The most surprising thing about last Saturday’s Heat-Celtics Game 3 matchup didn’t happen on the court. It had nothing to do with Rajon Rondo’s elbow being snapped like a breadstick, wasn’t that- for at least one night- Mario Chalmers was the best player on the floor for Miami, and didn’t even occur a day later when Chris Bosh admitted to being intimidated by the Boston crowd. Come to think of it, the most surprising thing didn’t have to do with the game at all.
Nope the biggest surprise came on the postgame show, where the NBA on ABC studio guys started openly and bluntly talking about the end of the Lakers dynasty. Which was interesting, since the Lakers hadn’t played that night, and at the time, still had a series with Dallas that was on-going.
Of course none of that mattered less than a day later, when Los Angeles fulfilled that prophecy and got waxed by Dallas in the deciding Game 4. And really, “waxed,” isn’t even the right word. The Lakers were beat up, beat down and embarrassed, even more so when Andrew Bynum decided to go WWE on JJ Barea, and to use the words of Mike Tyson, knock him “into Bolivian.” Understand, it’s one thing to lose ugly. It’s another to do it with less dignity than the cast of Teen Mom. Well that was the Lakers on Sunday.
From there, the outrage began again, first in the postgame show, and then into the following day. Magic Johnson said he was “embarrassed for the entire organization,” and Jerry West used similar sentiments the next day on the Dan Patrick Show. Both contended that it was time to blow up this Lakers roster as we know it and start from scratch.
But while the loss was bad, I’ve got to admit that those comments did catch me a bit off-guard.As ugly as things got with Dallas, I was surprised by the curt responses of Magic, West and everyone else who agreed that it was time to take the wrecking ball to the Lakers. Obviously the series was ugly, I get that. But weren’t these the three-time defending Western Conference champions that everyone was talking about? A team which has won the last two NBA titles? A team that won 57 regular season games this year, and could’ve easily won two of the four games they lost in this series? Did I imagine all that? While it’s hard to argue that changes are needed with the Lakers, I’m not sure totally blowing things up is the answer either.
Then again, looking at the situation, I’m not so sure the Lakers can anyway.
Beginning at the top, I’ve got bad news for Lakers fans: You’re kinda stuck with the guys you’ve got. Looking at the roster, I’m shocked at how many dollars, over how many years Jerry Buss and company have committed to the players on this roster.
Starting with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Blake, they’re all on the books, for fully guaranteed contracts for the next three years.
Hmm. Let’s break that down for a second.
Obviously we can all make sense of the Kobe Bryant deal. Yes he’s slipped a tiny bit, and sure he’s a step slower than he was even just a year or two ago. Still, he’s one of the five best players on the planet, and should be paid as such. Even closing in on his 33rd birthday, those three years of guaranteed money make sense. I doubt anyone is arguing with me there.
It’s the same with Pau Gasol. Say what you want about his current mental state (which could probably be best described as more sensitive than a 15-year-old girl), but it wasn’t all that long ago that many (myself included), considered him the best all-around big man in basketball. It was also only four months ago that he was on the All-Star team.
But three-years and $12 million guaranteed to Steve Blake? Wait, when did that happen? Was I drunk? Was GM Mitch Kupchak drunk when he gave out that contract? Blake was 30-years-old when he signed that deal, and wasn’t all that good to begin with. That contract isn’t just bad, it’s an outrage. To basketball, to contracts and to society as a whole.
Yet sadly, it’s not even the Lakers worst in the coming years.
Nope, that title belongs to Ron Artest, who is on the books for $6 million through the end of next year, which wouldn’t be all that bad…if he didn’t have a player option that kicks in after next season, and will keep him in Los Angeles for two more full seasons if he accepts it. Luckily for the Lakers, Artest is certifiably insane, meaning there’s a chance he won’t take those two years and $14 million. I just wouldn’t bet on it. Which is bad news for everyone involved, except maybe Artest and his agent.
Speaking of which, you know else is on the books for two more years? Luke Walton, who’ll earn 12 million through the end of next year. No, I’m not joking. And don’t forget Lamar Odom, who is under contract until the end of next season (Not that it matters anyway, since I’m pretty sure he would nix any trade, and could probably make more money designing a line of unisex purses with his wife, than playing basketball).
So looking at this Lakers situation realistically, blowing things up just isn’t an option. It’s hard seeing anyone being interested in trading for Artest, Odom, Walton or Derek Fisher who is under contract next year, and has a player option for 2013 (Really, at this point, shouldn’t his only “option,” be, to either get put down peacefully at the local vet’s office, or sent out to a farm to live his remaining days?).
Anyway, looking at the Lakers options from here on out, let’s get one thing out of the way from the start: The Lakers aren’t trading for Dwight Howard. At least not right now.
For one, let’s remember, this isn’t a Carmelo Anthony situation. Howard has never asked for a trade. He’s never insinuated he wants a trade. And unlike certain superstars who will remain nameless, he has never gone on the record at his own wedding and publicly talked about playing for a different team. For better or worse, Howard isn’t going anywhere.
