— Mitch Kupchak is like the proverbial man at the circus whose job is to follow the elephants around with a shovel. In this case, the pachyderms under his authority will be harder to move.
In a perfect world, the Lakers’ general manager would be soaking in congratulations today for adding Matt Barnes and Steve Blake to a two-time defending champion last offseason, thus turning them into three-peaters. Instead, he’ll be overseeing a disaster relief effort.
The Lakers may not have to be “blown up” after surrendering to the Dallas Mavericks in four games of their Western Conference semifinal series, as Magic Johnson put it. But tweaks won’t do it. This team played most of the 2010-11 season like it didn’t want to play anymore, and as a result it has forfeited its right to remain intact. Significant changes need to be made.
Raging at the slothful way these Lakers proceeded through the season is wasted breath. They deserve a tip of the doo-rag for advancing to the NBA Finals the previous three seasons and winning the past two championships. Most players would give the right arms of their posse members for such success. They deserve some kudos for that, even if they did end up looking like eviscerated swine.
But there was obviously something wrong all year, and it appeared to be more than just the customary mental fatigue that afflicts champions. Maybe the “trust issues” that Andrew Bynum alluded to during the Dallas series were more pervasive and destructive than the outside world realized. Maybe Phil Jackson’s message finally wore thin, or wore out. Maybe Kobe Bryant couldn’t push his teammates the way Michael Jordan once pushed his. Maybe Kobe and Pau Gasol did have a personal dustup, even though both denied it.
Or maybe these Lakers are just old. Each of the five starters has been in the NBA for double-digit seasons, with Bryant and Derek Fisher leading the way with 15 seasons each; how many teams in history have had 30 years of experience in the same starting backcourt? Lamar Odom, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year, has 12 seasons of wear and tear on his legs. Barnes and Blake have been in the NBA for eight seasons apiece.
They need youth and athleticism to keep up with rising teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies in the West. They won’t be serious contenders for another championship if they bring back this same group.
For one thing, Kobe will demand change. He will be 33 entering next season — assuming there is a next season, as the league and its players haggle over a new collective bargaining agreement — and he doesn’t have much time left to catch Jordan at six rings. Remember when Kobe loudly demanded a trade in 2007 because he was incensed at the lack of roster strength? The Lakers should be proactive this time in order to avoid Kobe Tantrum Redux.
As Magic mentioned, just about everyone not named Kobe should be available as trade bait. If Dwight Howard can be brought to the Lakers in exchange for Bynum, the Lakers have to do it. Although Bynum has been one of the few bright spots down the stretch, Howard is a better overall center, more athletic, and in image-conscious Hollywood, more charismatic. He would infuse the entire operation with more energy.
If there is a way to bring Chris Paul to L.A. in exchange for either Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom, or maybe both, it would represent the Lakers’ opportunity to install a superstar at point guard and gently shove aside the fading Derek Fisher, as great a Laker as he has been.
The Lakers don’t really have a slasher, someone who can attack the basket on a regular basis. Kobe can’t do it as often as he once did. Paul would be that guy, someone who could motor to the hoop and either score or dish off.
They also can’t defend perimeter teams like the Mavericks. Dallas’ performance in this series might have been adrenaline-charged, creating an infectious feeling among their shooters that they couldn’t miss. But that doesn’t change the fact that these aging Lakers can’t rotate quickly enough, and they can’t cover for each other. It wasn’t just this series against the Mavericks. They’ve been a step slow all year on defense, either because of disinterest, or nursing-home bodies, or both.
It’s easy to clamor for players like that. It’s much more difficult for Kupchak to get it done in the complicated world of multi-year contracts and salary caps, especially with the uncertainty of new rules. But even one Trevor Ariza-like player added to the Lakers’ roster would lift spirits and raise hopes.
Finally, there is the little matter of Jackson’s exit. He deserved better than a complete meltdown by his team as a sendoff. But he’ll be fine. When fans and media look back, they’ll be blinded by the glow of his 11 championship rings as an NBA head coach, which will obscure the grisly final scene.
But who will replace him? Assistant coach Brian Shaw was the frontrunner, before the Lakers got swept and knuckleheads like Odom and Bynum got thrown out in Game 4 for thug-like behavior. Shaw may be a terrific coaching prospect. Yet this may not be the time in Laker history to segue from a strong, legendary personality to a lesser, unproven one.
Maybe the Lakers should try and coax Jerry Sloan out of retirement, if only for a year or two. The Lakers would get a superb, hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach, and Sloan would finally have a team that had enough talent to at least be in the mix for a title. The primary obstacle to that scenario would be getting Kobe’s blessing; he is said to be pro-Shaw. But he’s a competitor, and maybe he would see the possibilities.
Also, after years of Phil, owner Jerry Buss would dearly love to snag a coach at a bargain-basement price, like Shaw. Yet Buss would have to weigh those savings against the lost revenue from not getting to the Finals.
Revamping this Lakers team is obviously not as easy as fantasy leaguers would like. But in this case, bold has to trump old. Something tremorous has to be done. This era is over. Laker fans won’t tolerate another slog of a season like the last one.
It wasn’t just the flop at the end that left them seething. It was the season-long rehearsal to it. It probably set an NBA record for the number of times “mail it in” and “flip the switch” were used to describe a team.
Start shoveling, Mitch.