That this was a lost season for the Lakers goes without saying, but the worst part of it was that we never got an opportunity to see how this team could perform with everyone at full strength. Not only meaningful from a sentimental perspective of seeing a competitive product on the floor, it means that evaluating the direction this team should take in the offseason is correspondingly difficult. How do the Lakers perform with the Steve Nash who came back and led the Lakers to a victory against Golden State on the road -- something that the playoffs have shown is much harder than we initially believed -- the Kobe Bryant who had an incredible season of sustained excellence at his age, the Pau Gasol who finished the year averaging a monstrous 17.5/12.1/6.6 on 51.3% shooting in April, and the Dwight Howard who turned back into something much more closely resembling the defensive force he previously was in Orlando?
And it's not only the main four stars: what about having Steve Blake, who took to Mike D'Antoni's system arguably better than anyone else on the team, for the entire year; or a healthy Jordan Hill, whose monstrous 20.3 offensive rebound rate would have led the entire league by a mile if he had a healthy season? We have said it multiple times: this team went ten deep and in retrospect, the depth is a lot more impressive than it appears to be. This isn't to say that the preseason predictions were possibly justified or the Lakers' potential reached as far as was believed, but to indicate that determining how the Lakers should proceed is difficult in light of how seemingly everyone peaked never at the same time and not necessarily when everyone was healthy.
Does that mean that keeping Pau Gasol might be more justified if the team is willing to eat the enormous luxury tax payment that will ensue? It might be the best available path considering how well he finished the year and the fact that he will finally have an offseason of rest after years of toiling for his national team. He and Dwight certainly proved during the last stage of the season that the notion they couldn't be in the same frontcourt was false so long as both were sufficiently healthy to resemble their former selves. This is just an example to illustrate the conundrum the Lakers face; clearly they have needs in terms of perimeter athleticism and shooting they still need to address with limited resources except possible trade chips they might want to keep to see how they all play with one another.
We will hear multiple times this summer on the different paths available to the team, whether it's just fishing for bargain minimum signings, trying for dramatic trades with everyone besides Dwight or Kobe -- and come on, it is far more interesting to throw about big ideas when it comes down to it -- or even blowing things up should Dwight decide to leave. The only thing we can take from this season is that we really have no idea of which path is necessarily the correct one. There might be financial considerations that override all of the aforementioned things, but ultimately, barring a trade that Mitch Kupchak pulls out of the ether, something never wise to bet against, all we are left with is speculation as to the Lakers' future beyond their desire to maintain flexibility for 2014. And in the end, that might be sufficient. If next year must be sacrificed for the sake of long-term needs, so be it. We will see soon enough whether that is the case as we review how everyone performed this season.
- Kobe Bryant -- He's amazing. There's no way around it: for Kobe to perform at this level defies all explanation. The second best TS% of his career, the best he's shot inside the arc ever in his career, an incredible accomplishment at his age, a career high assist rate, we can keep on listing off the benchmarks he's set in a seventeenth season that is without peer. Of course, we must now deal with the aftermath of his devastating injury and how much of his form he can regain once he returns next season. If there was ever an athlete to beat the rap and conquer conventional wisdom, it is certainly Kobe, so having optimism in that department is certainly justified. This noted, the fact that we might soon confront a team without Kobe is swiftly approaching in 2014, when the question of whether it is the last we will see of him in a Laker uniform will become a stark reality. By all means, Kobe will end his career on his own terms and even if he can play at only a fraction of the level he sustained this year, defensive warts and all, it will be sufficient to be counted among the league's best players. There is little doubt that we have not seen the last of Kobe's brilliance on the basketball court.
- Steve Blake -- People who saw this coming? Anyone? Okay, maybe Mike D'Antoni was the only soul in creation to believe that Blake had this in him since he all but said so to the disbelief of anyone who had watched Blake in a Lakers uniform the past two years. There were several moments this year in which he resembled Nash more than the man himself when he was playing in the same backcourt next to him, and there's a very fair argument that Blake was the team's most consistent perimeter player behind Kobe. Once considered amnesty bait, Blake is now viewed as an important part of a depleted backcourt, quite the remarkable transformation. One could even say that D'Antoni's entire tenure could be viewed in a different light if Blake was able to helm the team during Nash's absence rather than Chris Duhon or Darius Morris and that says everything about how Blake performed this season.
