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Reinvention will be the key skill for Lakers next hire

Posted by on May 3, 2014 in Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak, Opinion | 8 comments

(NOTE: Below is my column on the Lakers and their just-beginning search for a new coach, written for SheridanHoops.com…)

A fairly inclusive list of potential replacements for Mike D’Antoni, following his resignation as head coach of the Lakers earlier this week: John Calipari, Kevin Ollie, Byron Scott, Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy, Derek Fisher, George Karl, Mike Dunleavy, Kurt Rambis, Lionel Hollins, Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, Steve Kerr, Ettore Messina…

Plenty of impressive names, but hardly reflective of some grand organizational philosophy on playing style or priorities beyond, as has been reported, to “make a splash.” 

It’s an expression that ought to make Lakers fans nervous, because it implies one big mission is to cleanse the fanbase’s collective palate after two failed coaching hires since Phil Jackson’s departure, and the bitter taste of the previous two seasons. As opposed to, you know, finding the best candidate for doing the job. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the emphasis ought to be entirely on the latter, with the former as a byproduct.

Which gets to the big challenge facing Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak entering what will likely be a long process: It’s very difficult to match a coach to a team when there’s really no team to match him with. The Lakers have three guys under contract next season, one of whom may not actually be able to play (Steve Nash), another coming off two major injuries at age 36 and a six-game 2013-14 season (Kobe Bryant) and the third who is Robert Sacre (Robert Sacre).

While it would obviously be less surprising to see the Lakers reconstruct a high-end roster this summer than say, Milwaukee, odds favor next season’s team looking a lot like this year’s talent-thin polyglot of short term contracts designed to maintain maximum cap space going forward. So the squad Future Coach gets in his first year is likely to be vastly different than the one he has in 2015-16, and probably again in 2016-17.

And each of those teams will could have a vastly different mix of superstar ego and skill set. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe the first three seasons for L.A.’s next coach could play out something like this:

-Year 1, bad team orbiting around Kobe, cultivating a critically important #1 pick.

-Year 2, a better team orbiting around Kobe and The Team’s Next Star Acquisition, someone who may or may not mesh well with Bryant.

-Year 3, a still growing team, now without Bryant but folding in still more new players, and perhaps a second new superstar, who may or may not mesh perfectly with the one imported the year before.

I’ve long maintained the star L.A.’s next coach has to best mesh with isn’t currently on the roster. That doesn’t mean Kobe Bryant won’t present a massive challenge to D’Antoni’s successor. (After all, why should he get off easier?) There will be pressure, not just because of anything Kobe might say or do but the enormous capital he has among fans and his place in local basketball culture, to, if not conform to Kobe’s preferences on the floor, at the very least look like it. To some degree, you gotta kiss the ring.

(One line of thinking: You don’t give a player $48 million for two years and not tailor things to him. The other: You give a guy $48 million precisely so you don’t have to.)

Whoever coaches the Lakers next will obviously need the strength to work effectively with Kobe, handle the L.A. media and a very edgy legion of fans, and navigate what is likely to be a tough first season (this time without the lure of a guaranteed lottery pick at the end of the rainbow). From there, he’ll have to fold in new stars with new egos and skill sets, but with no way to effectively anticipate who those stars might be, because the NBA doesn’t work that way.

The team’s system could easily have to change three times in three years.

Everyone has an wish list for the next coach of the Lakers. Better defense, a system more tailored to Bryant’s skill set, savvier communication with the media and better communication in the locker room, cache potentially drawing free agents, and so on. But while all those things matter, the timing of D’Antoni’s resignation combined with the current state of the franchise mean the most important quality for the Lakers’ new sideline guru will be flexibility and a gift for reinvention.

There is no shortage of quality options, to be sure. But after botching their last two hires, even if they prioritize the right things, there’s no guarantee they’ll come up with the right fit, in part because anticipating what he’ll fit into is so difficult.

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Kobe Bryant is back, but his return is still to be determined

Posted by on Dec 8, 2013 in Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis, Opinion |

Sunday night, Kobe Bryant will take the floor for the Lakers in what will be, without question, one of the loudest moments Staples Center has seen not involving streamers falling from the ceiling and the league running yellow ropes around the court. As J.A. Adande noted for ESPN.com, the trappings of Kobe Return Fever have been about as subtle as a Ziggy Stardust concert:

“It’s reached preposterous proportions, hasn’t it? The buzz that started with his first practices, prompting a Los Angeles sports radio station to run ads paying tribute to the player referred to simply as “Him.” The overly dramatic Facebook video with the grammatically nonsensical “Seasons of Legend” title, followed by computer-generated images of the golden No. 24 jersey buffeted by wind, rain and snow. The eager anticipation of his return, as if Mission Control was establishing contact with the first astronaut to make it through re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. And the fact Kobe’s return can generate those absurdities is what makes it so wonderful.”

