With the NBA Finals now over, attention locally has turned back to the Lakers. There's a sense that the Lakers are at some sort of crossroads now. The roster as currently constructed is not good enough to win a title, and it's clearly a step below the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West.
So what should the Lakers do? Unfortunately, the team is stuck because there's not a move that I see which can put the Lakers over the hump.
There are some people (including a few individuals in the Lakers front office) who believe that the team should build around Andrew Bynum. If you're one of those people, then I think you're completely delusional.
This was Andrew Bynum's seventh season and it was supposed to be the year that he stepped up and became a leader on the Lakers. On the court, it was his best year, as he started in the All-Star Game and was Second-Team All-NBA at center. It's pretty clear that Bynum is currently the second-best center in the NBA. But there's a big difference between being the second-best center today and being the second-best center 15 years ago when Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Shaquille O'Neal were all still in the league.
Outside of Bynum's raw numbers, he was a complete embarrassment. Truly great NBA players don't openly admit that they didn't try hard enough in important games. Players who care about their team's success don't purposely sit out of huddles because they're annoyed with a coach. Smart and mature players don't commit cheap flagrant fouls and then take off their jersey on the court after being ejected.
If anyone thinks that Andrew Bynum "grew up" this season, then I'd be happy to play them audio from one of multiple embarrassing media sessions where he proved that he was still a little kid. His behavior might be understandable if he was still 18 and in his rookie season. But Bynum has been in the league for seven years now, and if he hasn't changed yet, then I don't think he ever will.
Yes, it's true that Bynum reads more books than any of his teammates. And sure, he has worked hard to get this point in his career. But I don't see anything resembling the innate competitiveness that I see in Kobe Bryant. Instead, I see an attitude closer to Lamar Odom's, in which his head is in the clouds, you never know what player you'll get on any given night. That's not a person you can build around.
Even if you want to disagree with me about Bynum's personality, and you think he can still grow, then there's another compelling reason why the Lakers can't build their team around him. He's injury prone. Only once in Bynum's seven seasons has he played 82 games. Heck, only once has he even played more than 65 games. It's true that Bynum played a full season in 2011-2012, but it was a lockout-shortened year, and Bynum missed the first five games due to suspension.
If he felt healthy right now, then he would be training for the Olympics. Instead his knees are so fragile that he's skipping the London Games and hoping that a procedure in Germany can keep him going for another full season.
The Lakers owe Andrew Bynum $16.1 million next season in the final year on his contract. At some point, they will have to decide whether to give him a 5-year maximum deal that could cost them around $100 million. They may feel pressured to do that deal since good big men are so hard to find, and there's really no available superstars that they can just trade for. But if the Lakers give Bynum a max deal, then 18 months is the over-under on when I'd bet they start regretting the contract.
The best option for the Lakers is to trade Bynum this offseason when his value is at its highest, and see what kind of haul they can bring in. Reportedly, the Brooklyn Nets would be open to taking Bynum in a sign-and-trade for Deron Williams (provided Williams actually wants to play here). That's a deal I'd take in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, it's viewed as a longshot right now because of the cap and other reasons. Some Laker fans want Bynum to be traded for Dwight Howard, but I would never trade for a guy coming off of back surgery.
Many Laker fans think the team should trade Pau Gasol. He's owed $38 million over two seasons and his play has clearly declined. Furthermore, he doesn't fit in Mike Brown's system at all if Bynum is still on the team. Gasol works best when he can glide in and out of the paint, and when Bynum is on the floor, it pushes Gasol to the perimeter, where he's out of his comfort zone.
Gasol is now 31, and it's hard to believe he's played 11 full seasons in the NBA. There's a good deal of mileage on his legs and that may be why he's slowed down. It's also possible that his desire isn't as strong now that he has two championship rings. Either way, Gasol is now a complementary player and not a superstar sidekick anymore.
The Lakers should be actively pursuing trades for Gasol, like they did last offseason in the failed Chris Paul deal. In that trade, the Houston Rockets were willing to give up Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and a first round pick for Gasol. If the Rockets still value Gasol that high, then they might be persuaded to traded Scola and disgruntled point guard Kyle Lowry to the Lakers for the Spanish power forward.
Scola is a power forward that would probably fit better in Mike Brown's system, since he can play outside the paint a little and is a good passer. Lowry might just be a perfect fit for the Lakers at point guard. Plenty of people have called into question Kobe Bryant's game at this late stage in his career. Having a quality passing point guard like Lowry would provide the Lakers with someone to set Bryant up and give him better opportunities. Lowry can also defend the quick point guards in the NBA who give the Lakers so many problems, giving Kobe a bit of a break on defense. That deal may not put the Lakers over the hump, but it will make them a better team.
Some people have wondered if the Lakers should re-sign Ramon Sessions. If I had a choice between signing Sessions or no one, then I'd take Sessions. He showed that he could be a catalyst on offense this year and he gives the Lakers some sorely-needed athleticism. But there's also a reason why Sessions has never been considered an elite point guard. His game has limitations, he's not a great defender, and he was a huge disappointment in the playoffs this year. Perhaps he can come back next season in good health and with a full training camp and be better. It's difficult to spend $30 million to find out if that's true though.
Unfortunately, the NBA's new labor agreement makes it extremely difficult for the Lakers to bring in an impact player. If they can't cut salary soon, then in a few years they'll be paying a $4 luxury tax for every dollar they're over the cap. Even if they decide they want to pay that much of the tax, they have zero cap space to sign top free agents, and it's hard to find a trade where salaries and superstars match. By rejecting the Chris Paul trade, David Stern set the Lakers up for several years of slow decline followed by several more years of rebuilding from scratch.
Still, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss do bear some responsibility for the Lakers' current predicament, because they've done a terrible job of giving the team quality depth. The San Antonio Spurs have also had low draft picks and significant cap constraints, and they're in a city that fewer free agents want to play. Yet, the Spurs managed to have one of the deepest teams in the league this year.
Right now, the prevailing sentiment is that the Lakers will essentially stand pat and keep as much of the team together as possible. With a full season of training camp under Mike Brown and a regular season with more rest between games, they should actually be better next year. But unless Kevin Durant blows out his knee or Russell Westbrook has a complete meltdown, the Lakers will be a cut below the Thunder. And they're a cut below the Heat too.
For some teams, going to the second round of the playoffs or the conference finals is good enough. But for the Lakers, it's championship or bust. Right now the choice though is between unattractive options. The first option is to be one of the best teams in the NBA, but only have a shot to win the title if something crazy happens like an injury to a star player on another team. The second option is completely break up the team, get high draft picks over the next few years, and hope that they pan out so the Lakers can be an elite team again in six years or so. The best choice is probably to go with the first option, knowing that they'll be forced to go with the second option in about 2-3 years anyways.