For the past decade, Kobe Bryant has borne the weight of the hopes and expectations of the Lakers, providing the most definitive bridge between the two most recent Laker eras of championship excellence. Time and time again, he has answered those calls with fervid and dominant play that has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest players ever to set foot on a basketball court. It is for this reason that last season was jarring to many Laker fans, as they were treated to a painful display of Kobe's mortality, or at very least, a growing image of how the career of an all-time great enters its twilight stages. Naturally, comments to the effect that Kobe is finished at the moment are grossly exaggerated, as his competitive spirit, diverse skillset, and expansive basketball mind will keep him among the league's best performers for the next few years. Nevertheless, it is a given that those same years under Mike Brown, in which Kobe will have to adapt to a new system and his declining physical skills, will be a transition period that will determine the nature of the team as it moves forward.
Kobe's partners on the wings thankfully are exempt from bearing this burden, and their roles in Brown's system should not shift significantly. Ron Artest, ahem, Metta World Peace will be called upon to provide the same lockdown perimeter defensive ability Brown's defensive sensibilities prize, Matt Barnes will attempt to rebound after an injury-derailed season as the bench's energy man, and Devin Ebanks and Andrew Goudelock will look for spots in the rotation in which to apply their skills. Ebanks and Goudelock in particular have a larger spotlight on them with the departure of Shannon Brown, Kobe's primary backup, and this gap will have to be addressed in the offseason. After the jump, we'll review how the Lakers' current wings fit into Brown's system, and how the hole in the rotation behind Kobe can be addressed internally or in free agency and the trade market.
As I mentioned in last week's piece on the Lakers' point guards, Kobe specifically will be asked to assume a good deal of the primary ball-handler responsibilities due to Fisher's and Blake's limitations in that regard in a more conventional offense involving more pick-and-roll and traditional point guard play. I also noted, however, that a caveat was present in that a lot of sets Brown would be bringing over instead worked on maximizing Kobe's utility off the ball, a near-constant plea in game threads last season. Relying again on the invaluable breakdowns from NBA Playbook's Sebastian Pruiti, we can see some sets that Brown will likely import from Cleveland that worked on getting LeBron into his favored spots that Kobe can also utilize. Most are fairly simple: cross and staggered screens, some out of bounds plays, and a very interesting play, a decoy off the pick-and-roll that turns into a dump-off for a cutting LeBron, that John Krolik, an excellent Cavs blogger, dubbed "The Kraken" for its effectiveness. As Pruiti wisely notes, however, simple does not equal ineffective, and many of the spots at which LeBron is getting the ball are Kobe's favored spots, and indeed, Kobe's tendency for rising off the catch and those points arguably make those same sets more suited for him.
The arrival of famed Italian coach Ettore Messina will also have an impact in how Kobe is utilized, as he will very likely have a role in constructing the offensive playbook. Although the main impact will likely be in how our bigs are utilized, something I will discuss in my next piece, a lot of Messina's sets will involve screening from the bigs to free up the wings that are moving in motion as well as get them in better position to post-up. One set in particular involves the wing coming off a double screen set by both bigs along the baseline on each block, which, like Brown's sets above, is simple, but opens up a number of options. If it is Kobe that is running through the screens, for instance, the defensive faces a bit of a Catch 22 if Kobe's defender can't keep up with him: either a big will have to rotate out to Kobe, leaving Gasol, Bynum, or Odom with a smaller man on them with good post position, or Kobe will have an open shot or lane. The common theme here though is creating motion off the ball, something that was desperately missing last season, and it underlines how it would be wasteful not to take advantage of Kobe in these situations as well as putting another feather in Odom's hat as a choice to handle more of the playmaking responsibilities.
All the above, however, has really little impact on the remainder of the wings on the roster, which makes sense when you consider how limited Artest, Barnes, Ebanks and Goudelock are in comparison to Kobe. Artest in particular should feel at ease in Brown's system, as he likely will find himself regulated to the classic defensive specialist position in the corner spotting up, much as Bruce Bowen did for years in San Antonio. Given the dismal state of his athleticism and ability to finish at the rim, this is a role largely commensurate with his current talent level, although he might see a play taking advantage of his strength in deep post position on 4-5 pick-and-rolls involving Odom -- in that Artest fills the role of the the big not setting the pick by attempting to claim post position, thus giving the ball-handler another option off the pick -- as he still has some moderate effectiveness from that spot. Barnes, assuming he returns to his pre-injury form, will be an aggressive force on the offensive boards and a cutter much like he was to start last season, and those types of players can find a role in pretty much any system. It would help if he improved his accuracy from behind the arc, particularly from last year's dismal showing in the playoffs, but that's gravy compared to how he can impact the game when healthy elsewhere.
