After his Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated from the NBA Playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday evening, Kobe Bryant told reporters that he’d bet his house versus theirs that he would win another title.
Mr. Bryant, I’ll take that bet. Okay, I don’t own a house, but I have rent stabilized lease on a one bedroom apartment in a nice section of Manhattan (okay, if you haven’t heard, during the course of your playing career all sections of Manhattan have become nice, but my neighborhood is especially nice). Still, I’ll wager it because I don’t think the Lakers are going to win another title soon.
The Lakers enter this offseason at a crossroads, but their agenda should be fairly obvious. This season the Lakers team featured three all star caliber players, Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. For a large stretch of this season the Lakers fourth best player was journeyman Matt Barnes. A nucleus of three all star caliber players is the start of a championship contender, but as the Miami Heat are demonstrating again, players four through eight in a rotation matter a lot too. The Lakers supporting cast includes several players who are on the wrong side of 30 or declining, or both like Steve Blake, Metta World Peace, and Troy Murphy
The Lakers depth improved late in the season with the acquisitions of Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill, but they were still sixth in the Western Conference in point differential and they face several rivals who are younger and improving. Their offseason agenda is to trade one of their big three for some depth. All along Gasol would be the most likely piece to move. He’s on the wrong side of 30, his contract expires after the 2013-14 season and he’s still productive (17.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per game). Unfortunately, the Lakers, specifically Bryant made a habit of throwing Gasol under the bus, blaming him for two of the losses in the Lakers series against the Thunder.
It’s hard to play poker when you’ve tipped your hand.
The Lakers trade of Gasol will be a blockbuster and only a few teams are well situated as partners in such a transaction. The Lakers need a team with substantial depth and cap flexibility as a trading partner. Otherwise they’ll be swapping their big contract big man for someone else’s (say Chicago’s Carlos Boozer or Philadelphia’s Elton Brand). Trying to move a devalued asset in this scenario is that much harder.
The lone caveat is that the Lakers could call whoever winds up in the GM position in Orlando and say, fine, Bynum and Gasol for Dwight Howard. It’s a trade that would help both teams. However the Lakers would then have to abandon their strategy of squeezing the last bits of productivity from veterans like Jason Kapono and get serious about developing young players. The San Antonio Spurs are playing at a historically ferocious pace due in part to their role players like Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair. The Lakers equivalent of that trio is Devin Ebanks, Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris. Each member of the Laker trio looks like a great athlete, but not–or at least not yet–a skilled contributor to a championship basketball team.
The most likely scenario is that Lakers trade Gasol but don’t improve markedly from the deal. With that and their reliance on the Metta World Peace’s of the Association, it means that we’re looking at a mid level playoff team on the decline. In a conference where younger teams like the Thunder, Nuggets, Grizzlies and maybe even the Clippers are already on the Lakers level or above, another title is not obviously in the team’s future.
So yeah, Kobe, I’ll take that bet. It’s not that I doubt your commitment or devotion to winning another title, but that it takes more than that and your team isn’t well suited to deliver the rest.