Because we’ve all — fan, player, and pundit alike — for completely obvious reasons spent so much time looking forward to this moment, Sunday’s game feels in many ways like a conclusion. A return to normalcy. Kobe is back, and the Lakers can go on being the Lakers. This, of course, is completely inaccurate. Move back even a little and it’s clear Sunday is just one more step in Kobe’s comeback. Physically, he’ll be back on the floor, but we don’t know yet when Kobe Bryant returns. Or if he will, or what exactly it’ll look like if/when he does. Even Bryant concedes post-Achilles things will change. Doesn’t mean he won’t be effective, just that he’ll be different, whether obviously or in ways more subtle.

But while nobody likes looking back to last year, L.A.’s experience with Dwight Howard drives home an important point about Sunday’s game, and all the ones coming after. When the Lakers acquired Howard, they thought he might not play until January. Instead, he was there opening night. Unfortunately, even while intellectually most people understood what Dwight was trying to overcome and that it would take time, too many people confused his presence with his return. Dwight was on the floor, but he wasn’t back.

Kobe, wisely, has talked about restricting minutes and allowing himself to miss games down the road if the need arises. The larger point he wants to prove is that a 35-year old player, if he works relentlessly enough, can return from an injury that might normally end a career and still perform at a high level, not to prove he can return and perform like an MVP from Day 1.

This is going to take some time, and it won’t always look pretty. It won’t be a seamless re-entry into an offense that has been happily egalitarian with plenty of ball movement. Defensively, I think we’re all a little curious to see how Bryant performs over time, given how shoddy his work has been at points over the last couple seasons. Long term, the Lakers are obviously a better team with Kobe, but in the short term the disruption could lead to mixed results.

The good news: Let’s say it takes a while for Kobe to round into form, or for the Lakers go figure out how things function with him on the court as he does. Does it really matter? It’s not like the Lakers are one Kobe away from elite status in the West. Making the playoffs will still be tough. Advancing in them a serious long shot. Not that there isn’t anything at stake (like the final two years of Kobe’s career, his legacy, L.A.’s chances of again contending for a title with Bryant as a leader, and about 48.5 million other things), but the relatively low stakes of wins and losses this year means Bryant doesn’t have to press. He can do this the right way.

And the rest of us can watch it all unfold over weeks and months. How does he adapt? What level does he reach, and how does he get there? What concessions is he willing to tolerate? Kobe is back, but when does he truly return?

The next two-plus seasons of Kobe Bryant have the potential to be his most fascinating, which is saying something, no question.

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Why the Lakers have to trade Pau Gasol

Posted by on Jun 10, 2013 in Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis, Mitch Kupchak, Opinion, Pau Gasol | 10 comments

The stated preference of the Lakers, so I’ve been told, is to keep him. Kobe Bryant has set unequivocally he wants to keep him. I want to keep him, on a personal level. He’s the the most genuine, considerate person I’ve had the pleasure of covering. Even the torch and pitchfork crowd clamoring to send Pau Gasol out on the first available wheeled object clamored a little less after he finished the 2012-13 season strong.

But at this point, if the opportunity presents itself he’s someone the Lakers can’t afford to keep. And I don’t mean financially, or because the trio of Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Mike D’Antoni doesn’t exactly have a Three Muskateers cohesion (though both are obviously important considerations).

Under the best of circumstances next season — Dwight Howard returns, Kobe recovers his way to full Kobe-ness from the start of the season, Steve Nash stays whole, coach and roster find a happy coexistence, and so on, the Lakers might kinda, sorta talked about as a title contender. Maybe they’d be able to work enough stuff around the margins this summer to fill holes and sand down the roster’s jagged edges. But that’s the best case scenario. In reality, you have team built around a (by then) 35-year old shooting guard coming off Achilles surgery, a 39-heading-quickly-to-40 year old point guard who spent the previous battling nerve pain, and a (soon-to-be) 33-year old power forward coming off procedures on both knees.

That sound you hear is the actuaries sounding the alarm.

If things go reasonably well the Lakers are likely better than they were this year, but not not good enough. Not close. And the without question the chances of a poor season outweigh the odds of a miracle run. The endgame at this point isn’t 2013-14, but the rebuilding process the Lakers have (at increasing cost in both money and assets) postponed in an honorable effort to hang a few more banners while Dr. Buss was alive and before Kobe retires. Unfortunately, the bill is due. Overdue, really, and while preserving 2014′s cap space this offseason and rolling the dice with what they have is one option, a better one is to use the one big chip they control — Gasol — to gain whatever assets can be had capable of aiding the rebuild.

