Are the whispers of the Lakers' demise premature? Considering they were the consensus "Team to Beat" for the majority of the season, I believe so. After all, every team will have a rough four-game stretch here or there. We just aren't used to it from the defending champs.
Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest are all under contract for next season, so the core group that won 57 games this year could be mostly intact come October. But with a lockout looming and a four-game sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks fresh on their minds, Lakers fans can be excused for not feeling content running through the motions next season.
Bottom line, there will be a major shakeup in Laker-land before their next NBA game. A new coach will be manning the reigns, and the team will need to add young pieces if they want to improve on their performance this season.
Perhaps the team will return refreshed from their earliest playoff exit in half a decade; more likely, the team will undergo an overhaul before opening night of the 2011-12 season.
So what obstacles do the Lakers have in order to bounce back next season? Some are minor speed bumps that can be addressed through the draft and free agency. Others are potential road blocks that could derail the franchise's championship expectations for years to come.
Starting from the assumption that there will be basketball in the fall, what options does the team have in "rebuilding" its roster? Here are some scenarios that could quickly come to the fore.
Part of the team core is the problem
The Lakers are committed to almost $88 million in salary next season.
You read that right.
The salary cap for 2010-11 was right around $58 million. Jerry Buss may be willing to fork over luxury tax money when his team is playing in June, but he's decidedly less psyched when his players are on vacation in mid-May.
In a stunning turnaround, the Bird Exceptions that gave them such flexibility to compete in the past may hamstring them going forward.
Kobe ($25 million), Pau ($19 million), Bynum ($15 million) and Odom ($9 million) make up the bulk of that guaranteed figure. Those four players on their own would be almost $10 million over the cap next season.
But in a sense, these players are making what they're worth. Kobe's contract may become more questionable in 2013-14 when he's due over $30 million, but he's still one of the best in the game and sells tickets and apparel wherever he goes. As an overall investment, he's perhaps the best in the league.
The more difficult contracts to swallow were those afforded to Ron Artest (guaranteed $14 million over the next two season), Luke Walton ($11.5 million for two) and Steve Blake ($12 million for three) the past two offseasons.
Artest has little value around the league and provided even less for the Lakers in the postseason. Walton is a shadow of his former contributing self due to injuries and a lack of PT available at his position. Blake decided he was neither the defender nor marksman he was considered when he signed his generous deal nine months ago (the first was a dubious distinction even at the time).
If Shannon Brown ($2.4 million) and Matt Barnes ($1.9 million) pick up their player options for next season, the Lakers will have $92 million in payroll. That leaves no movement for adding payroll without a soft cap and some exceptions in the new CBA.
In my piece on the Grizzlies, I assumed a $55-million salary cap for next season, a slight dip from the $58 million cap of 2010-11. It's only fair that I continue on that assumption in the following scenarios, but feel free to supplement that number if there are any developments to the contrary.
Bottom line, this is not an option for the Lakers. Nobody's really sure what would happen to high-payroll teams if a hard cap was instituted, but some have suggested players will have salaries scaled back to fit into the new financial agreement. I very much doubt it.
The more I look at it, a hard cap will be almost impossible to implement. Big-market squads will cry foul, claiming a socialistic approach will ruin the game. Small-market teams will have trouble retaining talent they've already developed without built-in advantages. All players would take a massive hit financially.
In this scenario, the Lakers won't even be able to sign their draft picks since they're over the cap, and would be forced to wait out veterans and free agents willing to sign at a discount for the league minimum—an exception that would have to carry over for quite a few teams in the league.
The Lakers are a prime example why the hard cap has to be a non-starter for the NBA Players Association.
The Veteran Minimum exception should be an easy one to transfer over. If it's in conjunction with some of the other exclusions mentioned, it can be an important one in putting a team over the top.
This is also an area where teams like the Lakers can excel—a big market team that can compete is a huge draw for NBA veterans who haven't had playoff success.
