Solving Problems: A PG for the L.A. Lakers?
The Los Angeles Lakers, like every other team in the league, await resolution to the lockout and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). That time may come before the 2011/12 NBA Season is lost or it may be an even lengthier delay.
At some point, when there is indeed resolution, the Lakers and General Manager Mitch Kupchak will need to address a number of issues to give the team another shot at the title (and the longevity to keep trying for it).
The underlying question – was last year’s failure (in a four-game second-round sweep by the Dallas Mavericks) attributable to fatigue from three straight NBA Finals appearances or do the Lakers have deeper rosters issue that must be addressed for the team to compete at an elite level?
A general laundry list of needs would include improved foot-speed, athleticism and outside shooting along with a backup two-guard and center. The team needs to stay healthy, hungry, motivated and focused.
At some future date, the Lakers will need to replace the star power of guard Kobe Bryant but the team has a three-year commitment that says he’ll stay at the top of his game for the duration.
Lakers Most Pressing Need: Point Guard
While the cry for a new point guard isn’t new, Derek Fisher has often been an underestimated piece of the puzzle for the Lakers throughout their run.
Fisher wasn’t quick on his feet before a stress fracture in his right foot dating back to the 2000/1 season. At 37, Derek would presumably be the oldest/slowest starting point in the league next season.
That’s not to belittle what he has brought to the team as a complement to Bryant.
Fisher has proven multiple times to have the rare “clutch gene” that has been a key reason why the Lakers have five titles and seven NBA Finals appearances since 2000.
Kobe is a ball-dominant shooting guard, which can be difficult to adjust to for a traditional one. Additionally, the Lakers have two primary low post options in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Fisher’s ability to play without the ball and hit open shots almost qualifies him as a 6’1″ shooting guard. Defensively he’s smart, strong and still capable of drawing charges at a convincingly high rate.
What he lacks is the foot-speed to keep up with the lightning quick guards he’s asked to match up with nightly. Again, this isn’t a new problem for Derek who has been slower than his opponent for most of his career. How many point guards can claim a stake in five rings?
Fisher also scores high in the less tangible but equally important category of leadership.
All that said, with Fisher’s advancing age on a team that has once again become generally slow footed . . . the Lakers are in search of the point guard of the future.
Now that Coach Phil Jackson has retired, the triangle offense will be a thing of the past under Coach Mike Brown. Jackson, to an extent, was able to hide some of Fisher’s flaws. How urgent is it for Brown to have of a traditional point to run his offense?
Can the team gradually make the transition or is a Fisher replacement an immediate need?
The answer is unclear and it may take a month or two of actual play for the Lakers to decide.
Derek may have two years left on his deal ($3.4 million each, player option on the second year) but the team needs to actively improve the position long before the 2013/14 season.
The initial difficulty is cap room. The Lakers don’t project to have anything close to that kind of spending power until the summer of 2014 (without a single player on the books).
The difficulty is means. How do the Lakers get a long-term starting point guard?
Steve Blake, Fisher’s backup and potential replacement, has three years left on his deal but he struggled throughout his first season with the team. Perhaps it was a lack of comfort in the triangle offense but that changes naturally with Coach Brown.
Regardless Blake is 31 years old and while he is more of a true point guard and quicker than Fisher, he’s not the long-term fix. He’s more of a solid and potentially valuable stopgap . . . but stopgap nonetheless.
Another in-house option is second-round draft pick Darius Morris who, with another year at Michigan, would probably be a lottery pick. The 6’5″ guard has some Andre Miller in him – a floor leader with limited range and a flair for the game. Can he realize that potential in the NBA and if so, how quickly?
It’s a lot to ask of a second-round pick and while the team may already have the answer on the roster, it would only be a hope at this point.
Jackson would have some of the point guard duties handled by forward Lamar Odom (and even Luke Walton in earlier years) but that was in the triangle. Shannon Brown has opted out of his contract but even if he returns, he has little to no playmaking skills.
Although second-round pick Andrew Goudelock is physically the size of a point, he is more of a shooting specialist.
Free agency at the one is not especially impressive this summer.
Aaron Brooks and Rodney Stuckey are restricted free agents and difficult to acquire given LA’s resources. J.J. Barea may be available but can the Lakers outspend the Dallas Mavericks?
