How much change should the Lakers make to their roster?
Whether the Lakers are coming off a championship season or under-performing in a shortened season, there's one thing that keeps fans unified and divided: trade talk. Unified because every fan wants to size up any trade scenario imaginable, wondering if that out-of-nowhere reserve that lighted up the Lakers in a regular-season game could produce more magic, or if the Lakers could land the next superstar. Divided because there is hardly ever any consensus.
I'll spend part of this offseason on a series that will analyze what effect free agents could have on the Lakers, and the feasibility of various potential deals. Those looking for significant changes are going to be disappointed. Lakers owner Jerry Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak have expressed their desire to keep the team's "core," wanting to only make "tweaks" to the lineup. The Lakers are coming off a season that included a $91-million payroll. And despite Magic Johnson's contention that Buss needs to "blow this team up" the Lakers aren't exactly scrubs, considering that before being swept by the Dallas Mavericks in this season's Western Conference semifinals, they had three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, earning two titles.
After the jump, I'll look at the Lakers' roster and analyze how players may fit in next season.
Contract status: Three years, $83.5 million
Verdict: Next question. It would be ironic if the Lakers actually traded Bryant four years after the infamous offseason when he demanded -- through radio interviews, fan video cameras and every other conceivable outlet -- to be traded. But that's not happening. It would only start a riot in L.A. Plus, despite the injury concerns surrounding him, Bryant is still among the greatest in the league.
Contract: Three years, $57 million
Verdict: Should the Lakers try to acquire a big-name player in a trade, Gasol may be one of the assets they would have to give up. Public sentiment seems to support this scenario because of his poor playoff performance, averaging only 13.1 points and 7.6 rebounds. But things in context: Since the Lakers acquired Gasol from Memphis in February 2008, they have won two NBA titles and appeared in three consecutive NBA Finals. Besides, it seems as though new Coach Mike Brown's vision is to use Gasol and Andrew Bynum deep in the post, much as the San Antonio Spurs did with David Robinson and Tim Duncan when Brown was an assistant coach with that team from 2000 to 2003. During that time, the Spurs thrived with Robinson and Duncan through the pick-and-roll and paint touches.
Contract: Has one more guaranteed year at $14.9 million, with a team option for $16.1 million in 2012-13.
Verdict: Despite concerns about his extensive injury history, the front office has remained deeply reluctant to consider trading Bynum because of his age (23) and his tremendous size advantage. But how would the Lakers react should they have a chance to acquire Magic center Dwight Howard, who becomes a free agent next season? Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported that Lakers vice president Jim Buss has made it clear within the organization that when it comes to trade talks, Bynum is untouchable.
Contract status: Three years, $21.5 million
Verdict: Artest didn't exactly produce a stellar performance in the 2010-2011 season, posting a career low in points per game (8.5), demonstrating questionable decision-making and providing a mixed picture on defense. The length of his contract would seem to make it hard to trade him, so the Lakers may have to make the best of it. Artest will surely buy into Brown's defensive philosophies and tendency to do his coaching within the team instead of through the media. But it remains to be seen how Brown will handle Artest's personality: He has a tremendous heart, means well and has a good work ethic, but needs the proper support system to channel his assets effectively.
Contract status: Two years, $7 million with player option on 2012-2013 season
Verdict: The absence of the triangle further exposes the problems of Fisher's age (36) and declining speed, adding urgency to the Lakers' need for a true point guard. It'll be interesting to see how Fisher adapts to any changed role, but he remains a critical piece to Bryant, who actually may lean more on Fisher than Brown given their strong relationship.
Contract status: Two years, $17 million, including team option for 2012-2013 season.
Verdict: Odom's Sixth Man of the Year award is a reflection of his most consistent season, even if his performance in the playoffs appeared pretty unreliable. However, the relatively low cost of his contract and his versatility make him a possible asset. Should the Lakers keep him, I suspect Odom will continue to thrive with the Lakers as a versatile sixth man. But nothing's guaranteed.
Contract: Three years, $12 million
Verdict: The Lakers thought they acquired a dependable true point guard last offseason that would eat into Fisher's minutes and help the transition period in bolstering their backcourt. But Blake's arrival provided nothing of that sort. His 4 points per game on 35.9% shooting reflected his lowest statistical output since his second year in the 2004-05 season with the Washington Wizards. It's realistic to think Blake will bounce back this season with more aggressiveness and confidence in his playmaking abilities, particularly because he'll play a more traditional point guard role instead of one reserved for the triangle offense. But it'd be understandable, if the Lakers didn't bank on that level of thinking.
