working out at the beach and hoping for a return to the NBA? That wouldn’t be a complete waste of an un-guaranteed minimum salary contract.
The Lakers should also be looking at available free-agent forwards who can play both ends of the floor, like Luol Deng if he can be had for a reasonable price or Trevor Ariza who played so well in Los Angeles a few years back.
Bryant is heading into what is presumably the final stretch of a long and glorious career. Hiring a complementary coach and adjusting a free-agency approach does not mean giving up on the future.
It simply means getting the most out of a prized asset before it’s gone