With my esteemed colleague Clay Fowler writing last night about the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett and his, lets say, “original”, form of celebration, I’ve taken it upon myself to dissect the Lakers going into next year.
But before we do that, I will say a few things. First of all, the Lakers were completely out-toughed and out-played in this series. Game 6 aside, the Celtics didn’t put a complete game together in the series, but their tenacity and toughness was something the Lakers couldn’t handle. Quite frankly, the Lakers need some grit and some guys willing to get a little dirty. Besides maybe Kobe and Fisher, the Lakers shirked from the challenge in this series and saw the action taken to them constantly. And to be honest, it wouldn’t have been much different had Detroit played the Lakers.
Also, the refs had nothing to do with the Lakers losing this series. While the Tim Donaghy backdrop definitely put a pall over the NBA Finals, the Lakers weren’t winning more than two games. In fact, I think the Lakers – with their propensity to give up 20-point leads like they were candy – were fortunate to win twice. So I don’t want to hear any whining about the refs – the best team won without putting a complete game together until Game 6. It could have been worse.
With that said, the Lakers are definitely in prime position to be back in this position next year. I think they need to get a gritty, defensive-minded small forward type (just look at what James Posey did for Boston) and need to get rid of some of their softer players. They need a harder edge – the glory-boy offensive roster was slugged in its mouth for the second straight time in the Finals and needs a grittier edge badly.
Now, my views on the Lakers’ roster and what needs to be done with each player.
1) Kobe Bryant – Of course I’m going to start with the MVP. While Kobe was awesome leading up to the Finals, he was clearly bested by Paul Pierce in the Finals and is not the next Michael Jordan. The next Michael Jordan wouldn’t have allowed his team to be punked in Game 6 like he did.
We might have to come to the conclusion that he’s never going to be a great team player. I’m not going to pretend that Jordan was an ideal teammate – he got in his teammates’ faces, got in fights with them, got his coach fired. But he knew when to use his teammates and when to take over. Kobe has no concept of this and going into his 13th year – it’s doubtful he’ll ever grasp it. Take Game 6 for example. Kobe was killing it early, hitting a groove with some early 3s, then all of a sudden stops shooting. He hasn’t figured out how to get his teammates involved while keeping himself as an offensive threat.
However, the guy is the best shot maker in the NBA and has 2-3 years of truly elite play left at the very least. He’ll be fine, despite his lack of common sense and his social ineptness.
2) Andrew Bynum – I’m putting Bynum second because he has been the crutch for the Lakers organization all year. No matter what happened this year, the Lakers’ brass and fanbase felt they were playing with house money without him. With a per-game average of 13 points and 10 rebounds in the first two months of the season, there is some basis for those thoughts.
However, I have to throw out a couple of red herrings. First of all, players tend to struggle regaining their explosiveness in the first season after a significant knee injury. Explosiveness in the post, be it on dunks, rebounds or blocked shots, is an integral part of Bynum’s game. Secondly, Bynum is still very young and hasn’t put an entire season of above-average play together. The man has a ton of potential, but it might be too early to make him a linchpin of a championship team.
3) Pau Gasol – He gets dropped to third because quite frankly, he was exposed as a softie in the Finals. If Gasol ever wants to be truly elite, he has to toughen up. Unlike a guy like Dirk Nowitzki, Gasol doesn’t have the athleticism or an ability to create his shot on the perimeter to mask any toughness deficiencies.
What Gasol should strive to be is a Kevin-McHale type player. Like McHale, Gasol has nifty little post moves which he can use to create space for 8-10 foot shots, or to get position for layups. But unlike McHale, he doesn’t have a mean streak. I’d demand Gasol to join a Fight Club or something – anything to give him a chip on the shoulder so he’s not pushed around when it counts next year.
4) Lamar Odom – This guy is a great fantasy player – he can fill up the box score. But when it comes to doing it in crunchtime, I’d rather have ALF take the game-winning shot than Odom. Between missing fourth-quarter free throws and missing easy layups in crunch time, Odom is anti-clutch. He’s a basketball version of Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins in Bull Durham) – million-dollar talent, 10-cent head.