Finally, Ebanks and Goudelock occupy an interesting place in the Lakers' rotation because of the team's needs, namely the fact that Kobe doesn't have a real backup and the painful lack of outside shooting. With Shannon Brown's departure, the Lakers need someone to relieve Kobe, which is particularly important given that taxing Kobe for extended minutes in the regular season is an increasingly risky proposition given the state of his knees. Moreover, Artest and Barnes aren't natural fits for the two guard position, making the question one between whether Ebanks or Goudelock are ready for the role and if one can be found from an outside source.
Last year, the crescendo of voices calling for Ebanks, a first round talent whom the Lakers had the fortune to pick up in the second round, to get minutes in favor of the painfully inept Luke Walton was deafening, and it ranks as many of the curious personnel decisions Phil made over the course of the year. In limited minutes, Ebanks vindicated that perception, although that wasn't a terribly difficult bar to overcome. This, however, is entirely different from calling Ebanks a legitimate replacement for Shannon Brown, who for all his faults, was at the very least a serviceable backup. In his remarks to the media during his exit interview, Ebanks noted that the team had asked him to start developing some guard skills, which implies that the team is at least considering him for the position, but to be a legitimate backup, Ebanks would have to 1) adequately defend the position 2) work decisively within the offense to his strengths, which are in cutting and shooting from midrange 3) handle some ball-handling responsibilities. The potential is there, as all of the aforementioned skills were things he did in college, but it's an open question how he would react to the enlarged role. Moreover, this is unlike the situation at the point with Darius Morris behind Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, as it isn't so much a serious need as an inconvenience.
Continuing on, Goudelock holds the unique distinction of being likely the best shooter on the team, as despite his, well, Kobe-esque heaves that would qualify as ridiculous even with the NBA three-point line, he averaged better than 40% shooting from behind the arc every year in college with the exception of his junior year. That he did it while being his team's primary offensive option and playmaker adds further weight to that Jimmer-lite label, and one can only wonder how effective he would be acting as a spot-up shooter receiving passes from Gasol or Kobe. This alone should earn Goudelock some spot minutes in the lineup because of the dearth of shooting elsewhere, but his height and defensive ability make it difficult for him to play extended minutes at the two. Standing a little under 6'3'' in shoes, Goudelock is very undersized for the position, and by his own admission, he doesn't have great defensive chops. There will definitely still be lineups in which Goudelock is viable, but a situational specialist role is very different from being Kobe's full-time backup, especially seeing that Goudelock will shuffle between both backcourt positions.
Dissimilar to last time with the poor point guard market, the one for wings is notably stronger, with some legitimate options available if the Lakers choose to fill the gap there in free agency. The stronger portion of the class, unfortunately, is almost entirely out of the Lakers price range, even assuming that the midlevel exception is retained in the next CBA. For starters, this strikes every restricted free agent off the list, such as Arron Afflalo, Nick Young, and Wilson Chandler. Among the unrestricted free agents, these include Jason Richardson, who mentioned to the media that he might be interested in a discount to go to a contender, but I'm not sure that includes taking a $3-4 million contract and playing behind Kobe, Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, Caron Butler, and Tayshaun Smith. You can never discount the L.A. factor and the lure of playing for a title, but pursuing any of the aforementioned names wouldn't be overly realistic.
The beginning of the remainder of the list starts with Mike Dunleavy, who looks like the best of the bunch if the Lakers wish to pursue a replacement backup two guard in free agency. For one, Dunleavy fills a lot of the team's holes: he can shoot, an always welcome addition, can play either wing position, and has some playmaking ability. He isn't a great defensive player due to his lack of athleticism, but moves his feet well and takes charges. Any impact he would have at that end gets limited in any case due to being in a bench role. Injuries have derailed Dunleavy in recent seasons, although this is one case in which having young players is advantageous, as they can take advantage of the open playing time. Finally, Dunleavy would achieve a historical milestone of being the first Duke player to wear the purple and gold according to Dexter Fishmore. Kupchak's UNC-rooted hatred of all things Duke is well-known, but if arch-UNC icons Michael Jordan and Larry Brown could deal with drafting Duke player Gerald Henderson in the 2009 draft, so can Kupchak.