Here are some low-cost guys they can go after.
Tracy McGrady: A half dozen years ago, a back court of McGrady and Bryant would have had the Lakers front office swooning. Now, it doesn't look so unrealistic—though, it's not nearly as substantial either.
McGrady manned the point for Detroit admirably this season, showing he has something left in the tank. It may not be much, but he's a great shooter with size who wants to win a championship before he retires. To that end, he'd probably take another minimum contract.
Antonio Daniels: He's not much of an upgrade, but he's won a championship and is a solid distributor and defender. He could be had for the veteran minimum since the Sixers are pretty stacked at the PG slot.
Earl Watson: At 31, he's no spring chicken, but he's got great handles and a decent outside shot. Even in limited minutes he sported an impressive A/T ratio, which is another key for a team with numerous scoring options.
Could Rodney Stuckey be a difference maker for the purple and gold?
The mid-level exception is one the Lakers could use in their favor. It would allow them to sign a player at the league-average salary (approximately $5.5 million based on previous assumptions) even if it takes them over the cap.
Who would be available and potentially amenable to an MLE deal?
Aaron Brooks: After the guy almost singlehandedly took the Lakers to a game seven against Houston a couple years back, it was clear what one of the teams real issues was defending penetrating point guards. Even though LA went on to win that series, the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mantra applies to both teams.
Brooks can shoot from outside and penetrate, and despite his small stature is very active on defense. He's got a qualifying offer under $3 million a year in Phoenix and should get a MLE sized raise in the off-season. The Lakers would be smart to at least inquire.
Jeff Green: Recently traded to their nemesis the Boston Celtics, Green is due for a raise this offseason. Would it be particularly sweet to swipe away the one tangible asset the Celtics got out of that deal? Certainly. Does he fit the Lakers needs? Somewhat.
Green is a great shooter for his size and has range out to the three-point line. If he can improve his defense, and learning from nine time All-Defensive Team member Kobe Bryant may help with that, he would be a good fit for the team. He's athletic and long and could become a nice piece off the bench.
But Green is a restricted free agent, so the Celtics will have an opportunity to bring him back. The Celtics have financial issues of their own, but depending on how their series with the Miami Heat finishes up, it could be an option.
Wilson Chandler: See Jeff Green. He's a good shooter mid-range extended, plays tough and works hard on both sides of the ball. He'd see a drastic drop in shooting opportunities on the Lakers, but he's shown he can perform in both New York and Denver. He's also young and can be physical on defense, even if he has some work to do in that area.
Jose Juan Barea: After absolutely killing the Lakers in this past series, would the team be willing to scoop him up this summer to shore up their PG deficiencies? I doubt it, if only because of the Andrew Bynum fiasco in the closeout game Sunday.
However, Barea has been great as a distributor and despite his height, he is fearless going into the lane. He can also make open shots, which was something the Lakers reserves utterly failed at against the Mavs. The MLE is probably a bit much for JJB, but they can split it between him and another player.
Rodney Stuckey: Detroit has made it a priority to bring Stuckey back, as he's shown flashes of greatness in his three seasons in the league. He's big and strong, and can get to the basket effectively, averaging over five free throws a game this season. While more of a hybrid guard, he can certainly man the point position and, along with Kobe at shooting guard, create match-up problems the Lakers have heretofore been unable to exploit.
He probably will not be available, but I see him signing a contract in the $5-to-6 million range per season so it's not entirely out of the question.
TJ Ford: Formerly one of the quickest players in the NBA, Ford is no longer the Pacers primary option at PG. He's coming off a season where he was paid $8.5 million for less than 20 minutes a game, so he's in line for a significant pay decrease.
Unfortunately, he does not shoot he ball well, but is considerably better getting into the lane and pushing in transition. On a team with so many options on offense, perhaps that's a good thing.
I would think half of the MLE would get him to LA, and at 28, he's still got some good years ahead of him—if he can ever kick the injury bug he's had over the years.
