Ranking athletes in any sport is a perilously subjective and inherently difficult exercise, as it is subject to any number of foibles, biases, or idiosyncrasies coming from the unfortunate people creating the ranks based on what they believe to be a fair criteria. Depending on the person, strengths can be exaggerated, weaknesses downplayed, or vice versa, and any hard standards are always at the mercy of the gut check reaction every sports fan has had in which one declares that a certain player can't possibly be considered better than another one in defiance of whatever data is in front of you. The manner, then, that ESPN has attempted to go about ranking every player in the NBA borders on being somewhat equitable: asking 91 of its NBA scribes to provide a rating from one to ten of every player and then averaging out the result. It's simple, has a high sample size to account for various writer quirks, and probably is the most fair way of going about a rather painstaking task. Naturally, no ranking system is perfect, and after the jump, we will review the grades of each of the Laker players, evaluate their immediate companions in the rankings, and look at some implications for the team in the future.
For ease of reading, we will start from the bottom, grouping some players together as appropriate, showing the player, his overall rating, and ranking:
#478: Andrew Goudelock (1.80) | #473: Darius Morris (1.84)
#427: Derrick Caracter (2.20) | #396: Devin Ebanks (2.37)
As far as rankings go, trying to place a concrete value on rookies, especially those who don't have a minute of NBA play to their credit, is downright impossible, but at the same time, these are more or less appropriate. I was pretty bullish on the prospects of both Morris and Goudelock in my review of the Lakers' draft night, but to say that they will amount to something significant that warrants ranking themselves over the tenth and eleventh men of a lot of NBA teams is premature. It's one thing when you're Kyrie Irving (#140/4.99) or Derrick Williams (#196/4.40), the consensus top two players in the draft, and quite another when you're simply good value picks in the second round that happened to have borderline first round grades. Both have a niche that would make them useful to the Lakers next season, so they'll have opportunities to prove themselves.
For Ebanks and Caracter, who both had playing time so sparse one might as well consider rookies, these rankings are also more or less fine. As their D-League play indicates, Ebanks is definitely the better of the two prospects, easily dominating his competition while Caracter struggled with foul trouble and defense. Ebanks, who was a first round prospect that dropped on draft night -- is this starting to sound familiar? -- also stands to get some more burn next season with a spot on the wings open on the bench, and it appears that he is being groomed by the team for the spot. Caracter, on the other hand, likely will have an uphill struggle to even make the team, especially given his IHOP incident, and the large number of cheap veteran bigs that will be available in free agency. From what we have seen of him, he has been working diligently at IMG and participating in the Impact Basketball Academy league, so he may buck that prediction, but I wouldn't expect too much.
#357: Theo Ratliff (2.67) | #353: Joe Smith (2.71)
If you want to know why Pau Gasol looked like a shell of himself after November, I give you Exhibit A and Exhibit B, both of whom defined the Lakers' underwhelming frontcourt depth behind Odom, Bynum, and Gasol. Even before he got injured, Ratliff was barely more than a stop-gap solution, having no offensive utility whatsoever and despite being advertised as a decent defensive player despite his age, looked slow-footed and well, old. Smith, for all the time he got on the court, was equally inadequate, and the Lakers tossed away a first round pick and a somewhat serviceable backup in Sasha Vujacic to see him sit on the bench and to have Jerry Buss pad his bottom line. It's hard to say whether their ranking is deserved or not given the assorted flotsam around them in the 300s and whether they deserve to be ranked above the Laker rookies and sophomores, but a pair of D-League bigs could have easily equaled the meager production Ratliff and Smith brought forth last season.
#318: Luke Walton (3.11)
It's hard to blame Luke for being terrible at basketball given the degree to which his injuries have sapped him of any athleticism or explosiveness, and to his credit, he has handled his situation with grace, noticeably his rather selfless decision to let the much more effective Trevor Ariza start over him in 2009. Save for his ridiculous contract and the fact that he had to play a significant number of non-trivial minutes last season due to Barnes' injury, Luke would be free to swim in the same adulation that fellow bench warmers and victory cigars Adam Morrison and Sun Yue have done.
This noted, Luke's ranking is pretty indefensible given that he was pretty much contributed nothing while on the court past reliving Kobe or World Peace from playing more minutes. His immediate inferior Tristan Thompson (#319/3.09), the number four overall pick, is almost certainly going to be more productive even if one believes that the Cavs made a reach to get him. He's even only five spots away from Jonas Valanciunas (#313/3.14), the number five overall pick who played effectively against tough competition at the Eurobasket and would have went higher if he didn't have a complicated buyout situation.
