The Los Angeles Lakers were once the powerhouse of the NBA. They were in the playoffs year after year, won 16 championships with the help of Hall-of-Fame players, and carried an aura with them whenever they stepped foot on the basketball court.
Now, with a record of 24-48, they are one of the laughing stocks in the league. For the past two years, they have been ridiculed for not being able to keep Dwight Howard. They recently suffered the worst defeat in franchise history to the Clippers in a 142-94 massacre. Even I, a die-hard Laker fan and apologist, look at games on the schedule and say, “Yeah, they’re losing by 25 tonight.”
If the season were to end today — and many fans of the purple and gold wish it would, already — the Lakers would get a top-six pick the upcoming draft. Teams with even worse records include the Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics (life isn’t all bad) Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers (who just broke their 26-game losing streak) and the Milwaukee Bucks.
So what went wrong? How can a team that epically won the 2010 title against their long-time rivals, the Celtics, have the proverbial pie thrown in their faces just four years later?
The quick answer: bad luck. No one could have predicted then-NBA Commissioner David Stern would rob the Lakers of Chris Paul in 2011, only for Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak to say, “Well screw you, Stern, I’ll get Dwight Howard,” then actually get Howard only to lose him to free agency for nothing one year later.
No one in their right minds thought Jim and Jerry Buss would pick Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson, arguably the best coach in the history professional sports, when the team fired Mike Brown last year after only five games. How is that possible? For those of you keeping score at home, Jackson has won 11 NBA championships. D’Antoni’s count? Negative 50 championships.
Did the Buss family forget who Jackson and D’Antoni were? I feel like the conversation over who to choose as the next Lakers coach went something like this:
Jim Buss: “Dad, Phil Jackson wants to coach the team.”
Jerry Buss: “What team?”
Jim Buss: “Our team.”
Jerry Buss: “Really?”
Jim Buss: “Yes. But Mike D’Antoni’s available too, and he’s very interested.”
Jerry Buss: “Isn’t that the guy who coached the Knicks the last few years but left because Carmelo Anthony hated him and he lost the team’s respect?”
Jim Buss: “Maybe…but his teams always score at least 110 points a game!”
Jerry Buss: “110?!?!?!”
Jim Buss: “Yes, daddy, 110!”
Jerry Buss: “It’ll be Show Time all over again!”
JIm Buss: “Exactly! So what do we do?”
Jerry Buss: “Well Phil has the resume. And he’s coached the team before. And Kobe thinks the world of him.”
Jim Buss: “But dad…..110 points…PER GAME.”
Jerry Buss: “GET D’ANTONI ON THE PHONE!”
Also, no one thought this season’s Lakers would be hit with the worst injury bug since the Portland Trail Blazers were stung so badly, their coach got severely injured during a practice because the team didn’t have enough healthy players.
So instead of LA trotting around with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, they are left with C-list players like Wesley Johnson, Chris Kaman, Kendall Marshall (who is actually a D-list player since he came from the D-League) and an occasional sighting of a fragile, paper-mache marionette dressed like Nash, which breaks after one or two games and doesn’t come back for a month. I need to lie down.
Bryant is in no mood to wait around during a rebuilding period, and recently said he expects to contend for a title next season. But with their current roster, they have a better chance of changing their names to the Washington Generals and beating the Harlem Globetrotters. Who am I kidding? They’d lose to the Globetrotters by 25, too.
But there’s hope. The Lakers have over $21 million in cap space next season, and only three of their current players are under contract after this year, which means they are in a great position to completely overhaul their roster and, thereby, their outlook for Kobe’s twilight years.
Here is what the Lakers need to do to give themselves the best chance to compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy in the next two years, barring major injuries to key players (possible due to age of Bryant and Gasol), California getting hit by an earthquake so big it separates from the United States (definitely possible) or the zombie apocalypse (might have already happened…you’ve seen Steve Nash).
1. Replace Mike D’Antoni
Sorry Mike. It’s not you…it’s…yeah, it’s you.
