While everyone is excited players and owners have reached a tentative deal to play ball again, the reality is a season starting on December 25 doesn't leave Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak much time to tweak a roster that, while not in need of a major overhaul, definitely needs some tweaking. A few after market upgrades to match a still-solid engine and transmission, so to speak.
No matter how the fine print of the CBA reads, the Lakers, well over the cap and into the luxury tax, will not only have a small window, but also won't have a ton of options available to make those changes. Meaning they'll need to shop quickly and wisely.
Below are five big areas of need,
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The Lakers need a knock down 3-point shooter to space the floor for Kobe Bryant and their bigs.
1. Outside Shooting: If there was a single issue dogging the Lakers offensively last season, it was an inability to force opposing defenses to respect them from the perimeter. Derek Fisher, who took just under two 3's a game, was the only Laker shooting 40 percent (39.6, technically, but we'll round up) from downtown. From there, Lamar Odom and Steve Blake were around 38 percent, Metta World Peace was a tick over 35, and Kobe Bryant, who led the team with 4.3 triple attempts per game, hit only 32.3 percent of them. In the playoffs, things were even worse. 28.9 percent as a team, and only one guy (Fish) converted more than one of three.
Blake had performed at a much higher level in the seasons leading up to signing with the Lakers, and it's reasonable to expect he'll improve (I say this not only because I advocated so strongly for him last offseason, and would like to be proven correct). Unfortunately, Odom's mark was a career high, meaning regression wouldn't shock anyone, and Kobe has never been an efficient shooter from downtown. Andrew Goudelock arrives from the College of Charleston with the pedigree of a shooter, but even if he makes the team-- big if-- playing time will likely be scarce. Meaning if the Lakers want a pure 3-point specialist to stretch the floor, they'll have to do some shopping.
Lest you think the Lakers were lacking from 3, but gangbusters everywhere else, via Hoopdata.com, the Lakers were 26th in the NBA from 16-23 feet. Generally speaking long 2's are the worst shot in basketball, but they'll happen and it would be nice for the Lakers to convert at a higher rate.
As a team, the Lakers can absolutely abuse the opposition in the paint, whether with Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Odom doing what big guys do down on the block, or with Kobe operating in the high, mid, or low posts, making life miserable for defenses. Inside play will remain their calling card under Brown, but without the ability to knock down jumpers with consistency, as they did in last season's early run of dominance, the offense will never operate with the efficiency suggested by their talent.
2. Point Guard Productivity: Ask John Q. Lakers Fan where the team most needs improvement and he'll likely say point guard. And with cause! As laid out on Hoopsstats.com, the Fisher/Blake tandem scored the fewest points per game with the fewest assists than any other group in the NBA. They had the lowest combined field goal percentage, and, had the lowest efficiency and efficiency differential.
All appropriate caveats (Phil Jackson's offense didn't feature the PG, Fish and Blake are low level offensive options for the Lakers, etc.) aside, that ain't good. Unfortunately, the prospects for improvement are limited. Particularly after a grueling offseason of marathon CBA negotiations, it's hard to picture a 37-year old Fisher elevating his numbers all that much. Blake has real potential for improvement in a more traditional system, but even then it's important to remember he'll then be playing like Steve Blake should. He won't suddenly morph into Russell Westbrook.
Unfortunately, whereas the Lakers have some flexibility in how they address the shooting issue -- new blood can come in the backcourt, on the wing, as a stretch four, and so on -- only a point guard can improve the depth at point guard. It's a serious reach expecting contributions from Darius Morris, the free agency rolls at the position are extremely thin, and given their dearth of appealing trade chips beyond team cornerstones Bynum and Odom, cobbling together a solid deal in a tiny preseason while everyone is still digesting the new CBA feels like a reach.
Is the point a weakness? Yep, but more likely than not, the Lakers will have to make do, and look to compensate by strengthening the team somewhere else.
3. Center Depth: The roots of Gasol's postseason meltdown could very well be found in Theo Ratliff's bum knee.
Eight games into last season, Ratliff, signed to fill the D.J. Mbenga role as the team's third center, was for all intents and purposes done for the year. Meanwhile, Bynum's recovery from offseason knee surgery took longer than expected, leaving Gasol as the team's only viable option at the pivot. He played very well early, but piled up heavy minutes and dinged up his hamstrings. By the end of the year, the once well-rested Gasol was fried, laying the groundwork for what came in the spring. When things turned ugly, Gasol lacked the available reserves (mental and physical) to respond. Not an excuse-- he was bad, and should be expected to perform even after fatigue sets in-- but a factor.
Bynum will miss the season's first five games thanks to his Game 4 thuggery vs. J.J. Barea, and is obviously no lock to stay healthy over the remaining 61. Even if he does, in a compressed schedule providing less rest and recovery time, the Lakers simply can't afford to enter the year without much more viable depth up front. Finding a Jeff Foster type (perhaps Jeff Foster?) capable of absorbing 8-15 minutes a night would do wonders for both of L.A.'s primary bigs, particularly Gasol.
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The Lakers need some youth and athleticism, but skill sets trump all. Remember, Shannon Brown was L.A.'s most athletic player last year, and he struggled.
Pau says he'll be "more than fine" this year. I believe him. But if the Lakers want to keep him that way, they need more bodies.
4. Shot Creators: The Lakers are rich in bigs. Gasol, last spring notwithstanding, is still arguably the NBA's most skilled post player. Bynum has incredible hands for a seven footer, moves the ball well (when not laser focused on getting his shot), and has great feet. Odom is the rare (near) seven footer who can run the floor, handle the ball, and penetrate from the perimeter.
It's an incredible luxury to have a guy like L.O., capable of creating so many mismatches down low, and on the perimeter as a shot creator. It's less of a luxury when he's one of only two guys on the roster --for those new to Lakers basketball, Bryant is the other-- capable of doing so with any consistency. Blake hasn't averaged more than 1.1 shots per game at the rim in any year since '07, and only took 11 shots at the rack this year. Fisher has never been a noted penetrator of paint. Matt Barnes doesn't create effectively off the dribble, and neither did Ron Artest, though maybe World Peace will be better.
It's not simply a matter of athleticism, either. Brown, unlikely to return, was probably the best pure athlete on the team last year. Generally speaking, when he looked to make his own opportunities, bad things happened.
Given how much trouble the Lakers had executing the triangle last season, an offense they'd run for years, it's reasonable to expect rough patches this year with a new coaching staff and a new system, implemented in a brief-to-the-point-of-useless training camp and polished in fewer practice days thanks to the compressed schedule. There will be moments where things break down and someone on the floor needs to take matters into his own hands near the end of the shot clock.
With that in mind, adding to the list of guys able to do so wouldn't hurt.
5. Speed and Athleticism: While it's fairly common with the Lakers to focus on a need for youth, the Dallas Mavericks, older than the Lakers and just about everyone else, showed definitively that age is often just a number. So the Lakers don't necessarily need to get younger, but they could use a little more of what people often mean when talking about it - speed and athleticism.
Brown has suggested his team will get up and down more, in part by exerting more defensive pressure, with more consistent closeouts and "multiple efforts" (helping, then helping again) on each possession in their own end. Obviously a little more giddyup on the roster helps facilitate the process.
But just as it's a mistake to assume a younger player is automatically better, adding a superathlete doesn't necessarily make the Lakers better, either. Case in point- Shannon Brown was at once nearly the youngest player in the rotation, and probably the best athlete. After a red hot start, he struggled on both sides of the floor.
Ultimately, if speed/athleticism is the defining characteristic of any player the Lakers pick up, there's potential for him to disappoint.