Contract: $2.37 million player option for next season.
Verdict: It's uncertain whether Brown will be back next season. He wouldn't reveal which direction he's leaning during his exit interview, but he indicated to The Times' Mike Bresnahan in March on what he might do. Brown, who received what Bresnahan characterized as a "lukewarm response" during free agency last season, acknowledged to Bresnahan that testing free agency again would be the "best scenario" but made it clear he hadn't made a decision but added, "I'd love to be a Laker again."
Should Brown decide to test the free agency waters again, I'd highly doubt the Lakers would try to retain him. As much as the Lakers need the athleticism and energy Brown offers to a veteran-laden team, he actually regressed this season. After averaging 10.83 points on 48.6% shooting and creating a buzz as the league's most improved player through 18 games, Brown finished the remaining 64 games posting 8.07 points a game on a 40.61% shooting clip. Instead of being more selective about his shot selection and devoting his energy into other facets of the game, he stubbornly failed to shoot himself out of slump.
Contract: $1.91 million player option for next season.
Verdict: Barnes indicated after Brown's introductory press conference that he planned on exercising his option to return to the Lakers. That's a dose of good news for the Lakers considering he proved valuable in providing energy and intensity. That hardly defined Brown's first year with the Lakers, however. After suffering a lateral meniscus tear on Jan. 7 against the New Orleans Hornets, he missed 29 games and never appeared fully comfortable after returning to the court. An offseason of rehab and strength training should help correct all that.
Contract: Team option for next season worth $788,872.
Verdict: Ebanks' fate will be determined by the Lakers, but there's two variables the Lakers should consider when deciding whether they want to keep him. If the Lakers find more valuable options in being able to throw Ebanks in a trade package or find a better alternative with their four draft picks, it's understandable if the Lakers part ways with him. But there's very little value in dumping him simply out of financial concerns. He's not making a heft amount of dough (in NBA salary standards, of course). Ebanks has tremendous upside with an unassuming work ethic, athleticism and versatility to either play at small forward or shooting guard.
Contract: Team option next season worth $788,872
Verdict: Caracter hardly did himself any favors for getting arrested at a local IHop in New Orleans during the NBA playoffs and getting detained and booked on several charges. That included one count of battery for hitting the employee, one count of public intoxication and one for resisting arrest. Caracter said during his exit interview that there's no impending trial date, but the cloud over that situation only highlights the fact that he was woefully unprepared for the rigors of the NBA season. He shows limited power in his postup moves and still displayed raw talent in his ball handling and overall quickness, two areas that Caracter self-admittadly fault himself for not preparing as hard as he should've. The Lakers would likely be better suited finding a second round pick this year to replace Caracter.
Contract: Two years, $11.48 million
Verdict: 200% of Laker fans would love for Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak to orchestrate Walton's contract in some type of trade package. Too bad it's simply unrealistic. But I don't suspect he's going to play much of a role, if any, on next year's team. Despite being mostly injury free during the 2010-2011 season, Walton had a career-low in points (1.7), shooting percentage (32.8%) and minutes (nine) under Phil Jackson's triangle system. Even with Jackson often touting the attributes Walton brought with knowing his system and being a hard-working practice player, Walton said Jackson told him he stayed mostly sidelined because he lacked the speed most of the remaining reserves provided. Since the Lakers are moving away from the triangle, I simply don't see how he will fit into the roster.
Contract status: Unsigned
Verdict: Don't expect him to come back. Kupchak told Lakers.com's Mike Trudell he suspects Ratliff will retire. Even if the 37-year-old feels he has another run in him, the 2010-2011 season shows otherwise. Ratliff remained sidelined for 4 1/2 months last season after needing to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and offered little to nothing reasons for the Lakers to keep him.
Contract status: Unsigned
Verdict: Smith told Kupchak and emphasized to me this week that he wants to remain a Laker. But it remains to be seen whether that will actually happen. He became nothing more than a valuable practice player and provided a positive attitude in the locker room. But the Lakers have plenty of time to mull whether they can spend the $1.4 million Smith made last season on someone who can provide more dependable frontcourt depth.
Verdict: After finishing as the D-League player of the year and earning a stint with the Lakers during the playoffs, Johnson's stock should go up around the league. But that doesn't mean the Lakers will necessarily keep him. Johnson showed enough basketball smarts, athleticism, aggressiveness and work ethic to be given another gig with the Lakers. Plus, the Lakers will have plenty of negotiating power in keeping him.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers owner Jerry Buss and team vice president Jim Buss. Credit: Los Angeles Times