Lakers 2012 free agent options: Chris Paul may be the answer
But this obviously isn't one of those normal times. The NBA lockout hasn't just sapped the energy from an eventful 2010-11 season, as well as the optimism about next season’s schedule. It's also taken away the teams' ability to do anything at all this offseason, as organizations can't contact any players or their representatives or make any moves toward reshaping their rosters. Had there not been a work stoppage, it's unlikely the Lakers' roster would've been drastically different.
There would've been more clarity about whether Shannon Brown's decision to opt out of his $2.37-million contract would leave him without a roster spot. Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter would officially know their status, with the Lakers deciding whether to exercise $788,872 in team options on them. And rookies Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock would've been able to provide at least a summer-league glimpse into whether they can help the Lakers' declining backcourt. But with a $91-million payroll and long-term contracts still remaining on their core roster, the Lakers' options remain limited.
That's why next year's free agency pool appears to be more consequential for the Lakers, with Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, New Orleans point guard Chris Paul and New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams becoming available, assuming they don't sign extensions with their respective teams before then. The Lakers would surely be interested in all three, but which holds the most importance? Below the jump is a look at each.
With the Lakers showing more signs that their basketball mileage is catching up with them, they need to inject speed into their lineup. And with Mike Brown planning to abandon most of the triangle offense, they need a solid point guard. Considering the limited options in this year's free-agent class, going after Paul would be the best scenario.
He has the edge over Williams because of his youth (26) and uncanny speed. In the Lakers' first-round playoff series against New Orleans, he averaged 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and two steals, showing that he can run the pick-and-roll with bruising speed and efficiency. For reasons that go beyond his perfection in running that maneuver, Paul is better suited to run Brown's system, which calls for quickly getting the ball into the frontcourt and running screen-and-rolls for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Paul appears capable of running an NBA offense, so his presence alone would help minimize any learning curve the Lakers experience in transitioning from the triangle to Brown’s faster-paced offense.
The only question remains is whether the Lakers can feasibly get Paul. Though he has shown interest in possibly joining the Lakers in the past, remember Paul has declared his intent to eventually join Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in assembling their own Big 3. It’s conceivable he’d find the possibility of matching up with Howard in Orlando too tantalizing. Or perhaps he might be the missing ingredient to the Oklahoma City Thunder advancing even further into the playoffs.
But Paul remains the most important free agent for the Lakers to pursue over Howard and Williams. He’s proven to be a better guard than Williams. It also remains to be seen whether the Magic would actually be willing to trade Howard beforehand.
If the Lakers can’t acquire Paul, Williams would be the next best option. Williams may not have the same quickness in running pick-and-rolls, but he remains one of the best at doing so because of his size and power at the point guard position. He doesn’t have the same athleticism as Paul, but Williams remains fast because of his deceptive speed when pushing up the floor in transition. Add Williams’ career 35% mark from three-point range and that would make the Lakers offensive options even more dangerous, particularly enhancing Kobe Bryant’s skills in posting up and finding shots through off-ball movement.
Because Williams’ passing can catch opponents off guard, it’s conceivable it can throw off teammates too. That’s why it’s imperative Bynum, Gasol and Odom stay alert when establishing post presence, something they occasionally lapsed in when they went through the motions. It remains unclear if Brown would adopt any of the flex offense Williams flourished in with Utah. But remaining open to adding that wrinkle would benefit the Lakers. It would involve inverting the offense so that the frontline gets looks in the high post and the backcourt opportunities in the low post. It would ensure crisper ball movement. And, like the triangle, the flex offense wouldn’t require traditional roles in each position.
Debate rages on as to whether the Lakers would be the best fit for Williams. New Jersey was hardly competitive last season, but it could become an upcoming team to attract free agents as it eyes a possible move to Brooklyn. Williams also could fit into Mike D’Antoni’s system in New York.
The Lakers’ main strength besides Bryant points to their depth in size, including two 7-footers in Bynum and Gasol and a verstatile 6-foot-10 swingman in Lamar Odom. So it’s not exactly imperative for the Lakers to upgrade their frontline. But when Howard becomes part of that conversation, the urgency suddenly changes. That’s because Howard has become the league’s best center by proving difficult to push out of the paint because of his power and size. During the 2010-11 season, Howard made steps in broadening his post game, becoming a larger part of Orlando’s offense without any real drop in efficiency and showing improvement according to Hoopdata in various facets, including shots from within 3 to 9 feet and 10 to 15 feet, rebounds and blocks. He earned Defensive Player of the Year honors for the third consecutive season and ranked fourth overall in rebound percentage, despite Orlando lacking strong perimeter defenders.
The scary part: Howard’s best years are ahead of him. He’s still 25. He has remained healthy, missing only seven games in his seven-year career, including two with a stomach virus and two to suspensions. He’s showing more and more hunger for a championship. There’s several qualities that make Howard a great fit with the Lakers. Most importantly, he has the skills to be the team’s next franchise player. Bryant also would likely accept making Howard a bigger part of the offense than Bynum. It remains unclear if Jim Buss would allow the Lakers to offer Bynum in a trade package that would either get Howard at some point next season or to relieve cap room for the next year’s free-agent sweepstakes, but hopefully cooler minds in the front office will prevail and remind him that Bynum’s wobbly knees are about as shaky an investment as the housing market. Lastly, Howard possesses the outgoing and fun personality that would make him a highly marketable and popular sports figure in L.A.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s realistic for the Lakers to get Howard. It's uncertain whether the Magic would look to trade Howard now to cut their losses, or really try to assemble the necessary pieces to secure a title. There’s also no doubt that other teams will clamor for his services. At ESPN magazine, Ric Bucher believes many teams, including the Dallas Mavericks, have a better shot at landing Howard than the Lakers because of their financial limitations, and Chris Broussard believes the Nets could entice Howard because he’d team up with Williams.
-- Mark Medina
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Top two photos: New Orleans guard Chris Paul will become a free agent after the 2011-12 season. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times
Middle photo: New Jersey point guard Deron Williams. Credit: Darren Abate / Associated Press
Bottom photo: Magic center Dwight Howard has expressed frustration over Orlando's failure to win an NBA championship. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times