Moreover, it was a common refrain that Ebanks, who showed some promise in limited action, should have gotten the nod from Phil to fill some of the spot minutes on the wing, and I see little reason why Luke deserves to be ranked 78 spots higher than him. Perhaps he got a few sentimental votes for wearing the purple and gold and being an all-around good guy, but he really has no place anywhere above the bottom heap.
#241: Steve Blake (3.96) | #215: Derek Fisher (4.22)
The ordering of Blake and Fisher here is correct, as Fisher almost certainly had a better year than Blake, who struggled to adapt to the triangle and was plagued by spells of passivity, but how high they're ranked is another question altogether. For instance, Fisher gets the nod over Austin Daye (#217/4.21), Zaza Pachulia (#218/4.20), and Tiago Splitter (#226/4.13), all of whom were generally solid role players on their respective teams and reasonably productive. As much as you want to credit Fisher for his stabilizing presence on the court and off it, his play has dipped to a point where it's a struggle to call him a decent backup, let alone a fifth starter on one of the league's premier teams, and these rankings are putting him above tangibly -- pun intended -- effective players.
Similarly, Blake is getting some rather undeserved love here; some of the players he eclipses include Gerald Henderson (#242/3.95), Wesley Johnson (#245/3.91), and Ronny Turiaf (#247/3.88). It really can't be emphasized enough how completely putrid the Lakers were at the point guard position last year, and the degree to which that hurts the rest of the team. One can blame Gasol's well-publicized struggles for instance, but when your point guards shoot 2-12 every other game, play matador defense, and force every other player to overcompensate for the fact that they're playing 4-on-5 on offense, that matters, if not more, than those other problems. Sure, both Fisher and Blake deserve to be ranked over all of the aforementioned Lakers, but just to twist the knife a little, look at Toney Douglas' (#193/4.43) well-deserved ranking.
#185: Matt Barnes (4.47)
The Lakers' best bench player last year outside of Odom, Barnes was an underrated pickup who had the misfortune to experience the first major injury of his career, which more or less derailed the rest of his season. Before then, he was everything he was advertised to be: a solid cutter, aggressive attacking the offensive glass, and an overall solid energy player. Perhaps this ranking is slightly generous given that he was largely ineffective post-injury, particularly from behind the arc, but his decision to stay on with the Lakers ensures that the wing rotation will be stable next year and he deserves the solid backup label this ranking infers. Regardless, he'll have plenty of opportunities to substantiate his spot next season.
#181: Shannon Brown (4.52)
One wonders whether the rankings split the difference between Brown's borderline Sixth Man of the Year start to the season and his mediocre play for the rest of the year since this ranking is far too high. A borderline top 100 player with the former appellation and the mid-200s with the latter, Brown's year was an up and down roller coaster, although that does not detract from the fact that he was a reasonably serviceable backup when it's all said and done despite his flaws. However, that does not make him better than Luke Ridnour (#182/4.51) or Will Bynum (#188/4.45), both of whom were solid backups at their position last year. In any case, this may all be a moot point given recent comments he has given about his future, as he appears to be leaving for greener pastures next year.
#97: Metta World Peace (5.67)
If anything will keep the newly christened Metta World Peace in the top 100, it will be his defense, which was still elite last season despite wavering effort throughout the season. With his athleticism completely shot at this juncture in his career, MWP's sole utility on offense is his outside shooting, although it would greatly help if he mastered a quicker release and how to shoot in the corner given the implementation of a Spurs-derived offense next season. As for his ranking, it's more or less appropriate, with fellow defensive specialist Shane Battier (#98/5.66) right behind him. It's tempting to chart a decline for him given the number of offseason non-basketball activities we've seen MWP in, but he should be motivated given the way the Lakers went out last year and he'll have a coach supportive of his defensive gifts in Mike Brown, so we'll leave him off the Patrick Ewing and Shawn Kemp post-lockout obesity list for the moment.
#44: Lamar Odom (6.94)
On the other hand, the consensus among your esteemed bloggers is that a certain Kardashian husband will return on the portly side next season, which would be unfortunate given that he had a career year last year that vindicates his top 50 ranking. Hornets fans would likely offer a vigorous debate over whether he was better than his immediate inferior, David West (#46/6.94), but that shiny Sixth Man of the Year trophy likely seals that question. The larger problem is that many aspects of Odom's play, notably his shooting, scream "fluke year," and he'll have to adapt to a new offense in which he'll likely have more ballhandling responsibilities given the team's dearth of even semi-serviceable point guards. As always with Odom, the talent is there to sustain or even exceed this level of play, but there's a lot riding against him repeating last year's stellar performance.
