The past season, more than anything, was a display of Kobe Bryant's mortality, or at the very least, that he is slowing down quite a bit. Part of my expectations last year was that Kobe was going to take on the role of the primary ballhandler and make the offense work via the pick-and-roll. Unfortunately, we weren't yet aware that Kobe's handle has massively deteriorated, he was going to have a wrist injury that further compounded the problem, and that Mike Brown would have about a week to figure out how to implement his new offense in training camp with no one on the team who could consistently dribble the ball. So, Kobe, as it he is wont to do, adapted. He came off screens, shot on curls, and for the first part of the year, looked like a much more awesome version of Richard Hamilton. After a ridiculous December campaign, however, in which Kobe averaged 31.2/5.9/5.1 on 45.5% shooting, he fell down to earth in a manner very reminiscent of his '09-'10 campaign, sans the title at the end.
So besides confirming that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were rather prescient in predicting that the offense would need a primary ballhandler and perimeter creator in the worst way to take the pressure off Kobe, it also indicates how screwed the Lakers were at the start of the season, especially due to the rotation problems at small forward. Devin Ebanks, Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace all started at some point last season and while MWP ultimately emerged as the starter and had a torrid April -- 14.1 points per game on 47.1% shooting -- before smashing James Harden's noggin, the small forward position at times looked weaker than the Lakers' stable of point guards prior to the Ramon Sessions trade. MWP's resurgence due to his apparent recovery from a nerve issue in his back gives one confidence that the last two years on his deal might not be dead money just yet, and he likely saved himself from the amnesty axe in the process.
As a result, the wings are likely the position to see the least amount of change in the starting group. Kobe naturally is not going anywhere for obvious reasons and MWP pretty much has no value to most teams besides the Lakers at this juncture or another veteran-studded squad. Nevertheless, the lack of dynamism on the perimeter, while largely a problem for the point guard position for the most part, is something that falls at the feet of the wing players though and does need to be addressed. After the jump, we will look at how the Lakers' wings performed, their prospects for improving or changing their approach, and any possible upgrades that can be had.
It has to be said at some point, so let us get this out of the way: Kobe Bryant can't be the primary ballhandler for this team anymore. It is not in any way, shape or form an indictment of his talent or stature, but rather an acknowledgment of his declining first step and most of all, his rather compromised handle. Kobe got the ball picked away from him off the dribble more times than yours truly can remember it ever happening in his career, and he simply doesn't have the jets to blaze past defenders anymore to compensate. His otherworldly footwork and that ridiculous jab step will continue to open space for him for perpetuity, but it simply is much harder for Kobe to produce after putting the ball on the floor. Last year, it was a fair prediction that Kobe would aid in the running of Mike Brown's more conventional offensive scheme, but that can't be the case anymore, especially since the team is all but guaranteed to have Ramon Sessions or someone better than him on the roster next season.
As we saw during the playoffs, it is a huge waste of Sessions' talents to treat him as basically a triangle guard -- walk the ball up, throw it to the wing, and stand it on the perimeter. Allowing him or whomever the Lakers acquire for the position to run the offense and create off the pick-and-roll maximizes the returns the Lakers can get from the point guard position while Kobe can contribute in other ways as an off guard. To begin the year, due to his hurt wrist, Kobe was coming off curls, taking far more of his shots in catch-and-shoot situations, and doing his utmost to minimize the amount he had to dribble. Near the end of the year, Kobe was acting as a screener for Sessions on the pick-and-roll, and this was among the Lakers' most effective plays because of the open lanes generated for Sessions or a switch that gave Kobe a smaller defender to take advantage of. Quite simply, Kobe operating off the ball forces the defense to pay an inordinate amount of attention to him at all times and that only helps everyone else on the floor.
Of course, this is not saying that Kobe can't be effective initiating certain plays within the offense. The 2-4-5 sequence that the Lakers ran over and over again to start the season -- Kobe runs a pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol as the screener, Gasol pops and receives the ball from Kobe, Andrew Bynum's defender is forced to go out to contest the open jumper, and Gasol throws the open lob to Bynum -- is one such play, and in general, Kobe working through the pick-and-roll is still a very positive thing. It forces the defense to adjust, involves other players in the play, and is much better than Kobe staring down his man from behind the arc. We will continue to see a good deal of the last item because Kobe is Kobe and he is still the best difficult shot maker in basketball, but the more everyone is integrated into the offense, the better the overall results for the team.
