The Los Angeles Lakers performed well above expectations this year and had a remarkable season. As a fan, I don’t really want to discuss their performance in the NBA Finals because I’d fear for the safety of the laptop I’m currently using. That said, many thought they became a serious contender only after they pulled off the heist of Pau Gasol from Memphis. The problem with that analysis is that the Lakers were actually perched atop the Western Conference when Andrew Bynum suffered his season-ending knee injury. So with a healthy Bynum, the Gasol trade never happens and they are still a top team in the West (maybe they don’t make a run to the finals but they’re in contention nonetheless).
Of course, the addition of Gasol changed things. They gained the type of experienced, multi-dimensional big man Phil Jackson loves and had with the Bulls. He was a perfect fit for the triangle and a perfect complement to Kobe Bryant. So what was the problem? Gasol’s lack of power and strength in the post exposed the one flaw on the roster, a hole that Bynum was rapidly filling as a dominating in-lane presence. Assuming Bynum is healthy at the start of the 2008-09 campaign, the high-low action between Gasol and Bynum and the 20-year-old’s defensive presence should be scary. If I’m Pau Gasol, I’m spending the entire summer in the gym practicing 15-foot jumpers and my face-up game, because Bynum will rarely come off the block. The recovering Bynum should also get a big-money extension as soon as he can prove he has no lingering effects from his knee surgery.
But the Lakers do have several problems to address this offseason. Chief among them is what to do with Lamar Odom. Rumors suggest that Odom was originally included in the deal for Gasol, but Memphis preferred a package of cheaper players and expiring contracts, so he was left out. After a season where his inconsistency was exposed, will the Lakers look to deal him? He’s a nice complement to guys like Kobe and Gasol because of his willingness to defer, but his flashes of brilliance are maddening because of his long stretches of ineptitude. Many on the team respect his work ethic and see the fact that he played most of the 2006-07 season with a bum knee and two bad shoulders, and look at him as a warrior.
The problem is, Jackson would much rather have a pure outside shooter in the lineup to pair with Bryant, but the prospect of a front-line of Odom (6’10), Gasol (7’0) and Bynum (7’0) might be too tantalizing for a coach who values defending the paint and rebounding as the keys to a title. The Lakers will most likely put feelers out on Odom this summer and see if anyone is biting and at what price, but they’ll likely end up keeping him. He’s seeking a big extension but he won’t get it from the Lakers. If the current grouping doesn’t work next year the team will just let him go, since his contract is up at the end of the 2008-09 campaign. His expiring contract could draw interest in the trade market but LA would need to get a good piece in return. Especially because Odom and Bryant are close and his rebounding prowess will be hard to discard.
The other area the Lakers must address is what to do with several bench players. All year their second unit was among the best in the league, but in the playoffs the “Bench Mob” was spotty at best and finally showed how young and inexperienced they truly were. First off, they will almost certainly re-sign sharpshooter Sasha Vujacic. He’s a restricted free agent and will definitely draw interest from other clubs, but he’s claimed he wants to be a “Laker for life” and the team loves his tenacity on defense, developing off-the-dribble game and of course his 43.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Though they tease him mercilessly, “The Machine” is a favorite of his teammates and Jackson because of how hard he plays in games and practice. Plus, Kobe loves the guy. It’ll likely take the full mid-level exception (about $5.8 million for next season) to keep him but that’s an acceptable cost.
With Bynum coming back, expect Vladimir Radmanovic to either be dealt for a bad contract or move to the second unit. He actually fits better with the free-wheeling, up-tempo, open style the bench guys play because of his ability to run the floor and shoot from the outside. After his atrocious defensive showing in the playoffs, it’s hard to see anyone wanting to take him via trade and he has two years left on his contract. He’ll likely stay put and get good bench minutes because it’s hard to sit a guy who’s 6’10 and can bury 3-pointers consistently.
Ronny Turiaf is the team’s only important unrestricted free agent, and though I believe he really wants to come back and the team loves him, NBA teams almost always overpay for big men and he could probably get better money elsewhere. He’s a fan favorite, Kobe loves him and Jackson and the Lakers’ brass love the energy he brings to both ends of the floor. But he averaged 18.7 minutes and 2.55 fouls per game this year – which is extremely high. And it’s hard to pay a guy good money if he can’t stay on the court. If Turiaf and the Lakers have their way they’d be able to split the mid-level exception between he and Vujacic, but that likely won’t happen. Turiaf will have to take a “hometown discount” to stay in LA especially with the way Trevor Ariza performed for the Lakers before his foot injury.
Here’s the bottom line for the Lakers and their run this season: Excluding the guys who barely contributed (Chris Mihm, Ira Newble, D.J. Mbenga and Coby Karl) the average age of the team was 25.8-years-old. That’s incredibly young when you consider how far they got and the fact that the Celtics’ regular contributers averaged out to 29.0-years-old. Boston also had just five regulars under 30 – Rajon Rondo( 22), Kendrick Perkins (23), Leon Powe (24), Tony Allen (26) and Glen Davis (22) – while the Lakers had only one regular over 30 (Derek Fisher).
The Lakers are set up for the long haul and though they have minor tweaks to make this offseason, their future looks brighter in LA than anywhere else in the NBA.