It’s Q and A time!
The Lakers are making a playoff push. Will they get there? One of the many questions we answer in the first Land O’Lakers mailbag! We try to be as responsive as possible, so if you didn’t get your question answered below, hit us up on Twitter or Facebook.
Here we go…
Mickey O’Connor: Will DH continue the high level of play he’s shown since the All-Star break?
Dwight didn’t leap off the television screen Monday in Denver, but still finished with 15 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocked shots. And while he’s partially responsible for four zillion points allowed by the Lakers in the paint, he certainly wasn’t the lone culprit. The Nuggets did a heap of damage on the break, the weakside help was nonexistent, and so on.
But there’s no question Howard’s form is improving, averaging 17 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks while shooting over 61 percent. His bad games — take Dallas for example, when Howard was saddled with foul trouble and didn’t score much, but still influenced the game defensively and on the glass — are improving.
He’s been mopey and slow to embrace the role asked of him, but Howard’s biggest problem has always been health. He may be reaching a point where the back is coming around and the shoulder problem is either lessening or (more likely) he’s learning to play with it. Now add in a dose of buy-in and acceptance, and you get much more consistency. I don’t think Howard will taper off, assuming his body holds.
Hugo Morales: Do you guys think when Pau gets back it will disrupt the nice flow of the current offense?? Personally I think he can only help.
LOL: The bigger problem with the Howard/Gasol combination wasn’t with offense, but on the other end. The Lakers had a ton of trouble getting stops with both on the floor. While he’s been underrated as a defender throughout his career, at this point Gasol struggles guarding opposing power forwards who drag him out to the perimeter, whether on the pick-and-roll or in isolation. Obviously his lack of health influenced his results (which, at least according to Synergy aren’t bad), but it’s not like he’ll be returning to the lineup in peak physical condition. So while most of the media focus has been on how he and Howard fit offensively, and Gasol’s uncomfortable role, the biggest reason D’Antoni chafed at putting them on the floor together was due to what his defensive stats were showing him. In the end, though, he may not have much of a choice. Gasol, if he’s able to play at something approximating his level, is still too good to leave on the bench for huge stretches of games, though if the Lakers are truly rolling, expect D’Antoni to ration out Pau’s minutes more than the Spaniard would like.
Nathan Mark: Do the lakers have enough money to resign earl clark next season??? We neeeeed him!
LOL: On a technical level, they absolutely do. High payroll teams aren’t limited by the new CBA in signing their own free agents by anything other than a willingness to spend more in luxury taxes. (Obviously not a problem, here.) So if the Lakers want to spend the money and Clark wants to stay, it’s go time. In reality, the Lakers have real choices to make about next season, and the future of players like Clark. Assuming his solid play continues through the rest of the season, the template for L.A. could be Jordan Hill, last season’s version of Easy Earl.
Last summer, the Lakers faced major cap and tax questions, and didn’t have a lot of cash available. Still, they managed to re-sign Hill for two years, and around eight million. Until getting hurt, Hill certainly lived up to the contract. So there are two issues. 1) What is the market? The Lakers will be interested to a point, but if some team tosses a really big number at Clark, the Lakers aren’t likely to match even though they can. B) Contract length is a question. The Lakers have only one contract — Steve Nash — on the books after next season, and are trying very hard to keep it that way. Obviously Clark will want, and can probably get, more than a one-year deal. So again, we’re back to talking about money.
The Lakers won’t have any flexibility to go out and sign free agents this summer, so keeping their own will be important. Given his name was practically changed to Earl Thrown In The Howard Trade last summer, it’s fair to say nobody anticipated the Lakers having this problem, including the Lakers. Still, for a team that doesn’t have access to many young athletes, it’s a good problem to have. If I had to guess — and I suppose that’s the point of all this — I think they’ll keep him.
James Ross: What team is more likely to fall out of the playoffs? Houston or Utah?
LOL: Our friends at Silver Screen and Roll have a great feature breaking down the Rockets and Jazz, and what they have left going forward. The Lakers are three games behind Houston, and 3.5 back of Utah (four in the loss column). The Jazz, however, own the tiebreaker over L.A. thanks to a 2-1 advantage in the season series, meaning for all intents and purposes the Lakers need to chew up 4.5 games.
Personally, I don’t expect either to collapse. Since their slow start to the season, the Rockets have played well, and the metrics say they’ve played like a 35-win team, not 31. The three-man core of James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik is well supported by guys like Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino. Utah, meanwhile, profiles closer to a .500 team, but are still a deep group and have the advantage of that extra cushion.
The Lakers will have to pass Houston or Utah. They can’t rely on either coming back to the pack. Using 45 wins as a realistic benchmark, with 25 games remaining, realistically they can’t afford to lose more than seven. Keep in mind, the Lakers still have 13 games remaining against teams currently in the playoffs.
Vince William: Why doesn’t D’Antoni have faith in the entire roster for back to back games like these? We have a bench. He just doesn’t use it.
LOL: Who isn’t playing that ought to be? And for whom?
It’s not uncommon for coaches to shrink the rotation down to eight or nine players in the postseason, and all cliches aside, that’s where the Lakers are. Every game is a playoff game. The Lakers are playing eight guys, and it would be nine if Gasol was healthy. Who should be sitting so Darius Morris, etc. can play. You can argue Robert Sacre might be worth 5-10 minutes behind Howard in the hope his sheer size might clog up the paint a little, but while I like Sacre he’s not someone that will change how an offense attacks.
