Ranking the Lakers' five biggest off-season needs
1. Motivation -- With the Lakers' expectation that they would be in the NBA Finals right now en route to their third consecutive championship, don't buy into any premise that it has served as a good teachable moment. The Lakers frankly used too many losses last season to argue that they'd learn from them, but they didn't. That being said, the early playoff elimination will make it easier for players to buy into the tenets of Mike Brown's system and actually take the regular season seriously, because the early elimination provides a tangible consequence of allowing complacency to consume them.
Even after a Lakers championship, the front office still wanted to find ways to tinker with its roster both to cut costs and to breathe new life and energy from outside players who hadn't experienced such success. Management feels more compelled to do that after this season in particular, but the current roster should instantly bring a heavier dose of energy and focus than in other seasons. Most training camps, including last year's, yielded immediate hunger, but it really only had a shelf life of about a month. Once the shine of a new season wore off and fatigue caught up, several Lakers appeared to see the regular season as just an annoyance and wanted to find ways to cut corners whenever possible. The true indicator on whether the Lakers buy into Brown's ideas will happen the minute they hit adversity, not the minute training camp starts.
2. Health -- With the veteran-laden team the Lakers have, there's no escaping that fatigue and injuries also played a huge part in their unraveling. But this doesn't simply mean all the Lakers need to rest. Kobe Bryant plans to have an active off-season so he can rebuild strength in his right knee. Matt Barnes is still a month away in the rehab on his surgically repaired right knee before he can run and jump. Pau Gasol plans to play for the Spanish national team in the European Championships this summer partly so he can improve his mental health after a disappointing playoff run. And forward Ron Artest has been working out for two hours a day pretty steadily this off-season so he's in better condition. The extra time off will surely help rest the Lakers' high basketball mileage that accumulated from three consecutive Finals appearances. But it's more important that the Lakers use that rest productively.
3. Better point-guard production -- The Lakers easily compensated for this issue in previous seasons because of Bryant's talent level, the team's size advantage and its defensive consistency. But with all three of those facets proving no longer totally reliable, the glaring weaknesses at this position show it's necessary for the Lakers to address them. With Brown planning to use very little of the triangle in his offense, it sheds even more urgency for the Lakers to correct them. As much as Derek Fisher has proved valuable in seasons past with his clutch playoff performances and locker-room clout, his role is going to change dramatically, and it's not going to be for the better. As much as Steve Blake's average of four points on 35.9% shooting doesn't really reflect the playmaking abilities and dependable shot he's shown in his career, he provided very few signs he was fully comfortable in being a true backup to Fisher. The Lakers have limited resources because they're coming off a season that featured a near $91-million payroll, but the glaring needs at point guard makes it more important for the Lakers to push for Deron Williams or Chris Paul during next year's free agency than Dwight Howard.
4. More consistent outside shooting -- The numbers are pretty glaring. The Lakers shot 35.2% from the three-point range in the regular season, 28.9% in the postseason and 37.5% from shots from within 16-23 feet, according to Hoopdata. This problem became cyclical. The Lakers refused to be more deliberate with their shot selection and opponents sagged off on them because they knew it was a worthy gamble. In turn, the poor outside shooting neutralized the Lakers' post presence with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, with teams mostly fixated on covering the paint to deny them open looks. The Lakers hadn't been an impressive outside-shooting team during their championship seasons because their offense consisted of better ball movement.
Brown envisions that he'll use Bynum and Gasol the same way the Spurs used David Robinson and Tim Duncan when Brown was an assistant coach from 2000-2003 with feeding them paint touches in the post instead of the block so that it's harder for defenses to push the front line out of the lane. But the success of that, as ESPN Los Angeles' Andy Kamenetzky recently noted, hinged on the fact that San Antonio had quality shooters, including Terry Porter (43.5%) and Mario Ellie (39.8%) in 2000, five Spurs attempting at least two or more treys a game posting at least 39.9% from downtown in 2001, Steve Smith (47.2%) in 2002 and Bruce Bowen (44%) in 2003.
The Lakers have plenty to point the finger at in improving these numbers, including Bryant (29.3%), Ron Artest (32.1%) Shannon Brown (28%)and Blake (33%), but besides trying to acquire a quality shooter, the Lakers need to change their mindset. Besides improving on whatever mechanics they need to this summer, it'd help if the Lakers worked on establishing their mid-range shooting first. One NBA coach once told me that the best way to get out of a shooting slump involves taking a shot one step closer to the basket instead of catching and releasing. Then once those shots start falling, it's fine for players to gradually step back. But with a team that largely became dependent from the three-point line, I never saw any of the Lakers adopt that approach.
5. More consistent bench - The Lakers thought they addressed these needs by signing veterans last offseason in Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff as well as securing Brown. But the bench outside ofLamar Odom provided very little. Because of how consistently efficient Barnes played before suffering a lateral meniscus tear in Jan. 7, I'm convinced a summer of rehab and conditioning will be enough to return to form before the injury. But I'm not convinced Brown will be able to provide more than athleticism and fast break dunks despite spending last offseason working on his shot. I'm also not convinced Blake will ever fully feel comfortable showcasing his playmaking abilities without feeling like he's stepping on his toes. Add a likely retiring Ratliff, a slow Luke Walton, a practice player in Joe Smith and raw abilities in Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, and it's obvious the current unit isn't fully equipped to give the starters the necessary rest they deserve.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Lakers Coach Mike Brown speaks with reporters after being introduced as the Lakers' new coach at a news conference in El Segundo. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 31, 2011.
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts after a foul was called on a teammate during Game 4 against the Mavericks on Sunday afternoon in Dallas. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 8, 2011
Photo: Lakers guard Shannon Brown brings the ball into the frontcourt against Nuggets guard Raymond Felton during a regular season game at Staples Center. Credit: Kirby Lee / US Presswire / April 3, 2011