Friday, February 1, 2008

Plenty of questions surround improved Lakers


No, the Lakers are not the "team to beat" in the Western Conference.

Are you kidding me? Some analysts actually believe L.A. — not the Spurs, Suns, Mavericks, Jazz or Hornets — is now the best team in the NBA's elite conference. They're overreacting.

Don't get me wrong. L.A.'s move to acquire Pao Gasol Friday instantly made the Lakers better. I wrote on Christmas that the Lakers are contenders in the West. Now, they're definitely contenders.

But the best team in the West? Well, let's see how Gasol fits into their system.

For now, Gasol will start at center with Lamar Odom playing his normal power forward position, but when star-in-the-making Andrew Bynum returns in March, what will Phil Jackson do with his starting lineup?

He'll almost undoubtedly start his twin towers, Bynum and Gasol, but what about the 6-foot-10 Odom? Will he be moved to small forward? Anyone who watched Odom air-ball a long jumper at the end of L.A.'s loss to Detroit Thursday night knows that he's not comfortable on the perimeter. Odom is shooting 23 percent from downtown this season.

If Jackson goes with Odom, L.A.'s lineup would feature just two players capable of making outside shots — Kobe Bryant (yeah, he's pretty good) and point guard Derek Fisher. Defenses could sag against the other guys, making them knock down 20-footers. Gasol is a decent mid-range shooter, but you don't see teams running out to prevent him from shooting J's.

Much of the Lakers' success will depend on how well Gasol shoots those jumpers. I believe Jackson will place him in the high post once Bynum returns, giving Bynum plenty of room to operate down low. If Gasol can't make 15-footers, he will be an ineffective offensive player.

And, again, what will Odom's role be? Now is the time for Jackson to demonstrate why he's won nine NBA titles. He's got the pieces, he just needs to figure out how to solve the puzzle in front of him.

One thing this move does — undoubtedly — is keep Bryant in L.A. for at least the remainder of his contract and very possibly for the remainder of his career. Gasol, 27, will probably play as many seasons as Bryant does. And he's got Bynum and improving guard Jordan Farmar for several more years.

There will be no more trade requests from Bryant. As he said Friday, "Now it's time to walk the walk."

The pieces are in place.

Meanwhile, no key players were lost. While past trade offers for the likes of Jason Kidd or Jermaine O'Neal — both much older players than Gasol — would have meant giving up Bynum, Odom or both, Mitch Kupchak must have felt relieved to dispose of Kwame Brown's $9-plus million contract.

Javaris Crittenton was another promising point guard, but no better than Farmar and much more inexperienced. We don't know what will happen with Gasol's younger brother, Marc, but it's clear that he's a project. The 2008 and 2010 first-round picks L.A. relinquished will likely be lower picks.

Really, nothing was lost. Now, there are no excuses. It's time for the Lakers to show what they're made of.

Friday's move came off as a bit panicky. L.A. had slipped of late, losing four of five games entering Friday night's game in Toronto. It was transparent that LWB (Life Without Bynum) was taking its toll on the team. So the Lakers acting quickly, making a move that instantly improves them but creates plenty of questions.

Maybe this is part of a grander plan. Perhaps Odom is on his way out of L.A. Could the Lakers still be trying to acquire Kidd?

There remain several unknowns, but one thing can't be disputed: If Gasol plays like the All-Star and Rookie of the Year he's been, the Lakers will be one of the top teams in the top-heavy West.

But the favorite to make the NBA Finals?

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, folks. He's not Wilt Chamberlain.


Sportsattitude said...

I was stunned when I heard about this trade. Just didn't expect it at this point in the season. I think the Lakers did panic as you say but what a result. Fans are happy, Kobe is happy (I have to believe he was consulted about it at some length before hand)...question is, are they done? Your queries about the personnel are valid. Not sure what the rotation will look like yet. Time will tell, but a good move. I am sure the NBA is relieved, wanting the Lakers to continue to be relevant rather than starting from scratch if Bryant moved on.

Jake Lloyd said...

Yeah, David Stern is a very happy man. He might have baited the Grizzlies into making this deal. I think Memphis gets about 1 nationally televised game a year. Miami, on the other hand, has been on every week this year, and we've seen the ugly results.

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