- Jordan Hill -- One of the most sorely missed parts of the team, Hill's constant effort could have been big for a squad that lacked passion for a good part of the year. As previously noted, his offensive rebounding was an elite skill that when paired with his active defense and energy could have been key in a frontcourt rotation that was decimated by injury throughout the season. The most important thing for Hill is completing his offensive game by mastering that midrange jumper and becoming a credible spacing threat that can work alongside Dwight. Otherwise, he's a frontcourt tweener who is destined for a bit role on the bench behind the team's future franchise cornerstone. It's an unfortunate truth for Hill, who does deserve minutes, especially given that Antawn Jamison is likely leaving, but that's what he needs to do to have a long-term future on the team.
- Earl Clark -- Perhaps the best story of the Lakers' season belongs to Clark, who came out of nowhere to save the frontcourt rotation from falling into oblivion. We knew that he was a respectable defender with potential on that end from his time in Orlando, but no one thought he could crack out a good midrange shot, occasionally spot up from behind the arc, and make smart cuts towards the rim. There are certainly a lot of holes in Clark's game, namely his handle and decision-making, two surprising things given that both were supposedly strengths of his at Louisville. He will have to make improvements in that regard to stay in the rotation next year and not fall into a swoon as he did down the stretch of the year, although one could blame this on the injury bug that afflicted virtually everyone else on the team as well. Luckily for the Lakers, that very swoon probably depressed his free agent value into something much more manageable for the team and if there's anyone to root for next year, it's Clark continuing to take steps from being a definite bust into a serviceable NBA player.
- Antawn Jamison -- It was a rough ride for Jamison as it took a while for him to properly crack the rotation, but he more that lived up to his contract and expectations by becoming a solid bench player. He couldn't defend anyone to be sure and the wrist injury at the end of the year clearly had an impact in how effective he could be on his favored cuts. Still, he was a smart offensive player on a team that needed more of them and there were multiple games that were turned in the Lakers' favor because of his presence. It is hard to ask for more from a guy signed for the minimum and while it is unlikely that he returns to the Lakers' bench next year due to the unlikeliness of the team seriously contending and his desire to be close to his children, he was a great member of the team during his tenure here. Kudos to him.
- Robert Sacre -- Oh, you have to love the bench dancing. Sacre wasn't that important on the court and he quickly proved that he probably wasn't ready for consistent NBA minutes when many were crying for him to be inserted to help a depleted frontcourt. His upside is likely a Kurt Thomas type who can take charges, play decent defense, and hit a midrange shot on the pick-and-pop once in a blue moon, and while he displayed flashes of that throughout the year, he never really put it all together. This all isn't that important, however, as Sacre was likely the lone figure on the team who was universally liked by the fans just for being awesome and the most willing to display his excitement as the MVP of bench dramatics. In light of all the crap that has happened this year, that has to count for something.
- Honorable mention to Dwight Howard, who made a fairly decent turnaround from a pariah whose fit long-term with the team was questioned to a fair lock to re-sign with the team this summer. Okay, that might just be conjecture on my part, as you can find plenty of detractors to that statement, but Dwight recovered as the year went on and started to resemble his Orlando counterpart as he got healthier. Lest we forget, he sacrificed and came back from serious back surgery months before he needed to for the sake of the team and he deserves his plaudits for playing through that. Yes, he has limitations on offense that the team has to work around and that will have to be better incorporated into the team's gameplan -- in other words, run 2-4-5 to death, please. That noted, he is still the league's most dominant defensive force at his peak that made even the limited defenders on the rest of the roster look good for stretches and that's an irreplaceable commodity in this league. He doesn't evoke the offensive greatness of Kareem or Shaq, but his defensive ability is every bit as noteworthy. There is still plenty of time for Dwight to be a worthy addition to the pantheon of great Laker big men if he stays here, which yours truly still believes to be the strongest possibility of the options before him.
- Pau Gasol -- The knee and foot injuries that Pau was dealing with clearly sapped his ability earlier in the year and the news that he is taking an offseason off after surgery to help relieve his knees is welcome news. It's hard to get past in this analysis, however, how ineffective he was to start the season, questions of whether he was being misused aside. Sure, he needed to be in the post more, but he wasn't exactly doing a whole lot when he was there. Perhaps it was difficult to reconcile Pau's level then with the same player who almost single-handedly brought Team USA to heel during the Olympics, although those very Olympics might have had an adverse effect on his ability to perform during the year. Pau isn't exactly Yao Ming in terms of what his national team demands of him, but he is abroad doing something related to basketball most summers. As a result, one can feel confident in terms of how he can perform going into next season, especially given how he finished the year. Whether it will be in a Lakers uniform or not is another matter, although what was once an open question as to whether he'll be on the team is less certain due to his play and the uncertainty concerning whether they can still retain flexibility for 2014 after trading him.
- Steve Nash -- Yikes. Unlike Pau and Dwight, both of whom struggled and returned to form, Nash never really had a set of dominating performances to show that he still has that level of play left in the tank. Now, Nash's systemic injuries, whether his back or the continuing recovery from his leg, played a role here, as did his age in terms of how well he could cope. His shooting, thankfully, did not suffer too much, as he came only mere percentage points away from another 50/40/90 season. At his age, he shot 68.9% at the rim and nailed 50.5% of his shots from 16-23 feet. Shooting truly is the last thing to leave. One can have doubts, however, as to whether he can be the kind of playmaker he was in Phoenix due to his decreased burst coming off picks, although as with everything this year, the lack of chemistry leaves it difficult to ascertain the proper veracity of such a claim. He unequivocally can be an effective player due to his shooting and solid playmaking instincts; whether he can approach the rarefied level he had in Phoenix is another question entirely.
- Devin Ebanks -- What a waste. The team let their most productive reserve in Matt Barnes go for this? The team was desperate for everything that Ebanks could potentially bring to the table and he decided to capitalize on none of them. It's hugely disappointing since Ebanks had the talent to be an effective player in the league and had enough good performances down the stretch of the '11-'12 season to have some optimism for his play this past year. Whoops. If there's any certainty to this offseason, it is that Ebanks will be gone and frankly, good riddance.
- Jodie Meeks -- And the award for the team's second most disappointing player goes to Meeks, who was hailed as a consistent floor spacer the team desperately needed to complement the stars on the roster and he miserably failed in that role. Miserably. 35.7% was unacceptable for how many open looks he got during the year and he compounded that by continuing to attack the rim despite shooting a pathetic 53.2% there and turning the ball over every other time he decided to put it on the floor. To his credit, he showed a lot more defensive aptitude than most designated shooters do and he wasn't a liability in that department so long as he didn't have to deal with a big size difference. That might not be enough to save him during the offseason if the team can find a moderately effective shooter to replace him, however. In the end, it might be the fact that he's cheap wing depth with a very inexpensive option that keeps him on the roster.
- Darius Morris -- Morris showed development and he still has one more year to see if he can become part of the rotation. As we knew last year, his defense is a legitimate NBA skill, except there's a long way before his offense catches up to it. His spot-up shooting is the closest to becoming a consistent threat, whereas his dribbling, playmaking instincts, and finishing ability are still very, very raw. The team probably could have sent him down to the D-League more during the year to develop, although the deluge of injuries probably made the team more sensitive to keeping him around as insurance. In any case, next year is make or break time for Morris, as that's about when his development curve has to angle up sufficiently that one can feel comfortable with him getting minutes. As he's one of the few sources of youth on the roster and probably the team's best perimeter defender, one hopes that he makes the proverbial leap.
- Chris Duhon -- We probably should rake Drew's feet over the coals for ever thinking that Duhon could be a better option than Blake in the backcourt, but anyways. In truth, Duhon wasn't completely putrid by the standards that have been set for play at the point guard position for the Lakers recently. Considering how well Nash and Blake performed, one can be forgiven for reacting in sheer horror whenever Duhon saw the court, the handful of good performances he had this year aside. At this point in his career, he's a third point guard forced into a situation he just wasn't able to handle, even when taking his previous experience under D'Antoni into account. Duhon almost certainly will be a causality of the Lakers' cap situation due to his non-guaranteed deal, although he also could be used as a minor trade chip for the same reason.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Metta World Peace, who had a decent year but his recent shortcomings make it unlikely that he will be retained by the team going forward. Foremost is his slippage as a defender, as he no longer has sufficient lateral quickness to be the dominant wing defender he was even two years ago. This makes it increasingly difficult to justify his limitations on offense and his decline as a passer is especially alarming. This year wasn't particularly conductive to good offensive chemistry, but MWP's inability to make simple entry passes, to say nothing of making the prompt passes around the perimeter required in MDA's offense, was really damaging to the team's effectiveness on offense. He did show some potential as a smallball four and that's an interesting look for him, but it seems more and more likely that he won't be on the team next season.