Commentary

Lakers should wait 'til next year

Keep the current group intact, and look to add an unlikely free-agent piece this summer

Updated: February 1, 2012, 6:29 PM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNLA.com

We knew the Los Angeles Lakers were old before they began this truncated 2011-12 season. We knew they were a bit slow and devoid of athleticism, as well. But as the season continues to progress, with thoughts of a championship evaporating as rapidly as Pau Gasol's game, there's no need to embrace the wait-and-see approach with this bunch any longer.

It's obvious what the Lakers need to do now, right?

Finding a point guard should be at the top of their list.

Getting another athlete to play alongside Kobe Bryant wouldn't hurt, either.

But contrary to popular belief, decimating the front line of Gasol and Andrew Bynum may not be the way to do it.

In fact, they probably need to keep that front line intact.

And here's why: That way they can bow out of the 2012 postseason gracefully and make a run at Kevin Garnett via free agency in the summer, positioning themselves to spend the last two years of the Black Mamba's contract by once again contending for a title.

The Lakers are not championship contenders right now. Can we be honest, please?

Their offense is 20th in the league, averaging 92.3 points per game, after finishing ninth (averaging 101.5) last season. They are down in field goal percentage, and are utterly atrocious -- as in dead last -- in shooting (25.6 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc.

Gasol looks lost. Kobe looks frustrated. Bynum looks more interested in racing his sport cars than playing the game. And the rest of this team looks virtually … irrelevant!

"We definitely have our challenges this year and we're addressing them," Lakers coach Mike Brown told me before the team's recent three-game slide. "We've got to get more from our bigs [Gasol and Bynum]. We've got to get better offensively. But you don't get anywhere in this league without playing defense, and we're good enough with the pieces we have."

Brown is not totally off his rocker. The Lakers are sixth in the league in points allowed (90.5) per game. They're third in the league in opponent field goal percentage, yielding just 41.4 percent shooting from the field. Everyone knows Brown is far from an offensive guru, but if he's going to remain the coach and be the one who returns the Lakers to prominence, defense is going to be a key ingredient in what he does.

And defense is part of what would make KG (even though he'd be coming from the dreaded Boston Celtics) a good fit. But that's only part of it.

The former T-Wolves star known as the Big Ticket, who helped deliver an 18th world championship to the Celtics in 2008, is in the last year of a contract paying him $21.2 million. Although the Celtics are looking to make moves to get younger, they're less interested in trading him and taking money back than they are in holding on to Garnett's salary so it can come off their salary cap at the end of the season -- barring a blockbuster trade possibility, of course.

That means Garnett would be a free agent in July. And he'll probably be nearby, too, since he spends a lot of his time in L.A. in the offseason.

Everyone knows Garnett isn't what he used to be. That spring in his step is gone. But his youthful enthusiasm hasn't gone anywhere. Neither has his 7-foot frame, his octopus-style arms, his commitment to defense, nor certainly his leadership in the locker room.

At this stage of Kobe's career, he needs help in all those categories.

He needs someone to hit 12- to 15-footers, too -- something Garnett can still do effectively (78 percent of his shots are jumpers and his overall field goal percentage is .483).

And most of all, Kobe needs to play alongside someone just as hungry as he is to finish on top.

Garnett's hunger makes him an ideal, if unexpected, fit for Los Angeles.

KG is friends with Kobe Bryant. There's no doubt he'll be looking to finish the twilight of his career in a place where he's competing for a title. And the prospect of a front line that includes Garnett with Gasol and Bynum, with Kobe as his teammate, would leave the Lakers in need of nothing but a decent floor general.

Bryant is quick to say, "I'm happy with our guys. We're tried and tested. We've been together and we know what it takes." But the truth is Bryant's proclamations are not supported by the facts.

Bryant has been unhappy with the leadership of Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss. He was insulted when he wasn't consulted about Brown's hiring (in favor of Bryant's preferred choice, Brian Shaw), and he was angry when Lamar Odom was traded for virtually nothing before the season began -- with Buss knowing the weakness of the Lakers' bench.

Now Bryant, knowing how ineffective his current team is collectively, has engaged in overcompensation, jacking up 24.8 shots per game, his highest output since launching 27.2 shots per game in 2005-06, when he led the league in scoring at 35.4.

Bynum may not be feeling the collateral effects of it all, since he's averaging more points (15.9), rebounds (13.2) and shots (12.2) this season than last, but Gasol certainly is. The decline in Gasol's points, rebounds and shot attempts speaks for itself, which explains why Gasol has indicated he needs to talk to Brown, and that "I'd like to get a little more inside [closer to the basket]."

None of this bodes well for the Lakers right now.

They are 1-6 on the road this season. They just lost a home game to the Indiana Pacers. They keep complaining about lack of practice time, having played more games than every team in the league but the Chicago Bulls. But they are not that attractive and, worse, their next opponent (the Clippers) are growing in popularity more and more each passing day.

Barring a blockbuster trade for Dwight Howard or Deron Williams, this Lakers season won't live up to championship expectations.

Accept it!

Move on!

And get ready for next season.

Kobe's owed $58 million over the next two years. Gasol is owed $38 million. And Bynum's too young and big, with an upside, to give away.

So, basically, you are what you are. Stuck with what you have.

So somebody needs to pick up the phone after the season, call his brother-in-law and music mogul, Jimmy Jam, and convince KG to come to L.A.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, host of a weekday show for ESPN New York 98.7 and a regular on "SportsCenter" and "First Take."

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