While the new crew in Miami attracts the lion’s shares of headline this NBA offseason – and deservedly so – with Dan Gilbert’s sobbing diatribes (less deserving) not far behind, the two-time defending champions have been enjoying a beautiful L.A. summer largely devoid of headline fodder, resting and preparing for another title defense, one with the potential to settle scores and define legacies throughout Lakerland.
Not only would a successful title defense in 2010-11 would give the Lakers their 17th title (tying Boston; the tally is 10-4 in the Lakers’ favor since Bird & Magic entered the NBA, just sayin…); Phil Jackson would add an unprecedented 12th ring and a staggering fourth three-peat; Kobe’s second three-peat would earn him his MJ-tying 6th ring; Derek Fisher would become one of just a dozen players (and one of just six since 1970) to win six rings and would join Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant as the only post-merger member of two different three-peats; and finally, we have Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom Andrew Bynum and Sasha Vujacic (stop laughing!), all of whom would enter their names in the history books as wire-to-wire members of a three-peat, not to mention the fact that Gasol would likely become an undeniable Hall-of-Famer (and he just turned 30) and Bynum would have three rings at age 23.
Despite all of the historical implications, what’s striking about the offseason preceding this particular title defense is the way the team’s gone about it – no big free agent splash, no trade talk. Last year, on the heels of the 2009 title, the team swapped (effectively, not formally) Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest, sparking countless debates about “fit” and “chemistry” in the process. Not so this year. Other than a bit of a facelift at the point, the core of this team remains the same – with the possibility of added depth on D and on the glass in the form of an unsung defender (Raja Bell, if he signs with L.A.) and a pair of still-unsigned 2nd rounders (Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter).
Anything about this seem vaguely familiar? Not the specific moves, but the underlying philosophy? Think back a dozen or so years. Phil Jackson-coached team, legendary 5-ring alpha dog, top-shelf #2 guy, looking to complete a three-peat? Yup, these Lakers look an awful lot like the 1998 “Last Dance” Bulls, whose top eleven scorers – Jordan, Pippen, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Jason Caffey, Scott Burrell, Dennis Rodman, Randy Brown and Bill Wennington – consisted of ten holdovers from the 1997 title team, with Scott Burrell replacing the late Bison Dele. The current financial structure of the NBA makes it nearly impossible to achieve that level of stability, but the 2010-11 Lakers will return at least seven (eight if Shannon Brown returns) of their top nine scorers from this past season, with NJ-bound Jordan Farmar being replaced like-for-like by perfect-fit Steve Blake.
As for any other potential tweaks to the rotation, there have been just three additional names mentioned – with two still in play:
Raja Bell. Would have been another perfect fit for this Laker team, though he’s chosen to “take his talents” back to Salt Lake City, where played from 2003-2005. Bell’s tough as nails, has loads of experience on contending teams, can hit the 3, is a committed defender and, perhaps most importantly, is NOT afraid to stand up to Kobe Bryant. However, signing Bell would have virtually guaranteed Shannon Brown’s exit. While this scenario ultimately never came into play – and Bell would have been a solid contributor – the team might have wanted to think twice on this. At this point in their respective careers, Brown’s far more athletic, a decade younger, can guard quick PGs and plays with the same hard-nosed attitude as Bell.
Devin Ebanks. Was inconsistent in college (at West Virginia), struggles to hit the outside shot and has yet to develop his left hand, but his strengths – great size (6’8”, 215), rebounding, defense and filling the lane – will help Ebanks carve out a niche for himself in the NBA. Will thrive in run & gun games and as the season progresses could be able to help lighten the defensive load on Kobe and Artest.
Derrick Caracter. Not a sure thing, but potentially a monster. This guy defines the term “upside” at the third-to-last pick in the draft. He’s had issues with weight and motivation, but has trimmed down to 265 lbs (from 300+), and will likely play himself down to 250-255 once the season gets rolling – pretty ideal size for a 6’9” PF. Caracter produced double-doubles in his first three summer league games in Vegas, and is averaging 16.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg and shooting over 60% in his first four games. Coming off the bench, Caracter could be a perfect frontcourt complement to either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum.