Special thanks to Travis J. Rodgers for submitting his take to the Lakers Nation and giving us the rights to post it on the blog. Once again, if you have your own take and want to see it on TLN, feel free to e-mail it to us at Articles@theLakersNation.com.
Assessing LA Lakers’ Team Needs -
Assuming the Los Angeles Lakers have the core of their camp invites already selected, it becomes easy to speculate about which players address problem areas exposed during the Lakers’ ill-fated Finals appearance. Speculation is possible at three levels: identifying the problem areas, identifying who are the core players and who are not yet guaranteed, and identifying which players address the needs best.
The first thing that needs to be said is that the Lakers have a team that must build for the post season. This is obvious for two reasons. In the first place, the team was dominant before Andrew Bynum’s season ending knee injury and dominant after the arrival of Pau Gasol. Now both of them are on the team and presumably healthy (Pau is; witness his dominant Olympics performance). Second, simply getting to the playoffs will not do. After a young team makes a trip to the Finals and retains its core, the expectations increase. The Lakers must play like a playoff team, not like a regular season juggernaut (see the Phoenix Suns of recent years) in order for the season to be considered a success.
Three Problems -
With that out of the way, the next task is to identify the shortcomings in the playoffs. There will be some disagreement here, but there is a core of problems that no one can deny. LA did not rebound well enough (they yielded far too many offensive boards), LA did not play good perimeter defense (gave up too many open jumpers), and they did not have the ability to create shots off the dribble (so they became easy to defend).
Sixteen Players -
Point Guard: Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Joe Crawford
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant, Sasha Vujacic, Dwayne Mitchell, Sun Yue
Small Forward: Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton
Power Forward: Pau Gasol, Vlad Radmanovic, Josh Powell
Center: Andrew Bynum, Chris Mihm, DJ Mbenga
The contracts of all of the above are guaranteed except Joe Crawford, Dwayne Mitchell, (possibly) Sun Yue, (possibly) Josh Powell, and DJ Mbenga. In fact, Mbenga may not even have a contract at this point and may not receive one. Leaving aside those issues, the core of the team includes the first two players listed at each position as well as Lakers fixture Luke Walton. The tally stands at eleven players. The Lakers can accommodate as many as fifteen players although Mitch Kupchak has reportedly said that he would not be opposed to (and may even be leaning toward) running with thirteen or fourteen players so the Lakers have ‘flexibility’ (which may be spelled ‘Alonzo Mourning’ who is expected to be ready some time in December). Assuming the Lakers are really impressed with Joe Crawford, whom they drafted, and are serious about the two-year contract they extended to Sun Yue, the roster stands at thirteen. Assume those are the thirteen players on the roster when LA opens the season. How does that roster address LA’s weaknesses?
Problem One: Rebounding -
It has been said that the Lakers need toughness. It is not something that shows up in the stat sheet or the weight room, but it is something you can see on the court. It is just unclear whether toughness really matters. If it is possible to be a good defender and good rebounder without toughness, then the Lakers should settle for rebounders and defenders. They receive an immediate lift in the form of Andrew Bynum, who was averaging an impressive double digit rebounds per game before his injury. He was replaced by offensive dynamo Pau Gasol, a surprisingly good athlete, swift of foot, sporting an expansive shooting repertoire, but not a very good rebounder, especially at the Center spot. The return of Bynum may shore up that weakness immediately. It surely cannot hurt. The Lakers lost Ronny Turiaf, a player long on toughness and shotblocking, but short on rebounding.
Problem Two: Perimeter Defense -
After watching Paul Pierce slice through Los Angeles and either hit a shot, draw a foul, or dish to any number of wide open three point shooters, LA fans must recognize this weakness. And they should be sick of it. The problem is not so much a problem for the guards as it is for the Small Forward spot. Pierce’s ability to get into the lane and cause defensive rotation was the main culprit. Basketball wisdom says that the thing to stop dribble penetration is a defensive anchor. There are questions about whether Andrew Bynum is going to be a dominant defensive presence, but there is no doubting that a seven foot, 290 pound athletic player is a good start. His sheer size and shotblocking skills outshine anyone’s on the team and should go a long way toward addressing this weakness. Yes, Derek Fisher should stop going under screens and Kobe should invest more energy on defense (he will be able to this year, as LA boasts five or six players who can score 20 points on a given night). But no Guard should be put on an island repeatedly. When an opponent beats an LA defender off the dribble, if there is a defensive anchor, the need to cheat and help defensively decreases for all players. Expect team defense to improve and dribble penetration to look a bit different next season. That will reduce the number of open three pointers teams see.
Problem Three: Creating Shots -
Kobe Bryant is the best in the NBA at creating a shot off the dribble. Unfortunately, outside Kobe, the skill is perhaps the scarcest on the team. Gasol and Bynum can go to work in the post, but the Lakers need someone to penetrate and get to the rim or kick to the open man. And if a team is not getting to the rim and is merely looking to kick out the ball, the defense need not over commit. So the Lakers must find other players to get to the rim. It appears as if Jordan Farmar and Trevor Ariza have this ability to respectable degrees. Ariza has been a high flying player at times, a thunderous dunker, but his handles are limited, which decreases his ability. Farmar on the other hand, has good handles but is perhaps even too aggressive in driving to the hoop for such a small guy. Added strength for both players would allow them to take contact and still finish the play. In short, however, the Lakers have done little to address this problem.
Three Problems, Two Solutions -
So two of the three problem areas have been addressed. The third has not. Looking over the roster, the two players who have the best chances of helping the Lakers address that third weakness are, in no particular order, Joe Crawford and Dwayne Mitchell. Crawford is the better ball handler and better Free Throw shooter, but he is lighter and a bit weaker than Mitchell. Mitchell is more athletic and more likely to finish at the rim, but he is a poor Free Throw shooter. Either player could go a long way toward adding a penetrator, but if Kupchak remains firm in his thought that the roster will stand at thirteen or fourteen, only Crawford will make the team. And that seems a problem. Perhaps as an aside, Josh Powell, it should be noted, is (among other things) a far better rebounder than Ronny Turiaf.
So here is hoping the Lakers retain Mitchell and Powell or make use of those two remaining roster spots through shrewd moves. Alonzo Mourning would address rebounding and provide a fantastic help defender (addressing the first two problems) while a player like Bonzi Wells (if fully healthy), on the outs with so many other teams, would be a fantastic fit at getting to the rim. Unless LA finds someone to fill that third role on the team, a dominant regular season performance could again be wasted.