The next best available point might be T.J. Ford unless Mike Bibby is better . . . suffice it to say, free agency doesn’t appear to be the answer.
Project a year into the future when Chris Paul (opt out), Deron Williams (opt out), Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Chauncey Billups, Andre Miller, Jameer Nelson (opt out), Kirk Hinrich and others may be available and it’s an entirely different animal.
Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook would be restricted free agents in 2012 and as such aren’t realistic options.
The Lakers won’t have cap room next summer either but doors may open via trade . . .
A number of point guards around the league may become available via trade once the lockout is lifted (assuming the season itself survives).
Kirk Hinrich is a slightly better version of Blake.
Ramon Sessions is readily available out of Cleveland. So too may be Baron Davis or possibly Daniel Gibson.
Monta Ellis is essentially an undersized shooting guard and not necessarily a fit given the scoring options of Bryant, Bynum and Gasol but he’s such a talented player, he’d be someone the Lakers would at least have to consider.
The Milwaukee Bucks have Brandon Jennings, Beno Udrih, Keyon Dooling and Shaun Livingston all at the point. Jennings would be a score but an unlikely one.
The Minnesota Timberwolves may eventually part with Luke Ridnour.
Jameer Nelson’s future with the Orlando Magic isn’t entirely clear.
Jose Calderon is the only true point on the Toronto Raptors but he’s been shopped during his tenure. Devin Harris may eventually be available out of Utah.
The options range from undesirable to unlikely to mediocre. Clearly Kupchak has a challenge in front of him, which is why it’s likely the Fisher/Blake/Morris tandem gets the first look.
At some point the futures of Chris Paul and Deron Williams will be decided. Either they’ll take long-term extensions with their respective teams, extend or leave as free agents.
Or get traded . . .
The new CBA may not allow for sign and trades which could be an issue down the road but the possibility of landing an elite point guard needs to be explored.
One more wrinkle could be an amnesty clause allowing teams to waive a single contract which might add another group of qualified point guards to the list of free agents.
The Lakers still have a trade exception from the Sasha Vujacic deal (New Jersey) that can bring in a player making almost $5.6 million. Unfortunately they may never get the chance to use it.
The exception expires at the close of business on December 13th. The problem would be if the NBA doesn’t open back up in time, it may simply go unused.
There’s a theoretical chance that such deadlines are extended but that too may be a long shot.
Players like Sessions and Gibson fit nicely into the Vujacic exception without the Lakers sending out an existing player.
It’s safe to say that Bryant won’t be dealt given his worth to the club and his no-trade clause. Thus far the Lakers have privately (and somewhat publically) indicated they don’t intend to deal either Bynum or Gasol.
Perhaps one of the two might be worth moving for a Paul or Williams but lockout aside, that’s a long way off from consideration.
The desirability quotient decreases rapidly for players like Ron Artest, Walton and Blake. Others with friendlier contracts like Matt Barnes, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter may not yield much in return.
Brown might be a sign and trade option as well. The team seems loyal to Fisher, who given his age doesn’t hold much trade value either.
That leaves Lamar Odom who is set to make $8.9 million this coming season followed by $8.2 million, of which only $2.4 million is guaranteed.
Lamar would be the player to move for a point guard. Finding quality reserves behind Bynum and Gasol may be an easier trick than landing a high-level one.
Additionally the Lakers might opt to bring in an unconventional player like Andre Iguodala who is a small forward/shooting guard but one who averaged 6.3 assists per game last year. Monta Ellis might fit into that category.
Point Guard Secondary?
Then again, there’s something to be said for holding onto assets until Dwight Howard’s long-term situation is settled.
Wait and See
It may not be the prettiest option but waiting is probably best for the Lakers. First of all, they have no choice given the lockout.
Secondly, the free agent market is lousy and trades difficult to come by.
If the Lakers can improve with a key piece without giving up much at all (trade exception) or a valuable but essentially expendable piece like Odom, then it should be seriously considered.
Regardless, LA needs to closely monitor the futures of Paul, Williams and Howard before making any rash and potentially limiting decisions.
At some point the Lakers will need to find their point guard of the future but they may have to fight another season as is and hope the likes of Fisher, Blake and rookie Morris are enough to get it done.