Both the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers find their seasons ending at the hands of two Southwest “small-market” teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, respectively. A point made, not to diminish the seasons of the Los Angeles teams, rather to dispel any notion of the smaller markets not having every opportunity to develop a winning product. Sam Presti (OKC Thunder), Chris Wallace (Memphis Grizzlies), and R.C. Buford (San Antonio Spurs) are all small market general managers that don’t seem to have the same issues some of the less successful small market GM’s have had. Again, not to belabor that point, but along with guys like Neil Olshey (Clippers GM) and Larry Bird (Indiana Pacers), if you ask me, the smarter and more fiscally responsible smaller market teams seem to be dominating the postseason headlines.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I did refer to the Los Angeles Clippers as a “small market” team. Yes, they play in the 2nd-largest market in the league, but they’ve relegated themselves to smaller market consideration due largely in part to mismanagement and an apparent aversion to maintained success. Under the rein of Olshey, the Clippers have made a concerted effort to rid themselves of the very public “Lovable Loser” stigma, and more importantly the culture of accepting “organizational failure”. I’d say, drafting DeAndre Jordan (starting center), Eric Gordon (principle piece of Chris Paul deal), Blake Griffin (starting power forward), and Eric Bledsoe (potential star) consecutively would be a definite step into the right direction.
After being swept by a team viably gunning for an NBA title (Spurs), the mood isn’t one of sorrow and prolonged disappointment, as the foundation of rising team can be seen. As the dust settled, and exit interviews completed, GM Olshey was non-committal (at best) when asked about the future of head coach Vinny Del Negro. While rumors swirled of his impending demise during a mid-season swoon, Del Negro’s Clippers fought admirably, and challenged the Lakers for the Pacific Division right down to the final week of the season. Regardless of where you land on the coaching position, moving forward, one would have to acknowledge the fact that “LobCity” made it to the 2nd-round of the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history…and unlike the past, these Clippers look poised to make a push at maintaining and even building upon the momentum of this season.
Chris Paul took the Clippers from a team that was 18-games under .500 to a very respectable 40-26 (32-game swing) in his first season with the team. With Paul’s contract expiring at the end of next season, the Clippers need to make re-signing the star point guard their number one priority as a franchise. Paul, as he’s shown, is that much of an organization-altering force. Griffin may get the headlines and have a never-ending ‘victim’s list’ highlight reel on SportsCenter, but his game remains understandably flawed (2nd year), and was exposed by the savvy veteran, Tim Duncan. Hardly something a young power forward should be discouraged by, but a definite reminder of the necessity of Griffin to continue developing and improving.
Again, the future looks bright, but it will all be contingent upon the Los Angeles Clippers maintaining the momentum by re-signing Paul and determining what they want to do with the head coaching position moving forward.
The Los Angeles Lakers are another story, altogether. If you’re judging this team as an impartial and unbiased observer, the season was probably a relative success, all things considered. Trouble is, when you’re coming off two-consecutive 2nd-round exits (regardless of the circumstances), Laker fans are going to be anything but impartial and unbiased. Contrary to what other fan-bases may say, the prevailing difference between Los Angeles Laker fans and those of most other markets is the level of expectation. Whether contending for a title (annually) should be a realistic demand can certainly be argued, the fact remains, there have been 65 Finals series played in the history of the NBA, and the Los Angeles Lakers have played in 31 of them. That type of maintained excellence will breed a level of heightened disappointment and an undeniable irrationality towards failure.
Mike Brown, first year head coach, was hardly afforded even a moment to get settled into his office before the first bit of drama developed. Just prior to the start of the preseason, Lakers’ management attempted to pull off a trade for Chris Paul that would have undoubtedly altered the franchise, let alone this season. We all know what took place, and the Lakers were left scrambling and back-peddling with a disgruntled pair of big men in Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. Odom worked his way to Dallas, and essentially out of the league (momentarily), and Gasol struggled through what would end up being a fairly good season for the one-time franchise player, now in a 3rd-role position.