Kobe would also be aided by having a real backup, as the massive amount of minutes he played last season no doubt contributed to his eventual decline throughout the year. With Matt Barnes likely leaving as a free agent, this holds true for Metta World Peace as well. Aside from this, the major issue on the wings has been the dearth of three-point shooting, as between Kobe's insane chucks from behind the line to MWP's deplorable accuracy to start the year, the Lakers were highly inept at spreading out opposing defenses. For the most part, the Lakers will have to rely on internal improvement here, whether via Kobe being more judicious with his three-point shooting or MWP regaining his former shooting stroke, but the backups, especially given how Kobe and MWP can both play one position up in smallball lineups, can have an impact in this department.
The pros and cons of the choice aside, the team appears prepared to move on from Matt Barnes this offseason. For a good portion of the year, Barnes was the only player on the team besides the big three who looked like he belonged on a NBA court and after a solid finish to the season, he again got an injury that hurt his playoff performance. The overlying issue for retaining Barnes is likely cost and the danger of him declining as he proceeds deeper into his thirties. As such, this entire section pretty much depends on Devin Ebanks showing that he is a legitimate rotation player, and he did indeed show flashes of it this year. He uncorked a decent looking jumper from inside the arc -- and he must have it down to an art given how short he leaves his threes -- was cutting to the basket, and defending decently. His shortcomings were exposed during the playoffs, as his jumper deserted him and the overall lack of offensive flow stymied his play. Nevertheless, Ebanks is a restricted free agent this offseason and it is likely that the team retains him given that he would be cheap depth at the value of his qualifying offer ($1,054,389).
Aside from Ebanks, the only other wing on the roster is Christian Eyenga, who was part of the Sessions deal. Eyenga has serious hops (observe) but besides that, he remains a very raw prospect. Essentially everything in his game is a work in progress, whether it is shooting, dribbling, or defending, although the potential for the last item is what got him drafted in the first round. To his credit, Eyenga has apparently been spending a good deal of time at the Lakers' practice facilities to improve his game and it would indeed be hugely beneficial if he could become part of the rotation, analogous to how Shannon Brown came out of the blue to do so after the Vladimir Radmanovic trade. Still, he is pretty far behind on the development curve at the moment, so it would be prudent not to expect anything significant out of him next year.
We covered Andrew Goudelock in the previous piece on point guards, but he deserves mention here given that he is, for all intents and purposes, an undersized two guard. He projects more as a point guard due to the size differential and he did say in his exit interviews that he would spend the summer improving his lead guard skills. Still, he would be effective as a two in some smallball lineups and should Darius Morris take a few steps forward next season, Goudelock would have a place off the bench as a designated shooting specialist.
Finally, this item might be more relevant to the group of free agents we are about to discuss, but Elijah Millsap is an option that was bandied about the entire year as solid bench depth and he has proven at the very least that he should get a training camp invite due to his pretty stellar play in the D-League. A bull of a guard, Millsap can shoot, draw contact and finish near the rim. Whether he has the hops and ability to do that consistently against NBA level defenders is another question entirely, but he certainly has earned the opportunity to see if that is the case. Given that it costs the Lakers practically nothing to get him onto their summer team, it would behoove them not to follow the mistake they made with Gerald Green and make use of the very impressive operation they have going with their D-League affiliate.
The important thing to remember about the Lakers' needs on the wings is that they aren't asking all that much from the backups, which means that digging through the discount pile in free agency can actually produce some fairly useful rotation players. So instead of trying to chase an aging Ray Allen, for instance, a prospect that would require the Lakers to pony up their mini midlevel exception for a guy who would barely crack twenty minutes a game on most nights behind Kobe and MWP, they could try for Marco Belinelli, who is a career 39.3% three-point shooter. The main objective here is to fill the gaps in the rotation with players who can shoot and aren't completely inept at every other phase at the game like Jason Kapono was at this point in his career.
Belinelli has his faults: he's a poor defensive player, doesn't attack the rim at all, and while he has some ability to put the ball on the floor in the pick-and-roll, he is mostly just a specialist. That's a profile that is perfectly fine for the Lakers' purposes and applies to a number of other players available: Carlos Delfino defends better but is not the same caliber as a shooter; Anthony Parker is the classic three-and-D player, although he is very far along insofar as his NBA shelf life is concerned; Randy Foye can play both guard positions and has decent shooting ability, but gets exposed by bigger guards on defense and doesn't have great point guard chops; and we discussed Delonte West in the previous piece as a player who can play at and defend both guard positions. Rather than more expensive options such as Jamal Crawford or Leandro Barbosa -- the former of which is almost certainly out of the Lakers' price range and the latter likely needing the mini midlevel -- there are easier ways to buttress the wing rotation.
