It would require a novel to elucidate the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2013-14 season, highlighting the few ups, and painfully bashing the many lows.
Mike D’Antoni‘s catastrophic roster has been the most difficult to cover of any sports team in the last two years. Seems a bit overstating, but not when you sit down and lay out everything that’s been within the organization’s atmosphere since October.
Actually, scratch that. Since last April, when Kobe Bryant suffered the single worst injury a veteran athlete can undergo, the Achilles rupture. Add the most glaring disruption the mix, which is the fact that Los Angeles has played 31 different starting lineups, more than any team in the league. Or how about the constant injury reporting this squad demands, due to bodies dropping left and right, and two or three getting snagged by the plague when one returns.
The off-court dilemmas haven’t made it any easier to focus on the game of basketball, with Phil Jackson bolting to a franchise with a front office that actually appreciates him. Bryant inking a two-year deal that many 35-year-old NBA stars will never see didn’t limit distractions, neither.
When the Lakers officially ruled themselves out of a playoff spot on Mar. 14, the shift toward “what’s the plan for 2014-15?” became a reality that the fans haven’t had a ton of patience for. While the winning mentality was still intact for Los Angeles after Bryant fractured his knee in December, the planning for next season should have begun that very night …. as early as the plane trip home.
It was believed that Bryant would miss six to eight weeks at the max, and the Lakers wouldn’t be looking up at 14 teams in the Western Conference standings. Knee swelling prevented that, ultimately ruling out the five time champion for the remainder of the season.
The Buss family — led by Jim and Jeanie — have been placed with the task of preparing a completely different roster this summer. Four players are under contract next season for the Lakers, those being Bryant, Steve Nash (pending the stretch provision clause), Robert Sacre, and Kendall Marshall. Nick Young, who is set to have a player option for this upcoming offseason, is believed to have a high probability of opting out, although he claims he wants to be dressed in purple and gold “for life.” Yes, his character has been a trip to deal with since boarding the ship.
With the extended amount of time Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have had to examine their options to satisfy the team needs, financial boundaries, fans, and Bryant himself ….. decisions better be made with confidence as summer rolls around. If not to meet Bryant’s criteria of “I want to win, and I want to win next year,” then it still must be to increase the level of skill on the court, and at least make Los Angeles appear as if it’s an attractive destination for free agents in the following offseason – the 2015 Love affair that’ll be impossible to fight off.
Free agents in this year’s pool aren’t as eye-popping as two years from now, but Kupchak and company will certainly be looking to retain chunks of what they already have.
This current group of players hasn’t had the opportunity to perform as a cohesive unit for more than a week, with the nagging injuries sidelining critical pieces.
Are there any individual talents the front office should consider keeping in Hollywood?
Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar, and Wesley Johnson should be the top considerations, although each member of this season’s Lakers has made a case or two about why they’d be quality bench roles when Bryant returns.
Pau Gasol, who didn’t make the recent two-game road trip due to experiencing vertigo, is an assembled package of skills that big men often fail to meet. The issue with the Spaniard is going to be how tight he remains on what he’s worth, which is not the $19 million that he’s being paid this season. An unwillingness to budge on a pay cut will eventually finalize his days in Los Angeles, but the Lakers honestly shouldn’t enter the negotiating trenches with the soon-to-be 34 year old. The two-man game that Bryant and Gasol have been associated with since winning their first title together in 2009, is no longer known as a dominant force that can get this team through the hellacious West. Age already isn’t in the Lakers’ favor with Nash on the wrong side of 40 and Bryant turning 36 this August, so take a long, deep thinking process when you tell yourself Gasol’s veteran post abilities — finishing with both hands on a variety of moves — outweighs the needed athleticism to survive in the West.
Gasol already gets eaten alive by Blake Griffin and sophomore sensation Anthony Davis. There’s no need to sign on talent that will hinder success in the future, especially when you’ll need all the salary cap space to lure pieces to fit around a potential Kevin Love. Gasol had his remarkable run under Phil Jackson, Mike Brown, and Mike D’Antoni, but like most break-up stories, it’s time to move on.
Hill isn’t your franchise starting center, and hasn’t shown the offensive polish to change anyone’s mind on that, but the 26-year-old front court asset is reaching that age that seems to find guys peaking. Whether it’s the injury bug or D’Antoni effect — keeping Hill sidelined because of the “small ball” technique — Hill hasn’t been given consistent minutes on the court. When he has received time and chances to audition, it’s been nothing but mixed results.
How about the last three games for the 6’10” athletic big? Try an average of 21.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 26-of-36 field goal efficiency (72.2 percent). Of those three performances, the two that he logged over 30 minutes (vs. Orlando & Milwaukee), Hill set career highs in both by scoring 28 points. Granted, we’re talking about two of the bottom feeders in the Leastern Conference, but you have to start somewhere when you’ve been sidelined for eight games.
On the season, Hill’s effectiveness has been vastly overlooked, because he’s doesn’t have that level of finesse or flair to his game. He simply wants to bump, establish position, attack the glass, and score of misses. His number is rarely called for a mid-range jumper or isolated post up, but time with a new coach that appreciates paint scoring may fight off those struggles. In this dreaded season, Hill has connected on 65.5 percent of his attempts within 5 feet of the rim (154-of-235), ranking him first on the team in that regard. That level of efficiency has been greater than Los Angeles’ other three centers; Gasol (61.8 percent), Robert Sacre (63 percent), and Chris Kaman (62.2 percent). Hill also leads the entire Laker front court in field goal percentage from 5-9 feet from the hoop, scoring on 48.4 percent of those looks. Again, significantly ahead of the three D’Antoni has loved to give his minutes to.
If there’s been one consistent player — on both ends of the court — for the Lakers this season, all fingers point to Jodie Meeks. Moving forward, with a new head coach expected to take over, a spot up shooter is imperative in this league. Moreover, Meeks has transformed his game away from just having that label, to now someone who can create off the dribble and actually play a lick of defense. He has a future in the league as a valuable starting shooting guard, and one of his best friends on the roster since joining last season has been Bryant. It’s a promising option for the second unit, considering what we’ve witnessed him do in 2014, for Meeks to stick around.
Jordan Farmar, who’s anger is surely warranted for fighting injury after injury since December, currently remains out due to a strained right groin. He’s had his fun this season, with notable memories of lighting up Sacramento with eight 3-pointers and breaking the 20-point scoring mark times. Since returning to Los Angeles after his time in Turkey, he’s illustrated flashes of brilliance and improvement from his days as Derek Fisher‘s backup in the championships days. Re-signing the point guard for depth purposes — since it’s a shot in the dark how many instances Nash will suit up due to nerve root irritation — may be overlooked by Kupchak, but it would be a sturdy step in the right direction for 2014-15.
The athletic freak, Wesley Johnson, has been the definition of hit or miss this season. Since having a sufficient February, averaging 13.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in the midst of shooting 51.1 percent from the floor, he’s dipped to a sub-par March. Beginning the month with a game-winning layup to upset the Portland Trailblazers, Johnson has nearly cut those numbers in half by putting together a seven point, 3.5 rebound average in March, including just a 4-of-12 sum in the Lakers’ last three matchups.
With Johnson, comes athleticism and energy, and isn’t that what the Lakers tended to lack after collecting their 16th title. You can’t ever have enough athletes, and that’s what Bryant needs surrounding him, combined with the skill Los Angeles could receive in 2015.
This summer defines “frenzy,” and it’s a shame Dr. Jerry Buss won’t be around to guide most of it.