Every offseason the Lakers don’t win a championship is a restless one for the franchise and its fans. The high expectations create a quicker panic trigger when those plans don’t mature, leaving anyone around feeling like GM Mitch Kupchak standing alone in a packed Oklahoma City Arena. The SoCal summer is a little dimmer. This season, however, there are more reasons to be uneasy â€” and they’re foundational reasons.
The bench was more of a patchwork than usual, the coach held less sway and the star may be nearing the end of his window. Here’s a sampling of the issues facing the Lakers this offseason.
1. Will Mike Brown return as coach?
I don’t care if Magic Johnson claimed he misspoke after the fact: When he said on ESPN that Mike Brown was coaching for his life earlier this series, he meant it. I’d like to see how he does in a second year because Brown got this team to its ceiling â€š and the second round, with a division title, was as high as this Zeppelin was going to fly before bursting apart in spectacular flames. Critics rail Brown for not being take-charge on the sidelines enough, but Phil Jackson was authoritative (behind the doors, inside the zen mind) without being an outsized public figure. I don’t see why Brown can’t take the same tack. That said, that works when you have star power buying in. I haven’t seen a definitive account of how Brown and LeBron James co-existed in Cleveland, but there were reports in 2010 that he wanted the coach gone as part of an agreement to return to the Cavaliers in free agency. It never seemed Kobe Bryant warmed to him, either. Not even defrosted. In Game 2 up seven points, the Lakers were lauded by TNT for their in-game communication; basically Kobe was grabbing guys in each huddle and telling them what to do, with interjections from Metta World Peace. Brown knew, or likely was told by Bryant, to step aside. And there was one of the most notable, public shows of the team’s split psyche: Listen to Brown’s words, follow Kobe’s actions. If this seems like an obvious case of a sequel to the Orlando Magic’s Howard/Van Gundy situation, there’s a catch. It involves…
2. Is Kobe Bryant still valuable enough to build around?
Bryant turns 34 in August. The only guard to ever average at least 27 points per game â€” his average the past five seasons â€” after age 34 was Michael Jordan in 1997-98 with 28.7. Bryant would do anything in his power to join MJ with that kind of output and result â€” a sixth title. But we should be realistic and see there isn’t enough of a cast to push him there physically or mentally. We saw it often this postseason where Bryant had to be the leader but his teammates’ following was inconsistent. Trust issues as deep as a glacial crevasse are embedded in this roster â€” how else to explain 42 points and 0 assists in an elimination game? Look, Bean Bryant is still in the top five in the league’s best player debate. But now the argument leads more heavily on his competitive fire than his physical tools, which he gets the most out of but are certainly in decline. Still dressed in royal purple, he’s a weakened monarch and his rule isn’t the law anymore. The Lakers owe him more than $58 million over the next two seasons â€”$27.8 million next year, and $30.5 in 2013-14 â€” but the odds of him getting all of that isn’t 100 percent because I think the Lakers have to rebuild. Dealing Kobe for younger parts and picks could be one way to do so, but it would also be one of the biggest white flags the league has ever seen.
3. What is the future for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum?
There isn’t an option where both play together again. Two All-Star forwards who should comprise the league’s best frontcourt didn’t, and whether Gasol is too rattled from the 2011 postseason or Bynum is too ambivalent to the concept of team, one has a ticket out for their combined shortcomings. Which is more reviled right now in L.A.? Probably Pau, still, because he’s the older one and the one who should have been able to be less likely to be caught in self-pity after being trashed by Laker fans ever since last year’s playoffs. Which would bring the most back in picks or players? Bynum, by a longshot. All that talk about Pau’s fragile mental state over two seasons in L.A. makes Bynum’s look like papier mache by comparison. Bynum leads by far in absolute frustration because of his youth and build, still. He will never be in the conversation with Dwight Howard because, while Howard has shown his ability to be petty, Bynum will flash it at any perceived slight. Maybe the “whoa/woe is me” thinking can fly on a team built around him for a little while. At the core, though, he’s no Superman now with Kobe still around; whether a team wants to give up a lot to see him run the ship solo is the Kupchak’s chore this offseason.
4. What point guard will run the show?
None of the Laker title teams had dominating play from the point guard position because it wasn’t needed. Shaq and Kobe were enough with the early three teams, and Bryant went back-to-back with Gasol as the No. 2 running mate and key help from Lamar Odom. Those teams all relied on manager points, like Ron Harper and Derek Fisher, and Steve Blake has been an extension, albeit not nearly as successful, of that line. Andre Miller, an L.A. native who goes home every summer to Compton to live with his mother, is an unresctricted free agent and would fit that mold. There’s a red flag; in Portland he clashed with Brandon Roy when Roy would become a de facto point in certain situations. Kobe would be doing the same, so how could they survive? Sessions could be his Ty Lawson, but Miller’s need to play with the ball in his hands moreso than other points could be the hindrance to that addition.
5. Is this a rebuild or a remodel?
This is a rebuild because the parts aren’t there to deal away one or two major parts and receive enough in return to reload. The Lakers are over the cap and own the No. 60 pick in this year’s draft. There are 60 picks. Lakers fans will hold out hope for a Nuggets-Knicks deal, where a star can be shipped off for a number of skilled replacements and a winning record, too. Again, it swivels on what the perception of Bynum’s ceiling is around the league and whether Mike Brown, or another coach, can mold the team afterward. The offseason moves will need Bryant’s blessing, of course, something the Lakers failed to get before hiring Brown. That said, his own uncertain future (not in this offseason but presumably the next) means his voice in team matters is becoming more of a consultant’s and less like a board’s.
What’s LA’s biggest concern?
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