Andrew Bynum, whom has seemingly benefited most from Brown’s new system and basketball philosophy has been the essential basketball equivalent of Randy Moss. On certain nights, he’s performed at legendary heights and levels, while on other nights Bynum seems to be content with simply going through the motions. Legendary ex-coach, Phil Jackson cautioned Laker fans and organization members to “be patient, and watch Bynum develop”, but I would venture to say it is a whole lot easier to make such comments while relaxing at the house than it would be had he not decided to retire and were still lumbering along the sidelines of Staples. Bynum truly has been perplexing, as the oft-injured player was finally able to put together a relatively healthy All-Star season while being featured for the first time by Brown’s system seemed to fade in and out of professional consciousness throughout the year.
Make no mistake about it, Bynum should be considered one of the most promising young players in the league. At 24, the seven-foot, 285 pound center has a tremendous upside to go along with an already established skill-set. Some NBA analysts, including ESPN’s Skip Bayless and TNT Sports’ Shaquille O’Neal have already been on record as calling Bynum the best big man in today’s NBA. While Dwight Howard’s uncertain physical condition (recovering from back surgery) makes that a far more legitimate claim, Bynum’s inability to maintain an emotional focus over the course of the season remains his largest issue.
The Lakers are again faced with the extremely difficult task of finding the type of franchise-player that can seamlessly usher the organization into the future while keeping them as a viable contender for the title while still blessed with a still-lethal Kobe Bryant. If his productivity over the course of the year (28 ppg, 4.6 ast. 5.4 reb) didn’t convince you, then his final three games of 36, 38, and 42 points (respectively) should eliminate all doubt of whether Bryant has enough left in the tank heading into what will be his 17th season. Trouble is, Bryant will tell you before anyone else, he needs some help.While still well above average, Bryant is no longer a player that can single-handedly will his team to victory at the drop of a hat. Although still full of talent, Bryant would likely acknowledge this fact if you were close enough to talk off-the-record. Gone are the days where Bryant’s dominance is at a level where he can effectively “make-up” for sub par play in the back-court beside him. The Lakers attempted to remedy that issue with the mid-season addition of Ramon Sessions, but probably aren’t sold on Sessions being the leader of the team moving forward.
Sessions is undoubtedly the quickest player the Lakers have been able to place at the point in well over a decade, but his advantages essentially end there. Unable to locate a balance between playing assertively and becoming a play-maker for other teammates, Sessions ended up fading into the scenery on many nights, including a large portion of the postseason. Without a doubt, this lockout compressed season must have felt like an absolute blur the the 5th-year, careeer-backup point guard out of Nevada-Reno (college). To go from playing a reserve role for the Cleveland Cavaliers to the starting job of a storied franchise such as the Los Angeles Lakers must result in an understandable amount of culture shock for any young player. That said, Sessions would do his future, regardless of where that might be, a great service by continuing to develop his intermediate game. Being able to consistently knock down open looks from 15-18 feet as well as knocking down the pull-up jumper from that very same range has made all the difference for other speedy guards like Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook. That devastating speed and quickness only works with regularity when you have an established set of counter-moves and options.
What moves would I make?
Well, even though it may not be a popular topic, if we’re being adults about things, we can discuss the difficult idea of parting ways with Pau Gasol. Allow me to state, for the record, Pau Gasol has provided the Lakers with nearly five years of undeniably Hall-of-Fame level service. As dominant as Bryant was (post-Shaq), it wasn’t until Kupchak was able to land the Gasol deal, that Bryant would have been in any position to solidify his legacy with the back-to-back titles of 2009-2010. Laker fans will be forever indebted to Gasol for the amazing combination of elite-level skill, consummate team-first attitude, and genuine love for the Lakers and their fans the Spaniard brought to the table. While his skill-set and willingness to defer is an absolute rarity in today’s NBA, the remaining $38 million of his contract looms as a daily reminder of the necessity to get the roster beneath the salary cap, especially when you consider the fact that (under the new CBA) teams over the salary cap for 4 of 5 years are penalized so heavily the risk is hardly worth the financial gamble.