Ironically, the player who best fits the Lakers' needs on the wing is the one they had sitting at their affiliate all year in Gerald Green. To the surprise of no one who saw him tearing up the D-League, Green went to Brooklyn and averaged 12.9 points per game on 48.1% from the field, shot 39.1% from three, and put up a 15.88 PER. Combine that with his still crazy hops and you have a very nice backup wing. Prying him away from Brooklyn would likely be rather difficult at this point, but it certainly behooves the Lakers to try, if anything to try to make up for the mistake of letting a player of his quality who was right in their backyard slip away.
We might as well call this the "create trade scenarios for Pau Gasol" section. In any case, while MWP is an adequate three assuming his April play is sustainable, the most likely trade scenario for Pau, more than shooting for the moon and an elite point guard, is to get help at the small forward position. As with all trade scenarios for Pau, the Lakers would aim to (1) upgrade at a position of need, (2) get back a replacement four who can fill Pau's spot in the rotation, and (3) add additional depth throughout the roster. With that in mind, two teams rise as possible trade partners. First is Philadelphia, which has been dying for a post player for just about forever and has had Andre Iguodala on the block to get such a player. The wisdom of such a decision aside, the Sixers appear to be willing to have Evan Turner fill Iggy's spot in the rotation. How Iggy can help the Lakers is something we covered extensively last year when it was a possibility that a package around Lamar Odom could be shipped out for Iggy, something that would have been an incredible coup. He is basically LeBron-lite, an excellent two way, do-it-all wing who would be a terrific complement to Kobe.
The issue is what exactly Philly would be willing to give up besides Iggy. Elton Brand has been a likely amnesty candidate to open up cap space for various purposes, Thaddeus Young is young and a solid sixth man, and Louis Williams is a free agent. That makes a sign-and-trade for the latter a legitimate possibility, although the Lakers would understandably hold out for Brand or Young in that order to get a greater return. This ultimately is a question that depends on Philly's current mindset more than anything -- do they rebuild or keep plugging away as a borderline playoff team? -- but it certainly is a possibility worth exploring.
Aside from Philly, Indiana, who gave the eventual champion Miami Heat a decent fight in the second round, is definitely a team looking for that extra piece to put them over the top. The Lakers' interest here would be in Danny Granger, who is likely available since Indy has a clear successor for the position in Paul George. Granger is not the defender or playmaker that Iggy is, but he offers more scoring punch from the wing and gets a lot of his points on catch-and-shoot opportunities, something that would mesh quite well with both Kobe and Bynum. As such, looking at a package centered around David West and Granger for Gasol and pieces is something that benefits both teams. Indy gets one of the league's frontcourts, a nice complement to Roy Hibbert in the post, and still would have the cap space to pursue other options on the market. West, meanwhile, is a good fit next to Bynum because of his solid midrange game and with Granger, the overall spacing on offense would be highly improved.
The problem in many of this transactions is figuring out what to do with MWP after the deal. As he demonstrated last year, he has no qualms about coming off the bench, and if he is playing at the same level he did in April, that could very well be a big boon to the Lakers. Still, the Lakers would prefer not to be paying their backup three more than $7 million to be a backup and they undoubtedly would want to unload him in any transaction that brings back a quality three. Indy for obvious reasons wouldn't take him and although Philly's Doug Collins has shown affection for veteran players in the past, it is an open question whether Philly's front office would want to deal with someone like MWP.
Altogether, the Lakers' prospects for improving on the wings is likely a question of who will be filling up the bench next year as attempts to fix the spacing problems that have been plaguing the team. A big move for Iggy or Granger aside, this is likely the most realistic method the Lakers will undertake to improve in this department, as there aren't any obvious targets available for the Lamar Odom traded player exception that make sense -- for instance, the Lakers aren't going to take on Marvin Williams' horrendously overpriced deal and have MWP on the roster at the same time. As such, we can hold expectations down here, but given the problems at hand, even modest upgrades could go a long way to helping how the rest of the roster performs on the court.
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