D’Antoni’s Lakers have been atrocious this year. They’ve lost two-thirds of their games and get blown out with regularity. Yes, a lot of it is due to injuries to Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and every other point guard, but that’s no excuse for a lack of effort — defensive effort to be exact.
The Lakers allow 108.9 points per game, which is the second-most in the NBA, according to basketball-reference.com. This is not an anomaly. D’Antoni-led teams have been among the worst in points allowed ever since he started coaching, with one exception: the 2011-12 New York Knicks. That team ranked 11th in the league in defensive efficiency.
The irony: that was the year D’Antoni resigned in the middle of the season, and was subsequently replaced by Mike Woodson, who is all about defense. I will bet my cat, the incorrigible Johnny Stripes, that it was Woodson who made that team better on defense to end the year.
Coaches available right now that can fill this void include Lionel Hollins, Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy and, my personal favorite, Nate McMillan.
All of these coaches play at a slower pace (perfect for an aging Kobe and Pau), have stressed defense with their teams, and always seem to put together winning seasons with deep playoff runs.
2. Keep Kobe and Pau Together
So many analysts are saying the Lakers should get rid of Gasol, that he needs a change of scenery, that he has a better chance of winning a title elsewhere.
But the fact is, Gasol doesn’t want to leave. He wants to be a Laker for life. Also, Kobe Bryant wants The Big Spaniard to stay put, and has said so multiple times publically and to Lakers management.
Kobe and Pau have history. They’ve won two back-to-back rings together. They communicate in Spanish on the court together. This bond should not, and cannot, be broken. If the Lakers want to really appease Kobe, keeping Pau at all costs should be at the top of their list.
3. Add a third difference-making player
It’s Kupchak Time.
As previously mentioned, the Lakers have a lottery pick this summer that could be as low as number six — or even lower if they get any worse. If they land one of the best players in what’s supposed to be a stacked draft class, the Lakers could be on their way to a title soon.
But there’s another way — a faster way — to get better, and that’s by trading their lottery pick and packaging it in a deal to acquire Kevin Love.
It’s been rumored that Love wants to play in Los Angeles and some other teams. He’s from the LA area and even attended UCLA. The Lakers seem like the perfect fit for him.
But if they Lakers use their cap space to acquire, say, Carmelo Anthony this offseason, they may not have enough room for him and Love. In fact, if the Lakers get Carmelo, Love is pretty much off the table. With the lottery pick as a bargaining piece, the Lakers could send that and some other pieces (Kent Bazemore, Marshon Brooks and the Laker Girls maybe?) to Minnesota in exchange for Love. The Timberwolves would certainly be tempted to consider, at the very least.
Or, Kupchak could go into his magical GM laboratory and somehow devise a way to keep his lottery pick and get Love in the summer of 2015. You mean to tell me you wouldn’t be surprised if this happened? This is the same Mitch Kupchak who got Pau Gasol for almost nothing in 2008 and won two titles in three years.
If this did happen, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kupchak held a press conference after the deal was finalized, brought up Minnesota President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, kicked him into a giant abyss in the ground next to the podium, and yelled, “THIS. IS. KUPCHAAAAAAAK!!!”
4. Bring back current role players
As bad as the Lakers are, their roster has some surprisingly good players. Jordan Farmar is a solid, starting-caliber point guard who can shoot 3-pointers at a high clip and wants to play in LA. Nick Young scores at will and isn’t afraid of the big moment. Jodie Meeks has carved himself into a multi-dimensional player who also plays solid defense.
As for the big guys, every team needs a scrappy, rebounding, energy guy like Jordan Hill, and Kaman can still put up points and is an underrated rim protector.
And for a D-League guy, Kendall Marshall knows how to run an offense and distribute the ball.
The Lakers don’t need to pay these players much more than they’re making now, and a few of them will make solid additions to the bench unit. Keep these guys around and add a couple of superstars, and you’ve got yourself a contending team for at least the next two years.