Coming into the 2011-12 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers have a lot to be happy about.
Whereas the defending champion Dallas Mavericks have question marks surrounding the returns of Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and others, L.A.’s core is relatively secure. Aside from some mild speculation over the futures of Shannon Brown, Luke Walton and Ron Artest (I refuse to call him the other thing) the Lakers’ line-up is what it is, give or take a Dwight Howard.
It’s also worth noting that the necessary adjustment period as it relates to getting in tune with the team’s entirely new coaching staff has been a little overhyped. Yes, the Lakers are veering away from the Triangle and, yes, Mike Brown’s style is very different from Phil Jackson’s. But given the squad’s inability to effectively run the schemes designed for them last season, plus the noticeable lack of enthusiasm we saw time and time again towards the end of L.A.’s miserable playoff run, it’s safe to say a change was needed.
Maybe the combination of Brown’s defensive strategizing coupled with his San Antonio Spurs circa 1999 offense-bootlegging and mixed with Ettore Messina newfangled Euro creativity will give the team a much-needed shot in the arm. And even if it doesn’t, Kobe Bryant can just go back to shooting over three defenders like he would have anyway.
All of that, along with Bryant finally coming into a season healthy, less total games (albeit, more in a tighter span), the guarantee that Andrew Bynum won’t go down in the first five games of the season (suspended for popping Barea last year), the two-year cushion before stringent luxury tax rules kick in and the wide open pathway to the Finals are reasons to rejoice.
The one notable drawback facing the Lakers, however, is that because they’re currently sitting at a tad over $90 million -- a figure substantially over the cap -- in salaries heading into next season, their free agent options are slim. We already reported why the much-ballyhooed purportedly inevitable acquisitions of likely-amnestied players in Baron Davis and Rashard Lewis aren’t the foregone conclusions they have been billed as. And for the same reason that Davis and Lewis are unlikely to end up in purple and gold, few other difference-maker overpaid stars (read: Jamal Crawford) will likely find themselves playing along Kobe and Co. come next year too.
So, what does that mean? Well, it means that the Lakers have limited options when it comes to bringing in new faces.
As it stands, L.A. desperately needs to shore up the point guard position. Derek Fisher and Steve Blake have been legitimate contributors in the NBA since the advent of fire, but as New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul made painfully clear in the first round last year, they can’t stay in front of, well, anyone. The need for a point guard trumps the Lakers' need for additional scoring from the bench and their surprisingly unnoticed lack of depth at the center position.
The most ideal option for the Lakers, really, would be sitting pat and utilizing the friendly sign-and-trade rules in an effort to bring in one of the coveted 2012 free agents. Assuming the team is willing to part ways with Pau Gasol and/or Andrew Bynum, there is no reason to think that a Deron Williams or Chris Paul is an unrealistic get for L.A.. Or, if you want to scrap the point guard premise for a moment, Gasol and Bynum would also be good bait for Howard – who the Orlando Magic will clearly lose sooner or later.
Ideal situation aside, though, here are the unrestricted 2011 free agent point guards (as per Hoops World):
T.J. Ford, Indiana Pacers – $8.5 million – Unrestricted
Carlos Arroyo, Boston Celtics – $1.2 million – Unrestricted
Ronnie Price, Utah Jazz – $1.3 million – Unrestricted
Sebastian Telfair, Minnesota Timberwolves – $2.7 million – Unrestricted
Willie Green, New Orleans Hornets – $4.0 million – Unrestricted
Jason Williams, Memphis Grizzlies – $1.4 million – Unrestricted
Earl Watson, Utah Jazz – $1.2 million – Unrestricted
Pooh Jeter, Sacramento Kings – $0.5 million – Unrestricted
Jose Barea, Dallas Mavericks – $1.7 million – Unrestricted
Sundiata Gaines, New Jersey Nets – $0.7 million – Unrestricted*
Chris Quinn, San Antonio Spurs – $0.9 million – Unrestricted
Royal Ivey, Oklahoma City Thunder – $1.1 million – Unrestricted
Marcus Banks, New Orleans Hornets – $4.9 million – Unrestricted
Earl Boykins, Milwaukee Bucks – $1.4 million – Unrestricted
Anthony Carter, New York Knicks – $1.4 million – Unrestricted
Acie Law, Golden State Warriors – $0.7 million – Unrestricted
John Lucas, Chicago Bulls – $0.7 million – Unrestricted*
Ben Uzoh, New Jersey Nets – $0.5 million – Unrestricted*
None of those guys are particularly eye-popping, clearly, but they are out there. And the likelihood of the Lakers landing one of them is about as high as or perhaps higher than them getting someone of Davis’ ilk. It’s important to note, by the way, that the above list doesn’t included restricted free agents.
There is, of course, a third option here. The squad could just stay in place and do basically nothing. Take the team as it is presently constructed, deem last year a failure because of the inevitable rut that plagues all P.J.-coached teams towards the end of their runs, and give it a fresh shot this year with what they have now. Maybe add a small piece that won’t get any significant time a la Theo Ratliff and call it a free agency period.
No matter what ends up happening, though, it’s worth remembering that the Lakers never make a splash when the team is expected to make a splash. The Gasol trade came from left field, following two years of speculation regarding Bynum being shipped out of town for the likes of Al Harrington, Jason Kidd and more laughable alternatives.
There probably won’t be a major move to kick off the new season for the Lakers. And if there is, it will be one we never saw coming.