It is intriguing to see him playing the 3 at 6-10, but he would be a great guy to jettison for other parts. He’s on the last year of a contract – making him attractive to teams looking for cap room next offseason – and quite frankly, he’s not tough enough. I’d like to see Odom gone and someone like Ron Artest or Shane Battier in his place. Odom might have more raw talent than Artest and definitely has more raw talent than Battier, but he doesn’t seem to have “it.” And I don’t think “it” is coming any time soon.
5) Derek Fisher: One of the more underrated moves the Lakers made was bringing Fish back. The guy isn’t particularly big, isn’t particularly strong and isn’t particularly athletic. The guy is just a hard-nosed basketball player who can hit the big shot and who can effectively defend people bigger than him.
Fisher is getting up there in age – he’ll be 34 next season – but he’s a veteran presence and the one guy who can tell Kobe to be quiet and get away with it. If his foot heals properly, he’ll go back to playing his defense and hitting 40 percent of his feathery-soft 3-pointers.
6) Sasha Vujacic – He had a breakout year this year, as he was capable of getting hot and carrying a team from behind the 3-point arc for minutes at a time. He’s basically a European version of John Paxson. It’s just too bad he doesn’t realize that.
He has the perfect skill set to be a sniper off the bench. However, he’s one of the least aware players I’ve ever seen. I truly think he has no idea about score, time or situation during a game (as evidenced by his ill-advised 3-pointer during the end of Game 2, which Paul Pierce harmlessly blocked to kill the Lakers’ comeback). In that situation, he should not shoot unless there’s no one within 10 yards of him. And there’s no way he should ever guard Ray Allen one-on-one in a key situation ever. I’d advise “The Machine” to read a book on basketball, watch some videotapes or do something to increase his bball IQ.
7) Vladimir Radmanovic – As much of a moron as the Machine can be, Radmanovic takes the cake. Between injuring himself snowboarding during the ’07 All-Star game to constantly committing fouls 40 feet from the basket, Vlad could be one of the dumber players in the NBA. He can’t really defend any position and his only value is his 3-point shooting, which is relatively consistent when he’s not in foul trouble.
Needless to say, Vlad needs to be moved somehow.
8) Luke Walton: Walton also shows the basketball IQ of a slug from time to time, whether it be by throwing bad passes or jacking up ill-advised 15-footers early in the shot clock. He is a good passer when he’s not trying to outthink himself, but that’s about it. However, Luke isn’t going anywhere. With 5 years left on his contract and doubts about his ability to co-exist in an NBA system besides The Triangle, Lakers fans are stuck with Walton. With that said, the once per game “What the hell?” stare that Kobe gives Walton is always good for a laugh.
9) Jordan Farmar: Farmar has an edge to his game, something a lot of his bench cohorts are missing. Farmar is completely unafraid to reach in for the steal, drive at a bigger player or take the big 3-pointer. However, Farmar can tend to spin completely out of control. He’ll drive the lane with such vigor and speed that he’ll run himself right into the first row. He’ll foul a guy so hard that he’ll be called for a flagrant. And he’ll get himself into slumps via ill-advised shots taken when he’s jacked up.
However, Farmar has talent and drive. If he can channel his energy better, he’ll continue to improve and give the Lakers a nice shot in the arm off the bench.
10) Trevor Ariza – It’s hard to really get a feel on this guy. First of all, he’s a Venezuelan named Trevor, which is weird enough in itself. Second of all, he’s still rather raw for a player who his entering his fifth year in the NBA. Ariza only had one year of college, had a couple years with the Knicks (which is almost like playing in college) and missed much of this year due to injury.
However, Ariza is long, has athleticism to burn and shows signs of brilliance. If he can only stay healthy and stay in a stable situation, he could really blossom with the Lakers next season.
11) Ronny Turiaf – I’ve soured on this guy a bit. Coming into the year, I felt that Turiaf was a pounding, energy-providing big man off the bench that would rebound and do the dirty work. However, it seemed as if Turiaf fell in love with his jump shot as the season went on, looking for that more and pounding less. Also, his basketball IQ came into question a bit, as evidenced by the flagrant-foul ejection in the Utah series. He saw less and less time as the season went on and could be at a crossroads in his Laker career.
The rest of the bunch: Chris Mihm, if ever healthy, could provide a big presence off the bench, though he’s not exactly known for his physical nature either. DJ Mbenga and Coby Karl each have cool stories, but its hard to see Mbenga being on the team next year and Karl will have to fight and claw to stay on the squad.