#30: Andrew Bynum (7.45)
Just for the degree to which Bynum embraced his inner Mutombo following the All-Star break to and became the defensive force Laker fans have wanted him to by being at the heart of the Lakers' 17-1 run, this ranking is largely deserving, although there is a healthy dose of optimism for Bynum's future sprinkled in there as well. At his best, he impacts a game more than his immediate inferior Nene (#31/7.41) or even Marc Gasol (#26/7.51), whose rugged consistency stands in contrast to Bynum's explosive potential.
Still only 23 years old, Bynum will be at the forefront of Brown's San Antonio offense next season and will get every chance to prove himself worthy of being a top 30 player. That will depend on whether he can stay healthy, the degree to which he and Pau can mesh in an offense that requires both bigs to play off each other, and whether he can expand his burgeoning post game, but all of those things are certainly possible for Bynum. The question of whether he'll be shipped off for a certain top five player next year aside, Bynum is the only real player on this roster besides the rookies and sophomores who has a chance to significantly outstrip his current ranking, and assuming he can get over clobbering airborne players, it wouldn't be remiss to say that he "got it" last season.
#11: Pau Gasol (8.53)
Whether this ranking is appropriate depends a lot on whether you think MVP Gasol from the start of last season will show up next year or the shell of himself that struggled through the season and showed none of the grace and fluidity on offense that Laker fans have come to associate Pau with. Certainly, it was endearing for those of us who saw Pau struggle so mightily in the playoffs to see him put together a dominant outing in the Eurobasket; respected Euroleague blogger Jay Aych thought that the MVP of the tournament should have gone to Pau instead of Juan Carlos Navarro. Moreover, Pau will get a system next season almost tailored to his talents that will maximize his efficacy at passing out of the high and low post, get him into his favored spots on the block, and make him a weapon off the pick-and-roll, all of the things he needs to maintain his current ranking.
Pau's ranking also brings into question where and how you draw the line between the game's truly elite players and the second tier stars. Immediately below Pau is Carmelo Anthony (#12/8.42), Amar'e Stoudemire (#13/8.39), and Steve Nash (#14/8.33), from which one can discern the "dominant offensive player who is a cardboard cutout on defense" pattern. Even at his very best, it's an open question as to whether Pau can exceed Melo's and Amar'e's offensive explosiveness or Nash's shooting and passing wizardry; however, Pau brings much more on the defensive end -- ignoring the latter half of last season at any rate -- than any of those three and makes the players around him better in a manner that Melo and Amar'e, both notorious black holes on offense, can't. As his time in Memphis showed, Pau can't carry a team as any of those three do on offense, but is arguably a much better complementary player in the larger scheme than any of them. Does that mean he should be ranked higher than either of them? There's naturally no right answer to that question, as you then get into the composition of specific teams, but it's a noticeable reminder of how difficult it is to construct these kinds of rankings.
On another note, Pau is also ranked immediately behind Blake Griffin (#10/8.78), which raises another set of thorny questions. There's no doubt Griffin was an amazing player on offense last season, with absolutely ridiculous conversion rates around the rim and solid rebounding stats, but his lackluster defense would make Stoudemire blanch and his absurd athleticism doesn't completely make up for his lack of a post game or a reliable midrange jumper, all of which Pau has in spades. Come next season, Griffin could make this discussion look positively silly, but one would think that Griffin got some points for potential just as Bynum did.
#7: Kobe Bryant (9.40)
Ah, and now the one ranking that has Laker Nation up in arms. Twitter glowed so blindingly red from sheer outrage when the ranking was released that it's amazing that ESPN was able to find some semi-reasonable tweets to post on Kobe's ranking page. As for yours truly, I have no problem with this ranking. None whatsoever. It's difficult to chart a path through this debate that doesn't enter the radioactive sections, but let's start with this: Kobe is old. He is certainly not at the end of his career or on the verge of some precipitous decline; quite to the contrary, Kobe was -- and will continue to be for the foreseeable future -- an extremely effective player. He is by far the most skilled player in the NBA, his post game alone will keep him in the league's upper echelon, and there's no denying his unshakeable drive.