The Lakers haven't had the fortune of a high draft pick in years, and this season will be no exception. They don't have a first round pick, which is now property of the New Jersey Nets. They do have three picks in the second round (No. 41, 46, 56) which will allow them to get a lot younger over the summer. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get "sure thing" talent late in the second round—or, at least, hard to predict who will turn potential into performance.
With starters penciled in at the SG, PF and C positions, and the best sixth man in the league splitting time between SF and PF, PG is the most glaring need for the team. They'll be looking for a PG with decent size and speed, and one that will play tenacious defense and defend the pick-and-roll.
Jerry West has gone on record saying the Lakers also need more athletes, and I for one could not agree more. Other than Bryant and Shannon Brown, whose athleticism is more evident in transition than on defense, the team is composed of nominal athletes.
Someone like Josh Selby, who was incredibly highly regarded out of high school but has slipped on most boards, could be the pick. Because of his inconsistent freshman season he might be a possibility with their first pick of the second round. Jacob Pullen would be another option, likely available with the latter picks. He's a talented, clutch PG who can also be a scoring option when Kobe is off the court.
As far as athletes go, Travis Leslie is perhaps the class of this draft at the SG/SF position. He has his limitations, however, and may even be off the board before LA has its first pick. Ravern Johnson of Mississippi St. is another guy with good size and athleticism at the swing position.
If the team decides to pad their front line, I would suggest Keith Benson, who is NBA ready defensively and could be a steal in the second round. He's got good athleticism and got a late start in basketball, so he has some upside.
Many of you have probably slogged through the other slides to get to a breakdown of how the Lakers can get Dwight Howard or Chris Paul on their squad. Unfortunately, I don't see either being particularly likely.
But lets have a serious discussion on how it could happen.
The Lakers could send out just under $20 million in salary if they found takers for Artest, Walton, Blake and Fisher. None of these players have many suitors around the league.
The only real tradeable asset they have is Andrew Bynum, whose name is consistently mentioned in Dwight Howard trades. Ironically, making this trade would bring in an older center (Howard will be 26 for most of next season), even if he's proven himself to be far more durable than Bynum.
Howard has $18 million on his contract for next season. Packaging Bynum with Artest would probably be the most palatable offer they could put on the table, and even then it would be trying to trade two quarters for a dollar—picking up Bynum's option would make the trade about $4 million more expensive for the Magic.
Pau Gasol's name has been thrown out as well, and while he's unquestionably more reliable than Bynum, his stock is at a three-year low right now. He makes approximately the same as Howard, but is five years older and signed through 2014. The Magic have a ridiculous payroll as it is, after having taken on Gilbert Arenas' contract, and a trade like this would sacrifice a lot of future flexibility. If Orlando is resigned to trading Howard, they will look for young impact players and financial flexibility.
Chris Paul makes slightly less, $16.4 million next season with a player option for $17.7 million in '12-'13. But the Hornets seem set on retaining Paul, based partly on his impressive one-man performance this playoffs, and certainly won't settle for the Artest/Walton/Blake poo-poo platter in return. Bynum may not be particularly interesting to them either with tat least two years and $26 million left on Oakfor's contract.
Of the two superstars Howard makes the most sense, but the Lakers would probably have to shoot for a blockbuster: Bynum, Artest, Walton, Blake and Fisher ($35 million in 2011-12 and $36.5 million in 2012-13) for Howard and Gilbert Arenas ($37 million in '11-'12 and $40 million in '12-'13) would work financially. Then again, they'd have four players making $20 million or more in 2013-14 assuming they sign Howard's extension: a total of more than $92 million.
The more likely alternative is a year of trades and shedding salary cap that gives them more flexibility going into the 2012-13 season. Since that's when Paul and Howard actually enter the free agent market, they may be able to put pieces together to make a serious run at a new All-Star laden lineup—and another Laker dynasty.