How can the Lakers upgrade at point guard?
Former Coach Phil Jackson suggested it in his final exit interview when he said the Lakers need to add "more speed" to their veteran-laden roster. Former Laker Robert Horry clamored for it when he acknowledged at the ESPYs that Derek Fisher's "age has caught up to him." And team General Manager Mitch Kupchak has tabbed the position as the off-season's No. 1 priority.
But as we all found out growing up, just because you put something on a holiday or birthday wish list didn't always mean our parents listened. Likewise, just because we want to buy a beach house, drive a sleek convertible or take an extended vacation around the world doesn't mean it's going to happen.
On the Lakers' end, they face plenty of constraints. No one knows what the next collective bargaining agreement will look like and how much the Lakers can draw from their mid-level exception. They are coming off a season that featured a $91-million payroll, and their core players are locked into long-term contracts. In other words, the Lakers aren't going to be able to add an All-Star point guard at the flip of a switch. But here are some options on how they can address their point guard needs.
As most Laker fans have noticed when consulting these various free-agent profiles, the options are pretty limited. So as much as it's necessary for the Lakers to address their point guard needs, it's unrealistic to expect them to suddenly bolster it. Instead, the Lakers would be better off working with what they have and then gear up for when Williams and Paul become free agents after the 2011-2012 season, presuming neither sign extensions with their current teams. Both players are starved for a championship. Both show elite point-guard skills. And both have much respect for Kobe Bryant.
This approach won't solve the Lakers' problems right away and could keep the team from winning a title next season. But making a push for a trade or a free agent this year might do more harm than good. It would require the Lakers to give away some of their resources for a short-term gain at the expense of a long-term investment. Any slight upgrade at point guard this year still may not result in an NBA title, and it would give the Lakers less positioning power to go after Williams or Paul next off-season. Because of how highly coveted they are and the salary Williams ($16.4 million) and Paul ($16.359 million) would command for next season, the Lakers would have to be tight with their finances this year.
It would be shortsighted, however, for the Lakers to simply unload salaries much like the New York Knicks did in making an unsuccessful attempt at LeBron James, because it would put them in a weaker position to win a title in the future. Andrew Bynum will have a team option in 2012-2013 for $16.1 million, but I highly doubt the Lakers would let him go unless they could get Dwight Howard. Lamar Odom enters next season with two years and $17 million left on his contract, including a team option in the 2012-2013 season worth a partially guaranteed $8.2 million, giving the team some possible wiggle room there. But other than those two scenarios, the Lakers would have to make small tinkerings to ensure they're financially in a position to get either Howard or Paul.
Consider making minor trades. As mentioned before, it's a delicate balance for the Lakers to make any trades without the risk of hurting their core roster. But The Times' Mike Bresnahan came up with a few trade scenarios that would benefit the team. The Lakers could trade Odom, Devin Ebanks ($788,972) and a 2014 first-round pick to the Charlotte Bobcats for point guard D.J. Augustin ($3.2 million) and center DeSagana Diop ($6.9 million). Diop wouldn't provide much as a backup to Bynum, but Augustin has the youth (23 years old), athleticism and scoring punch they need at point guard. The Lakers could trade Ebanks and a 2014 first-round pick for Cleveland point guard Ramon Sessions ($4.3 million), giving them a quick and young point guard (25).
And here's a trade scenario of my own: acquiring Suns guard Steve Nash ($11.7 million). Valley of the Sun's Michael Schwartz lays out many scenarios on what Phoenix should do with Nash in the wake of an inevitable rebuilding project. Despite the organization's insistence it won't trade him, it's conceivable Phoenix would do it so they have more resources with which to rebuild. Because Nash is at the tail end of his career, I wouldn't favor the Lakers going after him at the expense of Paul or Williams should Nash remain a free agent after next season. But should Phoenix decide it's best to trade him before the deadline, the Lakers should offer Odom, Ebanks and a 2014 first-round draft pick for Nash. His skills haven't declined in running the pick-and-roll, which would immediately bolster Mike Brown's offense centering around Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Nash's ball handling skills would free Bryant more to move off the ball and find open looks. And it could put the Lakers over the hump at that spot without locking into a long-term deal.
Upgrade from within
Even though many fans are now clamoring for Fisher to cede his starting position, I've maintained he's still valuable because of his locker-room clout and relationship with Bryant, two variables that will prove even more important with a new coaching staff taking over. Also, as much as Fisher receives criticism for his defense against young and quick point guards, most of the last season's defensive deficiencies point to the Lakers' slow reaction on help defense and filling the lane. Sure, Fisher deserves some criticism for getting beat off the dribble, but he's great at communicating on rotations. When the front line executes its role, most of the concerns over the backcourt defense becomes a much smaller issue.
The Lakers can upgrade from within themselves beyond ensuring they give Fisher enough support on defense. Steve Blake has the capability of improving his outside shooting and comfort level within the offense. Rookie Darius Morris possesses passing skills the Lakers sorely lacked last season. And Andrew Goudelock should boost the Lakers' three-point shooting.
This last scenario doesn't seem as glamorous and suggests the Lakers aren't addressing their issues. But like everyone in this strapped economy, sometimes the best approach involves making the best of what you have.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: General Manager Mitch Kupchak has said he only wants to make "tweaks" to the current roster. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Kobe Bryant struggles to cover Hornets point guard Chris Paul during Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times