The rest of the class edges into players who are more threes than twos, the reclamation projects, and the assorted flotsam at the bottom. Grant Hill, Andre Kirilenko -- although he's arguably a four -- and Peja Stojakovic fall into the first category, and while they would be interesting options, it wouldn't be directly addressing the team's needs. The second category includes Tracy McGrady and Michael Redd, the former of whom reinvented himself as a point forward in Detroit and the latter coming back from an ACL injury. While McGrady is an interesting possibility, his lack of any tangible skills outside of his playmaking ability make it a tough sell, especially with his defensive limitations. One can assume that bad wheel or not, Redd will still be able to shoot, but like McGrady, he may be too limited in other areas to be a real contributor.
Lastly, among the dregs of the class, two names, Marco Belinelli and Anthony Parker, are somewhat interesting if all the above are unavailable. Both can shoot, with Belinelli being the better of the two in that regard, and he has flashes of some decent playmaking ability and a burgeoning offensive game. As the time he spent getting eviscerated by Kobe in the playoffs can attest to, he's not a good defensive player, but similar to Dunleavy, that's less of a concern with this role. Conversely, Parker is the classic three-and-D wing player, although he has slipped considerably in recent years in terms of production. One can assume that playing on a putrid Cleveland team didn't do wonders for him in that regard, but he definitely has declined from the relatively solid numbers he put up with the Raptors. The remainder of the class -- Roger Mason Jr., Mo Evans, Josh Howard, James Jones -- are arguably worse solutions than relying on Ebanks or Goudelock.
With Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest on the wings, there has understandably been fewer calls for trades for an upgrade, although two trades slipped down the grapevine before the onset of the lockout. Both involving Odom, the first was for Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, who was the centerpiece of a trade I argued for around two months ago. Now, that was one involving Pau Gasol; in this case, it involved Odom and Walton being sent to Philly for Iggy, and needless to say, that's pretty good value for Odom. As I mentioned in the aforementioned piece, Iggy has been miscast for years as a primary option in Philly's offense when his skills lend themselves much better to a complementary role, which he would safely assume behind Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum. A terrific defender who can guard three positions, as well as a highly athletic slasher and good playmaker, Iggy would constitute a significant upgrade on Artest and add some much-needed athleticism to the Lakers' lineup. Moreover, in that trade scenario above, the Lakers would be sending Walton, not Artest, to Philly, opening up the possibility of the Lakers being able to play a fearsome set of wing defenders that can guard four positions between the two of them.
The other trade, and one I am much less inclined towards, was discussions the Lakers had concerning Golden State's Monta Ellis. I've long held that Ellis has been massively overrated for being an inefficient gunner whose stats were inflated in a fast-paced system as well as the huge amount of minutes he usually played. A speedy, athletic combo guard, Ellis ranks among the league's best at attacking the rim from the perimeter, but he hoists an awful lot of long twos for a player with his athleticism, and isn't particularly good behind the arc either to compensate. Moreover, while Ellis possesses some skill at distributing the rock, he's a ball-dominating guard who looks to score. It's one thing to have a ball-dominating guard if his name is Steve Nash or Chris Paul and he's regularly creating opportunities for others or if he's Kobe and scoring at an efficient enough rate to justify it, but Ellis is certainly neither. That he has to share the court with Kobe is another blow against him, and his poor defensive habits won't earn him any points with Mike Brown either. Given Odom's versatility and central role in the rotation, it's also difficult, especially compared with the Iggy trade, to imagine this as an upgrade. The Lakers need athleticism on the perimeter in the worst way, but this isn't necessarily a good way of going about it.
In any case, barring one of the two trades above or one targeting another marquee wing, the Lakers' rotation shouldn't change significantly from recent years, and the new system will have plays designed to take advantage of a guard with Kobe's versatility. Given Ebanks' lack of seasoning and Goudelock's rookie status, it would be a safe move for the Lakers to sign someone to provide some security at the position even if the team believes that Ebanks appears ready for the role. Of the wings available, Dunleavy likely straddles the intersection between affordability, fit, and production the best, and he would arguably be an upgrade on what Brown brought last season. Even he was signed though, it behooves the team to give Ebanks a 5-10 minute role, as like Morris, it only helps the team to develop its younger talent. As far as Goudelock is concerned, he will likely find himself on the floor more often at the point in a lineup with say Kobe or Odom, who can handle the ball-handling responsibilities or in lineups in which they can hide him on an offensive non-threat. At the three, Artest and Barnes should hold down the fort fine as far as next season is concerned, but cashing in on Odom's expiring contract after his value is highest by getting an asset like Iggy would certainly be a farsighted move by the Lakers if they're looking for an upgrade at the position.
Next in this series, we will cover the Lakers' bigs and their possible roles next season.