The right eight guys are playing. It’s hard to argue D’Antoni is doing the wrong thing.
Gilbert Derriso: I think if the Lakers continue to play well and make playoffs they will be a tough matchup for any team especially if Kobe D12 and Nash keep getting better what do you think?
Max Ogles: Obviously the Lakers need to make the playoffs first, but assuming they snag the 8th spot, who would be the “ideal” first round matchup. i.e. Which #1 seed do you think they would have the best chance to beat?
LOL: Honestly, Gilbert, I haven’t bought that line of thinking all year. Yes, the Lakers will by definition be playing well (or well-er) if they’ve won enough games to reach the playoffs, but unless they’ve managed to solve certain problems — particularly defensively — in ways I don’t think they’re capable, the notion they’d be on the level of an OKC or San Antonio seems like a fairy tale. Those squads have dominated all season, and certainly wouldn’t take the Lakers lightly.
They’d have a better chance than the average 8-seed, I suppose, because Kobe and healthier, more effective versions of Howard and Nash (plus, hopefully, an available Gasol) provide real star punch. But I’d pick both the Spurs and Thunder in a series, leaning towards the short end rather than anything drawn out. As for the opponent, while I believe the story ends the same either way (first round loss), I’d lean now towards Oklahoma City as an opponent. Yeah, the Thunder are younger, more explosive, can stifle pick-and-roll squads defensively, and have obviously done fine without Harden, but I wonder if in the playoffs, they’ll miss The Bearded One’s presence more. He was responsible for triggering a lot of their fourth quarter offense, bridging the gap between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There could be some vulnerability.
San Antonio, meanwhile, play almost mistake-free basketball, and have the depth and versatility to play in a variety of ways. And they’re no slouch in the open floor, either. I don’t think the Lakers can develop the type of consistency required to beat a team like that.
Benjamin Jones: If the Lakers don’t make the playoffs or make an early first round exit. Do you see any chance that D’Antoni is fired and Phil Jackson is hired for next season?
LOL: Any chance? Sure. A realistic one? No.
I just don’t see the Lakers running D’Antoni out of town, paying a second guy big money not to coach the team. Instead, I think they’ll spend the offseason trying to tailor the roster more towards D’Antoni’s liking, probably using Gasol as a chip to make it happen. I realize Jackson is about to marry into the family, but it still feels like that ship has sailed.
Maybe if Howard goes into the office and makes the team choose between him and D’Antoni, the situation changes, but I don’t see that happening.
Scott Gordon: What’s your opinion on Mark Cuban’s Kobe/amnesty talk? While I think it’s not appropriate for one team’s management to comment on another team’s players, he’s not far off. Even though this would probably never happen, Cuban is correct that the Lakers would at the very least have a discussion about this. If the Lakers flame out this year, don’t sign D12 and Pau and Kobe are making approximately $50 million next season, then we’d be silly to think there wouldn’t be major changes, especially ones we wouldn’t be happy with or by which we’d be very shocked.
LOL: Cuban’s not stupid. He knew what he was saying and how much publicity it would get, no surprise since two of Cuban’s great loves are attention and needling the Lakers.
But if you look at what he was getting at, it wasn’t really an attack on the Lakers or a suggestion Kobe isn’t good anymore, but a critique of the CBA. Aggressive, competitive teams face major obstacles in building and then keeping their best players, particularly when next year’s SuperTax! kicks in. The Lakers may have big financial advantages, thanks to their market and TV deal, but are already committed to shelling out tens of millions in tax payments (this before getting into revenue sharing) for a team that, as we’ve seen, may not be very good. But all teams that want to win are forced into brutal choices with their own players.
Look at the Thunder with Harden.
Regarding Kobe, “The Amnesty Question” is one we talked a lot about last summer, before the Lakers made big moves for Howard and Nash. Not that we suggested actually doing it, but because it illustrates how Kobe’s salary, a relic from labor agreements of yore, hamstrings the team now. Looking ahead, there’s simply no way Bryant can play up to a $30 million contract when nobody else will make $20. LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the best players in basketball, will earn about $19 and $18 million, respectively. Kobe alone puts the Lakers more than halfway towards the salary cap number, and nearly halfway to the luxury tax line.
At some point, the Lakers have to get under the tax line. f the Lakers believed this year’s disappointment was a true sign of things to come the fastest way to build things back up would be to trade Gasol, amnesty Kobe, and build around Howard. If they could find takers for Metta World Peace and Steve Blake — both expiring deals next year — they’d gain that much more flexibility. Yes, they’d likely suck for a year (making the whole “build around Howard” thing a tougher sell to Dwight) but on a purely technical level it would re-start the clock that much faster, and get the Lakers ready for a busy summer of 2014.
Of course, the Lakers would never do it. First, Bryant has value to the team and the brand far exceeding his salary. Second, the citizenry would (rightly) storm the practice facility in El Segundo, likely burning it to the foundation while forcing Jim Buss to flee to higher ground through the vast network of underground caves beneath the Toyota Center*. Meanwhile, the Lakers would send an overwhelmingly negative signal to every player around the league, who would instantly think “If they’ll amnesty Kobe f’ing Bryant, who knows how they’ll treat me?” About the only positive for hoops? If people are interested in lengthening Kobe’s career, scrapping him via amnesty is probably the only way.
He’ll play an extra year or two just to stick it to L.A. a few times a year, no matter how nice the “Thank you, Kobe!” video played on the Jumbotron during his first game back at Staples.