The San Antonio Spurs didn’t just end the Lakers season, they put Los Angeles out of its misery.
That was the first time the Lakers have been swept in the first round of the playoffs since 1967, but you could see it coming for a long time. From the injuries during training camp, to the firing of a coach five games into the season, to the hiring of a new coach with a radically different philosophy and style that didn’t match the roster, to more injuries, to fan dissatisfaction, to Kobe Bryant blowing out his Achilles, it was all building to this ugly sweep by the Spurs.
The question now is how do the Lakers spend their summer vacation? What steps do they take to become the contenders they thought they were back in October.
Here are five suggestions.
1) Re-sign Dwight Howard. This has to be the Lakers top priority. And it’s second. And third. The fact of the matter is there are not many franchise anchor players you can find out there and — despite what some Lakers fans and a few pundits seem to think — Howard is one of those. He is a guy the Lakers can build around. He can bring the defense and rebounding you need as a foundation for winning.
The Lakers can offer one more guaranteed year and $30 million more guaranteed dollars. But more than that they can offer the chance not only at rings but also rings won on the biggest NBA stage. That contending should start next season with Kobe Bryant back and a re-worked roster, but beyond that as well with a team built around Howard. Remember everybody save Steve Nash comes off the Lakers books in the summer of 2014 and Los Angeles can rebuild the roster completely then around Howard. That is the sales pitch. And as I’ve said before, I think it’s one he buys.
But for fun, let’s say the naysayers are right and Howard can’t carry the mantle of the Lakers — they still have to resign him this summer. Even if he doesn’t work out you need him as trade bait to restock the roster in a couple years. Let him walk and the Lakers have a very old, very unathletic roster and Lakers fans had better like rebuilding through the lottery for a few years.
2) Decide on the fate of Mike D’Antoni. Soon. I’m not sure there is much of a decision here — Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has made it clear in the mast Mike D’Antoni is coming back next season.
The only way I see that changing is because of issue No. 1 above — if Dwight Howard tells the Lakers he can’t see himself playing for D’Antoni there will be a change. I doubt that happens — Howard is already trying to shake a coach-killer reputation with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando — but that’s the only way the Lakers have a different coach next season.
3) If you’re keeping D’Antoni, get him a roster more fitting his style. Despite what some thing, I believe Howard and D’Antoni can co-exist and win a lot. Howard can provide the defense in the paint D’Antoni wants. Plus Howard also both runs the floor well and is very good in the pick-and-roll. D’Antoni needs to trust him in the post more, but this can work.
But if one thing was clear this year it is that the Lakers roster needs changes to fit what will work They must get better defense on the perimeter, more athleticism, they must get younger, and better shooting from the arc.
Howard, like any big man, is not going to create his own shot and if the Lakers are going to keep him they need a counterbalance on the outside. A healthy Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant certainly help with that, but the Lakers will need more than just them. They need depth of guys on the perimeter.
Against the Spurs, San Antonio just fought to take away post position and collapsed their defense down on Howard and the Lakers. This is not on Howard — in today’s NBA, with zone defenses allowed, the help to double big men in the post is much closer and comes faster than it did back in the days of Shaquille O’Neal. The passing angles out change, too. Watch how the Spurs (or Heat or Knicks or…) move the ball inside out, strong to weak to get a good shot. The Lakers need to do that and need the players who can make it happen.
4) Trade Pau Gasol? Maybe. If the Lakers are going to rework the roster they need to consider moving Gasol, because he is the most tradable asset on their roster. As discussed the Lakers need athleticism, shooters and better fits with the D’Antoni system and Gasol is the best way to do that.
But the problem is salary — the Lakers have painstakingly cleared out a lot of cap space for the summer of 2014.Only Steve Nash and Howard (if he re-signs) would be on the books, letting the Lakers reshape the roster around Howard. But that means in any trades they can’t take any multi-year contracts back, which makes finding a trading partner all the more difficult. It’s why Gasol wasn’t moved at the deadline.
The Lakers will not shop Gasol until the Howard situation is resolved. But shop him they will, they just may not find a partner they want to do business with.
5) Amnesty Metta World Peace. Even for the wealthy Lakers and their massive local cable television deal the $100 million payroll they had last year and the $85 million in taxes it would bring next year (under stiffer tax penalties, part of the new CBA) would be a large bill to pay. (Don’t forget, the Lakers could have up to $40 million in revenue sharing, too.)
The Lakers are not going to amnesty Kobe or Gasol, but they might amnesty Metta World Peace, who is set to make $7.7 million next year and could net the Lakers as much as $20 million in salary and tax savings (depending on how the Lakers fill out the roster). Filling his production would not be easy, but this is a move the Lakers must consider.
And once the Lakers do those five things, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss should go to their local church and light a candle, praying for health.