Rarely have the Lakers ever suggested to wait until next year. After all, the franchise has collected 16 NBA championships, and usually expects to win another one both to surpass the Boston Celtic’s 17 and because the Lakers are used to hoisting up the Larry O’Brien trophy. But the Lakers have plenty of uncertainty this offseason. Kobe Bryant has continuously rehabbed on his left Achilles tendon, while Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are recovering from their respective hamstring and knee injuries. Dwight Howard left for Houston on his own, while Metta World Peace went to New York so the Lakers could save money. Skepticism remains on whether a full training camp and a crop of younger players more suited for his system will be enough in coach Mike D’Antoni leading the Lakers toward success.
So with few hardly predicting they will win the 2013 NBA championship, the Lakers are looking toward the 2014 offseason when they have a high amount of cap flexibility. Steve Nash and Robert Sacre remain the lone two players with guaranteed contracts after next season for a combined $10.5 million, giving the Lakers next July plenty of money to pursue high-level players that could become free agents, including LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay and Luol Deng.
James Worthy, who won three NBA titles with the Lakers during the Showtime Era and is an analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet, shared mixed feelings on whether the Lakers can attract another top-level free agent.
“I personally think L.A. is a desirable place to play,” Worthy said in an interview with this newspaper. “But I don’t know what the rest of the league and other players are thinking. Dwight Howard just came here for one year and then left for Houston, Texas.”
Howard could’ve signed with the Lakers for a five-year deal worth $118 million, as opposed to the four-year deal worth $87.6 million he will earn with the Houston Rockets. What did Worthy make of Howard’s departure?
“Dwight is a little bit too aloof for me to be that dominant player,” Worthy said. “I don’t think he can be a LeBron James, a Kobe Bryant or a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s a good player and a very effective defensive player. But I just don’t think he was ready to handle the pressure.”
Read more in part two of my interview with Worthy, who talks on a wide-range of topics, including Howard, the Lakers’ 2014 offseason and expectations for Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.
Medina: What was your take on Dwight Howard leaving this summer?
Worthy: I don’t know Dwight personally. So I can’t say that I like him or dislike him. From my past experiences watching players, he’s not ready. I don’t think. He’s seven feet tall and a big athletic guy. He can get 18 [points] and 12 [rebounds] easily. People are impressed with that. But night in and night out, as a veteran I’ve seen guys do that like Moses Malone. Even Bill Cartwright, he’s a guy who can be really effective because he was a disciplined player. You can’t go to Dwight down the stretch because he can’t hit his free throws.
[Former Lakers executive] Jerry West used to watch guys warm up. I picked up on that. A lot of times I would see Dwight shooting half court hook shots trying to entertain the crowd. I kept thinking, ‘Work on your free throws.’ I used to watch guys like Moses Malone and how they prepared themselves. Dwight is a little bit too aloof for me to be that dominant player. I don’t think he can be a LeBron James, a Kobe Bryant or a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s a good player and a very effective defensive player. But I just don’t think he was ready to handle the pressure. There’s a lot of pressure to play in L.A. He saw an opportunity to join with James Harden. But he has a personality too. Coming to L.A. one year, everyone expected him to stay. A lot of people were glad the decision was finally made and they can move on.”
Medina: Does part of you, though, think that Dwight would’ve overcome all that presuming he’d be healthier and could adjust to the heightened expectations had he stayed?
Worthy: He had a lot of things going on. He didn’t like the coach didn’t post him up like he wanted when he was in Orlando. I don’t fault him. I’m not saying he doesn’t work hard. His back was injured a lot. I was grateful for what he gave us, but he didn’t fit that mold of a true Lakers center as we’ve seen in the past, in my opinion.
Medina: How confident are you that the Lakers’ financial flexibility heading into the 2014 offseason will get them a high-level free agent?
Worthy: I personally think L.A. is a desirable place to play. But I don’t know what the rest of the league and other players are thinking. Dwight Howard just came here for one year and then left for Houston, Texas. LeBron James might feel bad and go back to Cleveland. They’d look good with [Kyrie] Irving and [Andrew] Bynum. Maybe go back there and get them a championship.
Carmelo might depending on what happens with the Knicks. He might want to experience Los Angeles. But it’s so hard to say. No one knows what Kobe’s future looks like. But if you look at the history of the Lakers, they’ve always been able to bring in a marquee player when they need it. But there are new owners. It’s hard to look at the crystal ball.
Medina: With the Lakers losing talent in Dwight, Metta and possibly even Earl Clark, can the Lakers realistically overcome that with the added training camp, healthier roster and players better fit for D’Antoni’s system?