It would require an Obi-Wanesque bit of negotiating (or something involving a horse’s head*) for Mitch Kupchak to simultaneously improve the Lakers now and down the road in flipping Gasol. If they’re able to pry away some combination of young, cheap talent and draft picks from a team/teams in a summertime trade**, whatever fully grown players the Lakers receive as part of the deal aren’t likely to set jersey sales records at the team store. Their primary value would be preserving next summer’s flexibility and whatever they might in turn bring at the deadline. Trading Gasol very likely makes the Lakers worse. So be it.

The reality of the NBA? Building a truly high-end team almost always requires picks and young parts, whether to groom as stars or used to acquire another team’s.

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Podcast: Lakers injuries pile up, the future for Mike D'Antoni and Phil Jackson, Trips to Mars

Posted by on Apr 26, 2013 in Blogs we like, Interview, Jerry Buss, Lakers Analysis, Mailbag, Mitch Kupchak, Podcast, Q & A | 3 comments

How bad have things become for L.A.? They”re now down 0-2 to the Spurs after , and compared to the aftermath, that”s the good news.

Lakers injuries are piling up like cars on the 110 during rush hour. Thursday, they announced an in-game hamstring pull suffered by Steve Blake will leave him indefinitely sidelined. Additionally, Steve Nash, after re-aggravating his recent hamstring problem is doubtful for Friday”s Game 3. Ditto Jodie Meeks, whose Game 1 ankle sprain prevented him from participating Wednesday. As we joked in a previous podcast, this is been the basketball version of ”Final Destination.”  Scarily — or perhaps mercifully — we”re running out of characters to maim.

But even with bodies dropping left and right, the show must go on. Among the talking points:

Click above to play, or just download the show here. Hope you enjoy it. To subscribe to the show via iTunes, click here. You can also find us on TuneIn.com by heading here.

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No good luck for the Lakers? Think again.

Posted by on Apr 16, 2013 in Lakers Analysis |

Heading into Wednesday, the final day of the NBA regular season, there is still a lot left to determine, insofar as L.A.’s playoff hopes are concerned.

With Golden State’s win Monday over San Antonio the 6-seed is no longer an option. But the Lakers still do have three slots available (though one isn’t exactly ideal) thanks to Houston’s inexcusable loss in Phoenix. Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. If the Lakers win Wednesday, they’re the 7-seed and play San Antonio.
  2. If the Lakers lose but Utah loses to Memphis, L.A. is the 8-seed and plays Oklahoma City.
  3. If the Lakers lose and the Jazz win… L.A. misses the playoffs and it’s pitchforks and torches for the citizenry! Castle storming time!

The Lakers got more good news Monday, beyond the Suns doing them a solid. When the Grizzlies beat Dallas, it ensured they’d have something to play for Wednesday hosting the Jazz — the possibility of securing home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. (Remember, as a division winner, the Clippers can’t fall any lower than a 4-seed, but if the 5 ends up with a better record that team has HCA.)

Tipoff between the Jazz and Grizzlies is at 5 pm Pacific, so the Lakers will have a good idea of what’s going on by the time they take the floor against Houston. Should Memphis pull through, the Lakers could take the court knowing they’re in the top eight. That would have to be a nice weight off their shoulders. At that point, it becomes about climbing up a seed, something they’ll definitely want to do.

While I still think playing without James Harden will hurt OKC in the playoffs — he was the guy serving as the bridge between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant late in games, allowing both to aggressively seek out points — San Antonio is struggling with their own injury issues and hasn’t been playing all that well over the last week or two because of it.

Not that I’d actually pick the Lakers to win, assuming San Antonio has Tony Parker at their disposal. If Manu Ginobili is back in time for the first round — a growing possibility — L.A.’s odds grow even longer. The Spurs may not get up and down the floor as explosively as OKC, but they play plenty fast when they want (check the pace factors) and are more than capable of punishing the Lakers in transition, and are disciplined enough to exploit every defensive mistake in half court sets.

I.e., they’re really good, better than the Lakers. That said, from a matchup standpoint L.A. would be better off with San Antonio.

And now to the good luck part. While I realize “snakebitten” doesn’t adequately describe the team’s problems this year – Kobe’s Achilles injury being the worst example but far from the only — they have been the beneficiaries of one massive bit of good fortune.

Over the last three full seasons, the eighth seed in the Western Conference has averaged 48 wins. The Lakers could get in with 44, might only need 45, and if they win not only would the latter give them a playoff berth, it would actually elevate them into the 7th spot.

I suspect most fans won’t consider everything all square, but at least the pendulum swung L.A.’s way on one major issue for the 2012-13 season.

Download the newest podcast here. To subscribe to the show via iTunes, click here. You can also find us on TuneIn.com by heading here.

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