There's never a moment that goes by in which fans of the L.A. Times Lakers blog aren't discussing possible trades, both real and imagined. When free agency kicked into gear on July 1, the talk escalated even more, turning to speculation and criticism on where LeBron James would be heading, whether Phil Jackson would return as head coach, the likelihood Derek Fisher would remain a Laker and whether the Lakers could pick up a few free agents.
When it comes to the off-season, usually it is the basement dwellers and teams that cleared up cap space that dominate free-agency discussions because they have the resources and needs to make some signings before the regular season begins. As far as the Lakers are concerned, the defending champions can afford the luxury of not needing to make the biggest splash. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak remarked shortly after free agency began that he'd much prefer this quieter setting than having to stay glued to ESPN's ticker as one of the main active participants. It's also certainly a lot less stressful these days than when a guy named Kobe Bryant went on a radio tour three years ago, changing his mind every few hours on whether he wanted the Lakers to trade him.
The Lakers' off-season has resembled the clear skies and perfect beaches that define summer in L.A., while the shuffling Eastern Conference movement seems to have only increased the humidity over there. Yet, NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper
made a convincing case that the Lakers have become even better this off-season, a dangerous sign considering they're the defending champions. Even with Laker fans never running out of trade scenarios (some seriously want Shaq to come back?), their sentiment shows a general satisfaction with how the Lakers' off-season has transpired thus far. That's a scary thing considering recent poll results
show that 95% believe the Lakers will win a third consecutive championship and 90% point consider them the favorite to win the 2011 NBA title.
Sure, some fans expressed some concern over the Miami Heat's busy off-season, with 53.5% of them considering the Heat the Eastern Conference's most dangerous team after they retained Dwyane Wade and signed LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. There was also 65% of fans who believed Oklahoma City Thunder could give the Lakers fits after the team signed Kevin Durant to a five-year extension. But there's very little that's giving Laker fans doubts about their chances to three-peat.
While some of that points to the fact the Lakers are back-to-back champions, some of it points to the team's moves it made this off-season. Some off-season activity actually just involved retaining their corps, but that's huge considering that's the personnel that put the Lakers in this position. The majority of Laker fans -- 51.4% -- gave the team's off-season moves a B, while 24.7% gave the Lakers an A.
The reasons are fairly obvious. One, Jackson decided to coach one more season, with 96.8% of fans arguing that Jackson's staying will significantly influence the Lakers' chances of three-peating. Two, veteran guard Fisher reached a three-year deal with the Lakers, with 88% believing Fisher will continue to make clutch shots and provide a valuable locker room presence during the rest of his stay with the team. And third, the Lakers acquired free-agent guard Steve Blake, with 80% predicting he will provide the perfect ingredient for the Lakers' aging backcourt.
The Lakers losing Jordan Farmar to New Jersey and failing to acquire free-agent guard Raja Bell resulted in fans expressing a collective shrug. In fact, the fans didn't feel strongly one way or the other about Farmar or Bell. About 67.3% of fans say Farmar's departure won't significantly help or hurt the Lakers, while 64% of fans argued Bell needed the Lakers more than they needed Bell. After all, the Lakers can still pursue other free agents, though they only have $1.8 million remaining on the mid-level exception. Still, that's not preventing fans from drawing up scenarios. There's a strong sentiment toward the Lakers acquiring Matt Barnes (34.5%) or Tracy McGrady (32%), though the exact percentages may have changed with reader comments suggesting there's high interest for Harvard guard Jeremy Lin. (ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin reports Lin has been in contact with the Lakers.) There's also strong enthusiasm for rookies Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, with 94% pegging them as the best players on the Lakers' summer league team and predicting they'll land a spot on the roster.
Nothing is all clear skies for Laker fans though, as their concerns go beyond free agency. Their concerns mostly point to the current roster and how healthy they'll be coming into next season. There's 20% of fans who are worried about Andrew Bynum's health. He played through torn cartilage in his right knee for most of the playoffs and planned to get surgery sometime in mid-July, though it hasn't been reported whether Bynum's undergone the procedure or changed his timetable. There's 17% of fans who want Kobe Bryant to take it easy. They're comforted by the fact that he opted to skip the FIBA World Championships this summer in Turkey, but fans are wondering whether Bryant will finally get surgery on his index finger, which was fractured for most of the season and then experienced arthritis around the knuckle of his finger. Although Bryant shared in his exit interview he was open to have surgery, he hasn't publicly announced what he's going to do.
Those questions will be answered another day. But for now, Laker fans are basking in the sun, enjoying the Larry O'Brien trophy and loving that their championship roster remains mostly intact.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: The Lakers' acquisition of guard Steve Blake was one of many moves the team made this off-season. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times