In Mike D’Antoni‘s first season, the Los Angeles Lakers made the playoffs as an eighth seed only to get swept by the San Antonio Spurs. This year, the amount of injuries throughout the roster was insurmountable, from veterans Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash to some of the young gunners like Xavier Henry and Nick Young. The Lakers finished the season 27-55 and ended up missing the playoffs for the first time since 2004-05.
Now, D’Antoni’s future is up in the air, with reports surfacing last week that the Lakers had decided to retain him for next season. D’Antoni is apparently looking for assurances beyond next season, as the team has an option for a fourth year.
What moves does general manager Mitch Kupchak have to make this summer for the Lakers to make the playoffs next year?
1. Bring back “Showtime” and hire Byron Scott as coach
Kobe will be making $23.5 million next season at 36 years of age. Since the team decided to put all their eggs in his basket committing that much money to him, wouldn’t it make sense to hire a coach whom he respects? Or at least a coach that he would be on the same page with? More importantly, Scott won three championships as a member of the Showtime Lakers back in the 1980s, so he would be a relative name to the Lakers brand. He also coached the New Jersey Nets to two straight NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. To put the sugar on top, Scott played his last season in the NBA during a second stint with the Lakers in 1996-97, Kobe’s rookie season.
2. Draft a perimeter player to groom under Kobe Bryant
Unless Joel Embiid somehow falls all the way to where the Lakers are projected to pick in the lottery (fifth through eighth), they shouldn’t think twice about drafting a wing who Kobe can mentor during his last two years. Dante Exum makes the most sense. He and Kobe share the same agent, Rob Pelinka, and Exum has reportedly been training in Los Angeles for the past few months. Exum has already expressed his desire to play for the Lakers, as Kobe was his favorite player growing up. If he refuses to work out for teams and threatens to go back to Australia, it could be seen as a power play on his part to force his way to L.A. Either way, an Exum and Kobe backcourt would be fun to watch and the team would have its tallest point guard since Magic Johnson.
3. Sign Luol Deng
Deng, 29, averaged 14.3 PPG this year for the Cleveland Cavaliers after being traded in the Andrew Bynum trade. He made $14.2 million this season but the Lakers could presumably offer somewhere in the $7 million to $10 million range. At 6-f00t-9, he’s what you call a “3 and D” player. Between Exum and Deng, the team would have two starting perimeter players who are (can be) quality defenders, which is something D’Antoni has never had. Deng is a veteran player who would mesh well alongside Kobe.
4. Re-sign key players
All of the Lakers moves will be made with the idea of preserving cap space for next summer (Kevin Love) and in 2016 when Kevin Durant‘s contract is up. Is it a coincidence Kobe’s deal was only for two years?
Let’s start with the two power forwards, Jordan Hill and Ryan Kelly. Hill is a better off as a utility guy coming off the bench and playing 25 minutes a game. With much of the league going to small-ball lineups, Kelly would be the Lakers ideal starter. He started in 25 games this year, averaged 8.0 PPG and shot 33 percent from 3.
Since Lakers Nation has already started a campaign to keep Nick Young in L.A., it’s a no-brainer for the Lakers to bring him back. Young has a player option and is expected to opt out to test the free-agent market. He’s looking to get paid this summer so it’s unsure as to how much the Lakers would be willing to pay him. In such a down year for the franchise, Swaggy P was the one player (with Kobe injured) who could actually keep fans coming to the Staples Center every night and grew to be a fan favorite. If Young is open to it, maybe the Lakers give him another one-year deal but this time for much more money. That way, he can test the market again next summer.
Chris Kaman is another guy the team needs to re-sign, as he fits in with their short-term goals. He could be the starting center next season for $5 million or less, and the Lakers would ensure themselves he’s off their books for 2016.
After re-signing those four players, other decisions would have to be made on the rest of the roster and the free agent market. Jordan Farmar is a valuable player for the franchise, can start if needed and has played with the team in two different stints. Kendall Marshall played well as the starting point this year and has a special ability to pass the basketball, averaging 8.8 APG, second in the league. Other than that, he’s very limited in what he can do and some see him as just a product of the D’Antoni system.
Do they decide to keep Steve Nash or waive him under the stretch provision to spread his $9.7 million out over the next three years of salary caps? If he’s kept on the roster, he could be a mentor for Exum and the $9.7 would come off the salary cap after next season.
Charles Barkley said it best. “Old people don’t get healthy. They die.” The Lakers cannot count on Nash to be healthy over the course of 82 games at this point in his career.
Potential Starting Five for 2014-15
C- Chris Kaman
PF- Ryan Kelly
SF- Luol Deng
SG- Kobe Bryant
PG- Dante Exum