At the same time, can someone explain why the Magic would trade Howard until the next collective bargaining agreement is figured out? What’s the rush? After all, isn’t one of the biggest priorities the owners have in this upcoming lockout to make sure that something like “The Decision,” never happens again, at least not without heavy, HEAVY reparations for the team? For all we know, the next CBA could have some kind of “Franchise Tag,” like the NFL, and Howard could be stuck in Orlando until death do he and the organization part. I’m not saying Howard won’t get traded eventually. Just not until after a lockout, when the landscape is much clearer.
So with Howard off the table for now, the Lakers are stuck in the ultimate “chicken and the egg,” situation. They can’t possibly come back into the 2011-2012 season (whenever that starts) with the same roster they have now. But it’s also gonna be kinda, sorta hard to relieve themselves of any of the dead weight they’re stuck with too.
No matter what they do though, one thing is clear: They need to get younger. Because as bad as things finished up against Dallas last Sunday, the scary thing is, it could’ve been worse. Maybe not literally, but at least figuratively, since on paper, the Mavericks weren’t a terrible matchup for the Lakers. Dallas is almost as old as Los Angeles (a bunch of key guys who are over 30-years-old) and like to play the same pace as them too. Imagine how ugly things could’ve gotten if the Lakers had to play Oklahoma City instead of Dallas in this past series? Or Memphis. Or…gasp…Miami? If the Mavericks were able to make the Lakers look old, what would the Heat have made them look like? And truthfully, it’s hard to see things getting any better when you remember that other than Shannon Brown (player-option this summer and might not be back) and Andrew Bynum, nobody on this roster who played significant minutes is under 30-years-old. Not good.
Let’s go ahead and add everything up. Let’s add up all the contracts, and ages, and availability of players on the trade block, and in the end, I think we can all come to the same conclusion: The Lakers have no choice but to trade Andrew Bynum.
Now obviously that might sound silly, especially since I just spent the last 200 words explaining how the Lakers need to get younger. Only realistically, trading Bynum is the only way they can, especially if they want to gamble and take the chance that Howard or another superstar will be available in a trade down the road.
Seriously, let’s think about this for a second.
The only other feasible trade piece for the Lakers is Pau Gasol, which is fine, if you want to trade him at his lowest possible value. You watched these playoffs just like I did, and honestly the guy is a mess. He doesn’t need to work on his handle or jump shot, as much as he just straight-up needs to chat with Dr. Phil. Whether it was problems with his girlfriend, he’s terrified to play with Kobe, or it’s something we don’t know about, Gasol just isn’t right in the head right now. To which I’ve got to ask: Who is going to make a trade for him given those circumstances?
But while Gasol’s value has never been lower, has Bynum’s ever ben higher?
Yes there’s the whole, “he knocked the crap out of J.J. Barea in an embarrassing and egregious cheap shot.” Luckily, this is a league that gainfully employs Zach Randolph and Ron Artest, meaning that it shouldn’t affect his trade value one bit.
At the same time, Bynum is coming off his absolute best postseason ever (14.4 points and 9.6 rebounds, in 32 minutes a game) and for the first time in a long time, is healthy. As a matter of fact, did you know that this will be the first offseason since 2008 where Bynum will actually be on the court working on his basketball skills, as opposed to rehabbing an injury?
Which is why the Lakers have to move now; it’s the classic buy low, sell high conundrum. Remember, in this 24-7, “we can’t remember anything that happened before yesterday world we live in,” it’s easy to forget that as recently as a month ago Bynum tweaked his knee and was questionable for the beginning of the playoffs. While he ended up being ok, it raises the question as to whether the Lakers should move him before he does something and ends up injured again. Can they risk waiting?
Meanwhile, let’s look at the other side of things. Say you’re someone like the Pacers, Rockets, Nuggets, whoever. You’re stuck as a fringe contender, not quite good enough to make a real run in the postseason, but not really bad enough to bottom out and end up with a really good draft pick either. Isn’t it worth trading away some of your pieces (the Kyle Lowry’s and Wilson Chandler’s and Tyler Hansbrough’s) to take a chance on one of the few guys in the league that can give you 20 and 10 every night? Sure Bynum is a risky proposition. But he could also flourish as the go-to guy. Plus, it’s not like if you’re the Rockets, Nuggets or Pacers, you were going to win the title with the roster you had anyway.
Plus, here’s the kicker: Say the Lakers were able to pick up 2-3 nice, young pieces for Bynum; the type of guys who aren’t quite franchise altering, but quality players none the less (I’m not going to get into the specifics, since I understand the NBA salary cap about as well as I do Mandarin Chinese). If they got a few of those guys, not only does it give them more depth heading into the season, not only does it remake who they are, but it also gives them 2-3 more pieces to throw into a trade if Howard or someone else becomes available down. Honestly you’re not getting Howard straight up for Gasol, and if you wait to try and make Bynum a center-piece, you risk him getting injured, and his value tumbling. But a package with Gasol and a few other guys? Now the Magic at least have to listen, right?
So that’s where the Lakers right now, at undeniably, the most interesting cross-roads in the NBA. They’re not quite bad enough for there to be a ton of concern, not quite good enough to move forward as is, without quite enough of the right pieces to hope things fall into place and go the way they were. It’s not quite time to blow up the team, but not quite time to stand pat either. Consider it an “Extreme Makeover: NBA Edition.”
And it all starts by moving Bynum.
The Lakers present and future depends on it.
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