Being forced to do more with less, isn’t absolutely impossible, as other organizations have shown you can be successful while also being somewhat financially responsible at the same time. If I were sitting beside GM Mitch Kupchak, which I am unfortunately not, I would recommend making a push for an elite-level point guard. Having already attempted this, the organization will surprise no one if they made another strong push for players like Deron Williams (player option for 2012-2013 season) or Rajon Rondo (oft-rumored). Theoretically, the Lakers could play an additional season with Sessions at the point, in hopes of luring Chris Paul across the hallway, but I doubt the aging Bryant would be too keen on the idea of “wasting another year of his life”, as he refers to seasons that end without a title. I’ll go into much more detail of which players the Lakers should look to sign/obtain for their bench, but OJ Mayo is the first name that comes to mind. According to reports, Indiana and Memphis were very close to consummating a deal that would have sent Josh McRoberts as the principle portion of a package for Mayo. Finding a viable scoring threat off the bench and someone to provide major productive minutes in a reserve role for Bryant should be the second-most important task on Laker management’s agenda, this summer.
This season, Bryant’s 38.5 minutes per game were actually two minutes over his career average for playing time. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, nor a doctor in order to determine an issue with such a trend. The team should also look to re-sign back-up forward Jordan Hill. Hill showed great promise with high activity and productivity in such a limited role. Call it a hunch, but with Bryant openly opining for more teammates he can “go to war” with, I wouldn’t in the slightest bit be surprised if the Lakers end up retaining Lamar Odom’s services, if they were able to sign Odom to a veteran’s minimum-type deal. I, also, wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if the organization made another effort to obtain disgruntled Orlando Magic big man, Dwight Howard. Again, we’ve got an entire summer of rumor-filled speculation and gossip to discuss any/all potential deals, but I wanted to at least give you an idea of where I think the organization may head.
Regardless of which direction the Lakers ultimately choose, the point is, there will be definite changes ahead. If history has proven anything, this is not an organization that willingly accepts mediocrity. As stubborn and competitive as Bryant gets credit for being, Dr. Jerry Buss has shown that same competitive nature over the last 30+ years of fantastic Laker ownership. While out of the limelight for a majority of the season due to health concerns, I trust that Dr. Buss, Mitch Kupchak, and Jim Buss (the real “Big-3″) will continue making the moves and deals it takes to maintain their tradition of success.
Jabari A. Davis
@RealTalkOnSprts on Twitter
In a game that featured 6 technical fouls, 1 ejection (McRambis), 6 or 7 scrums for loose balls, 10 unnecessary “I really want no part of a fight” stare-downs, 30 chest thumps, and a fired-up Pau, the Los Angeles Lakers outlasted the Los Angeles Clippers for a 96-91 victory @ Staples Center, Wednesday night. Leading up to the meeting, we had players from both sides proclaiming Wednesday’s meeting as “just another game”, but anyone that watched the game would be able to attest to a playoff-type atmosphere and vibe throughout the crowd, building, and on the court. The game was significant enough that Chris Paul decided to test out his sore hamstring, after previously missing the last 5 games. Blake Griffin didn’t disappoint, as he provided an array of crowd pleasing slashes, dunks, and displays of his freakishly unparalleled athletic ability. Aside from the 180°, cork-screw, over-the-shoulder shots over Pau, Griffin makes plays like this that simply make other physically gifted athletes look like run-of-the-mill guys you’d see playing at your local 24-hour Fitness:
Caron Butler and Mo Williams were hot from beyond the arc (7-14 3pts.), but the Lakers’ perimeter defense was able to harness that deadly Clippers’ starting backcourt duo (CP3 and Mr. Big Shot) to the tune of 3/16 fgs., including 0-5 (combined) from 3-point land. Seldom-used rookie, Andrew Goudelock, came in and provided the offensive spark (14 points on 5/8 fg, 2/3 3pts) the Lakers have been in search of. Metta World Peace and Reggie Evans battled as though every possession meant more than it being “just another game” on the schedule. In fact, Metta played the one of the more complete games he’s played in 2 seasons, despite what the box score may tell you. And then there’s that Kobe guy. He shot a bit less, forced the issue into the big’s early and often, and paced the action of the game in a play-making role before hitting timely jumpers and free throws down the stretch. His 7 turnovers not only remind us of his limited ball-handling control, undoubtedly influenced by his wrist injury (even if he would deny it), but also highlight the fact that these Lakers are still in need of a serious upgrade at the point guard position.