Worthy: I think so. Earl Clark shined early, but the key was to sustain it. He couldn’t sustain it. He can play and he has a lot of growth. But with a full season, D’Antoni can implement a system from the beginning and guys will understand it and won’t be hesitant about it. With the way Phoenix used to move and cut, they’ll be able to utilize that. That will make up for [Clark’s] absence. Metta is a defensive genius. You can’t replace his toughness. He brought so many intangibles to the game. Some of the players D’Antoni has coming in will have to adapt.
They need to develop an identity. Last year, they didn’t have enough time. I watched a guy would be sending someone to the baseline and the weakside was out of order. They didn’t have communication. Kurt Rambis will take care of that. They need to know what kind of defense they’ll play every night. They don’t have a shot blocker in Dwight anymore so they’ll have to have some tough guards defending to stop players from getting into the paint. They don’t have an identity defensively right now, and they didn’t have one last season either.
Medina: You mentioned in a recent Time Warner Cable SportsNet that you’re intriqued in what Jordan Hill can offer this year. Why’s that?
Worthy: He’s not quite like Dennis Rodman, but Jordan brings a lot of intangibles. I remember one game he had four offensive rebounds and scored on two of them. He’s a ball hunter. When that ball is in the air, Jordan’s always going after it like A.C. Green used to do. He had a high ratio of going after every shot that went up. A lot of guys don’t do that. Jordan Hill knows how to position himself and he has a nice little jump hook in the paint. I expect him to be that kind of defender, too. He can defend power forwards and some centers. With a healthy Jordan Hill, I expect him to come back and add a lot on the defensive side.
Medina: Who’s your starting five. Obviously Kobe is there when he’s healthy and Nash, but there’s some debate as whether Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol should play together and whether Nick Young or Wesley Johnson should start.
Worthy: That’s going to be be tough. I like Pau and Jordan Hill together. I think Kaman is a backup. I like Pau and Jordan together. Kobe and Nash will definitely get the starting role. That other spot? I don’t know. Kobe might play some small forward and two guard. I think Kobe will play two, but the small forward spot is wide open.
Medina: What do you envision for Pau this year?
Worthy: He’ll be healthy. A healthy Pau is an effective Pau. Given what he went through being benched by D’Antoni, I’m sure they’ll go out to dinner and iron things out. I’m sure Pau will let him know exactly what things he wants. I understand he’s been swimming and getting his body in shape. He’s still one of the best centers in the league. With Dwight gone, Pau knows what his role is going to be. He’s going to be a dominant inside center. He’s going to carry the team a lot.
Medina: Presuming Nash stays healthy, will he become an elite point guard again?
Worthy: Each year, he goes down a couple notches. When these quick guards come in, Steve goes down a notch. But he’s a good team defensive player. They need to incorporate good team defense. Magic Johnson wasn’t a great player defensively one-on-one. Neither was Larry Bird. But they knew how to play team defense. Steve Nash can be effective if he’s healthy. He’ll do everything he can to give them the best he can. Steve’s smart and still can play. He won’t keep Westbrook or Lillard in front of him, but that’s what Jordan Farmar is here for. A healthy Steve Nash with limited minutes can still be effective down the stretch. Steve is like a quarterback. I think of him like Peyton Manning. You want to spend time with your guys. Steve is a coach on the floor.
I think of Jason Kidd like Steve Nash. They’re both good coaches on the floor that can teach in real time. You don’t have to take a timeout. In practice, Steve can show how his guys can make cuts so he can make whatever type of pass he needs. That’s what you get when you have a guy like Steve Nash. He’s not going to be expected to do what he did in Phoenix. Younger point guards are looking to take advantage of him. Coaches like at him and say we’ll send him with our point guard. He’s going to have guard against that. But depending on the lineup and savvyness, Steve could be effective. There could be times D’Antoni wants to take Steve out. Farmar is a younger and tougher guy who can keep up. If Steve Nash gets exposed, you see the end of a guy’s career.
Medina: Given the new additions that can play at a fast pace and rest of the roster being old, what pace should the Lakers play?
Worthy: I don’t think the Lakers can run with Denver. I don’t think the Lakers can run with Oklahoma City. I don’t think the Lakers can run with Golden State. I don’t think they can run with Portland. Run if you must, but look at who you’re going to run against. That’s going to be D’Antoni’s biggest challenge as a coach this year. He has to look at what he has, use it effectively, make everyone happy and utilize Pau correctly. Pau will need a double team so he can get Nick Young and those other guys free. When you put in Jordan Farmar and a younger lineup, you will need a quicker tempo. So do it then. But they’re not going to be able to run against Oklahoma City, Denver or Golden State.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org