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Lakers can do it again, but they won't have help
Hey, how about another three-peat? Well, although free agency has the potential to create a seismic shift in the NBA landscape, the Lakers -- for now, at least -- seem like the closest thing to a betting favorite in the race for the next O'Brien Trophy.
And while Thursday's "Braveheart" reenactment during Game 7 with the Boston Celtics demonstrated that championships aren't won on paper, the Lakers certainly look good in the fine print. For starters, Kobe and Pau Gasol are under contract until the next World Cup. Ron Artest, who was relatively relaxed in Game 7 when his teammates were looking as tight as Kobe's Game 6 interview face, doesn't visit his player option until 2012. Lamar Odom may require a seance or two during the course of a playoff series (he's always there, but you can't always see him) and hits his team-option year that same summer at age 33. So does Andrew Bynum, who will be a bright-eyed 25-year-old from the knees up.
But even though we doubt that any free-agent fraternity rush will lead to another franchise lining up as the definitive powerhouse for 2011, the Lakers do have some issues.
We'll start with Phil Jackson, whose matchup-Zen techniques have inspired 11 NBA championships. According to Phil, he'll take a week or so to explore a couple of health issues before deciding his future -- coaching or otherwise. It also has been reported that Jackson, whose annual direct deposit was $12 million, will be asked to come back and work for a measly $5 million.
That's only one stinking million for each championship he's won for the Lakers.
While there are several sharp basketball minds that sufficiently understand NBA-caliber Xs and Os, few (if any) are in Jackson's league when the task is commanding the attention of gifted millionaires. Please do not underestimate the importance of psychology in an NBA locker room. Unless Norman Dale leaves Hickory for Hollywood, losing Phil would be fairly tricky for even Bryant to overcome.
Byron Scott, who was an on-court mentor to Bryant when Kobe was a mere Jedi trainee, is rumored to be waiting out Jackson before making a decision on his coaching future. If LeBron James chooses to stay in Cleveland, Scott could end up there. But Jackson figures to unload a decision before LeBron makes the world stop spinning long enough to announce his destination.
And speaking of MVPs, what of Kobe, who's inability to make contested jumpers almost turned Ray Allen -- the star of "He Got Game" -- into the defensive hero of "He Got Game 7"? That's right, the temporarily Blank Mamba has been working through a bum knee and recording multiple 30-point playoff games with a mangled finger on his gun hand. During his Game 7 victory interview tour, Kobe said he has some decisions to make regarding healing options for those issues.
Knee and finger repair probably can be negotiated in time for Bryant to begin next season feeling pain free, but would the fixes stall his off-season preparation time? Remember, the playoffs bite off enough of the summer that most of us were expecting John Wall to be selected by the Washington Wizards at halftime of Game 7.
OK, if Kobe has to play his way into legacy-sustaining shape as the season begins, so what? Well, it may not be a big deal ... unless an un-Mamba-like start leads to a few extra defeats and compromises the Lakers' ability to seize home-court advantage for every round of the playoffs. Right, they wouldn't have enjoyed the comforts of Staples Center in a Game 7 against Cleveland or Orlando this year. We're just saying that feeding off the home crowd didn't hurt against Boston.
On the other hand, Kobe restoration could be handled in plenty of time and make him even more formidable when the 2011 playoffs begin.
Will they begin with backcourt crony Derek Fisher alongside? While he was busy inspiring rave reviews as a high-character actor in the Finals, we were reminded that Fisher becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Fisher, who's 35 years old, made $5 million this season and won't provoke that level of investment from any other franchise. Other teams don't run the triangle offense and require point-guard-sized players to break down defenses off the dribble.
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Fisher is a spot-up shooter playing in a (usually) structured offense that has an opportunity-creator in Bryant. As he ages, Fish is having expected difficulty defending many of the blisteringly quick points guards around the league. But he has the muscle and experience to do well when matched against more reasonably paced (but still terrific) playmakers such as Steve Nash and Deron Williams.
If Fisher and the Lakers are reasonable when money is discussed, the lefty probably will return.
Disparate free-agency issues further cloud the backcourt picture, with Jordan Farmar reaching restricted free agency and Shannon Brown expected to opt out of his player-option year. The Lakers have the right to match whatever offer is made to Farmar, who wants to be a starter ... somewhere. Perhaps Fisher will agree to come off the bench (until the fourth quarter) if he returns and the ex-Bruin can stay put.
Brown has said he wants to be a Laker lifer and has the ability to defend both backcourt positions. Lakers owner Jerry Buss has a history of signing off on whatever is necessary to maintain franchise success. But he's not exactly Mark Cuban with the checkbook ... hey, times are tough for a lot of us. Brown is an asset, but (and this is hard to believe, based on his Game 6 performance) a lot of guys looking for NBA employment can really get up and are decent shooters when left unattended.
Anyway, the biggest in-uniform issue should be the 22-year-old Bynum, who has the length and strength to be a force for years. He also has an injury history that could turn him into an albatross at $13 million a year. Combine the knee with the loot, and the idea of some bonanza trade (let's see ... you were thinking a Chris Bosh sign and trade, right?) looks as farfetched as shooting 26 percent for a half and still winning. Wait, that really happened.
Bynum, if he's healthy, could evolve into a beast capable of teaming with Gasol to play the type of paint ball the Lakers were hoping would splatter the Celtics in Game 7. If he's not, the Lakers could be had by LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Amar'e Stoudemire, Jimmy Chitwood and the Miami Heat.
Unless a really swell player is willing to play for his weight in trail mix and a shot at a ring, what we saw from the Lakers -- in terms of personnel -- this spring is what we can expect to get. The Lakers don't have a first-round pick next week and most teams probably should avoid lining up to help them with a sweet trade deal.
But please note that the Memphis Grizzlies still have another Gasol to give.
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