For all of those continuing to point out his increased ball-handling under Mike Brown’s new offensive system, what alternative do they have? The Lakers don’t have anyone (not-named-Bryant) that can consistently create their own shot or make a play off the dribble. In fact, for a team already lacking in athleticism and speed around the perimeter, the losses of Shannon Brown’s ability to slash from the weak-side of the offense and Lamar Odom‘s capability of fulfilling the play-maker’s role have never been more evident. Put simply, get some guards that can penetrate and play-make, and Kobe can go back to his natural position/role. Trust me, Kobe would much prefer to be in his “attack-mode” than initiating the offense, anyhow.
The Clippers still have some roster issues of their own. Although Reggie Evans is a guy any team would love to bring off the bench, the Clippers lack interior defense outside of a weak-side blocks. Not that you can discredit DeAndre Jordan for the manner by which he blocks shots, but his 5 total rebounds and inability to consistently defend 1-on-1 in the post without committing fouls are only magnified by Blake Griffin’s (surprising) inability to do the same. You’d think someone with his unrivaled athletic ability, quite frankly, would be a better defender and consistent shot-blocker. That’s not a knock, that’s simply a fact. Not to knit-pick, but as a fan of basketball, I’d much rather see Griffin continue to develop/improve his game instead of resting upon said athleticism. Something, a guy like Amar’e Stoudemire never did, for instance. GM Neil Olshey, with his glut of quality guards, should still be looking for a veteran big man.
Lakers fans, time for a reality check of your own. Don’t let the success of an absolute must-win situation, where everyone rallied, and a few players played about as well as could be asked, make you forget the explicit holes in that roster across the hallway. Sure, Goudelock contributed a spark (last night), but the Lakers have needed to address that position for the past 3 years. As Kobe (naturally) declines, his advantage over his opponent minimizes, and lessens his ability to make up for the short-comings of the point guard position. Not kicking dirt of Fish, as he could be an absolute beast off the bench, but there’s a reason why Mitch Kupchak was willing to trade two major pieces (Pau/Lamar) from a back-to-back championship roster (aside from the obvious) for CP3. Kupchak, and everyone else paying attention to the ‘tea leaves’ (as Max Kellerman often says) realized that even as revitalized as Kobe looks, he (and the Lakers in general) would be FAR more efficient with even a slightly above-average point guard running the show. Those rushed jumpers would be slightly more relaxed, passes would be delivered to shooters in a better rhythm, and the overall pace of the offense would be different if say, someone like Deron Williams were at the point. The rumors have been circulating for months, so no need to re-hash what you can ‘Google’ on your own… but you’d think Kupchak and Baby Buss are going to have to make a decision about whether to continue pursuing Dwight Howard or to go ahead and address the other (more pressing ) team needs at some point in the near future, wouldn’t you?
No, a title was not won, last night. Nor was this nonsensical “Battle for L.A.” many amongst the media have been hyping. Folks, Los Angeles is a Lakers town. It has been for the past 35 years, and will likely remain as such in the future. That’s not to say these Clippers cannot be every bit as viable in the ‘present’, as the teams are currently constructed. Lakers fans and players can ‘act’ as though the Clippers are not relevant, but if that were the case, those same Lakers wouldn’t have acted as though it meant so much once the ball was tipped. If the playoffs started today, the Lakers would be in the 7th seed, while the Clippers would sit in the 4th. Thankfully, for each of these teams, they still have 45-50 games to get things situated…but each GM has only has until March 15th (3pm. est.) to make any significant improvements. The Lakers and Clippers wrap their 3-game season series up on April 4th (Clippers home game), and it will be interesting to see how the complete rosters will fare against each other heading down the stretch. I, for one, would absolutely LOVE the fireworks and potential star-power of a future playoff meeting between the two co-tenants of Staples Center. Barring a 1st-round exit by either team, I may just get my wish.
Jabari A. Davis