This noted, Kobe simply can't perform at the level he did during his peak because his body won't allow it. The post game he introduced during the '09-'10 season to great fanfare? Took a big dip in effectiveness because he couldn't elevate enough for his fadeaway to get cleanly over defenders. Same problem with his isolation game as he simply doesn't have his former explosiveness to blow by players and fakes and misdirection can only get you so far. This also contributed to the decline in Kobe's 3P%, as defenders were able to play him tighter without fearing him on the drive. On the other side of the court, Kobe clearly mailed in defensive possessions and his free safety defense became a liability due to his diminishing lateral quickness. How much of this was a result of a bad knee and ankle is debatable, but both aren't great signs at his age, and Kobe had to go to huge lengths to stay on the court last season despite his legendary pain tolerance. No doubt it was a relief to see him hammer down two sweet dunks in the playoffs against the Hornets, but it's always going to be an open question how gracefully his body will let him wind down his career.
Of course, Kobe isn't one to rest on his laurels, and he certainly has confirmed that this offseason. Besides getting an experimental knee procedure to stimulate the healing in his balky knee, Kobe stopped by the Drew League to show off his new Dirk-esque fadeaway, which solves the previous separation problem and is probably the highest praise Kobe can bestow on any single player, as well as drop in a sick game winner after a 45 point effort. How effective Kobe is next season depends a lot on how well he adapts to Brown's new offense and what his body will allow him to do, as he will likely take on a more of a distributing role as a primary ball-handler while Brown shifts some of the offensive responsibilities to the bigs. Thanks to Kevin Ding, we can determine that Kobe is likely to be amenable to Brown's philosophy, and there's definitely space for him to flourish as a set up man and off ball threat in addition to his regular diet of isolation plays. Given the relative youth of the players in front and behind him, it's unlikely that Kobe goes past the top five next year barring him learning how to shoot like Ray Allen, but again, that doesn't mean he can't be tremendously effective as he usually is, albeit in a different role.
And there you have it. It's no secret that the Lakers are a top-heavy team, with four players in the top 50 and three in the top 30, and the rest all below the top 200 with the exception of Brown and Barnes, both of whom played like sub-200 players when it counted in any case. This is particularly why Gasol's bad play was so damaging, as with no other consistent options, it was more or less impossible to make up for Pau's production. We can attribute the Lakers' lack of depth to numerous things, whether they are bad free agent decisions or a poor handling of the draft, but clearly, the supporting pillars around the Laker core will definitely have to be replaced for the team to contend next season. A quick look at the Mavericks' roster, in which there are seven players in the top 100, one of whom (Caron Butler) didn't even play during Dallas' playoff run, is testament enough.
With that in mind, let's take a brief look at the ranks of the players whom we have talked about as potential trade targets or free agent replacements:
#34: Andre Iguodala (7.29) | #41: Monta Ellis (7.05)
Both possible trade targets for Odom, this ranking offers the pretty clear verdict that Iggy is the better choice, which jives with previous thought on the matter. Ellis' slim lead on Odom also reflects how such a trade could be potentially dangerous, as there's a lot of things that need to go right for Ellis to have a successful transition in L.A.
#141: Mike Dunleavy (4.97) | #228: Marco Belinelli (4.10)
One can question whether Dunleavy can be had for whatever cap exceptions make it out of the hell that the CBA negotiations currently are in, but there's no question here that he's an upgrade on Brown and would be a solid backup. Belinelli is much dicier, but he clearly is a good shooter, which is enough for this team, and the alternatives in Michael Redd (#252/3.80) and Anthony Parker (#259/3.73) are much worse.
#232: Jeff Foster (4.04) | #263: Troy Murphy (3.66) | #304: Kwame Brown (3.23)
All cheap, veteran vets who won't get crushed if they have to play 10-15 minutes a night as fourth and fifth bigs. Foster is clearly the best available backup, but the Lakers aren't looking for miracle workers this far down the depth chart and it's testament to how terrible Ratliff and Smith were that they couldn't even fulfill this meager role. Any serviceable big would be fine here really.
Altogether, while it is nice to dream of Dwight Howard, the Lakers should consider it a successful offseason if they are able to fill in the ends of the roster with serviceable role players. As the rankings above indicate, any notion that the Lakers primary core still can't contend for a championship is ludicrous, but the team success' will be directly correlated to how well the players around that core will chip in to help bring another title back to L.A.
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