It's been a busy week in LA hoops with both the Lakers and Clippers adding new players. The Lakers brought in a much-needed point guard in Steve Nash, while the Clippers added two former Sixth Man of the Year Award winners in Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford.
The real question Angelinos want the answer to is whether these new acquisitions are enough to put either team on top.
Let's start with the Lakers. Their acquisition of Steve Nash was a masterstroke and it's a real credit to Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss who have proven that no salary cap constraint or luxury tax threshold will stop them from creatively finding ways to acquire the game's best players.
Nash fits in extremely well with the Lakers. His main contribution will be taking pressure off of Kobe Bryant, who has been asked to do too much over the years. Nash's considerable passing skills will allow Bryant to settle down and just be the best shooting guard in the NBA. Nash's style should also complement Pau Gasol's game quite well, and he fills that second leadership void that was vacated when Derek Fisher was traded. It also means Andrew Bynum doesn't have to pretend to be a team leader. Assuming the Lakers don't use their amnesty clause on Metta World Peace, you could argue they have the best starting five in the NBA on paper.
Unfortunately, I don't think the move makes them the best team in the West. Having a great starting five is wonderful, but the Lakers have one of the worst benches in the game. In a conference where Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver, and the Clippers all have great depth, the Lakers' bench right now consists of Steve Blake, Josh McRoberts, Devin Ebanks, and the hope that Jordan Hill will re-sign. They still could add some more pieces, particularly when the amnesty window opens next week, leading to whole slew of free agents hitting the market. But right now there's not much in the way of skill or athleticism on the bench.
Additionally, Nash is a defensive liability, and I don't see what's stopping a Russell Westbrook or a Tony Parker from torching the Lakers for 35 points on any given night. The Lakers also have an average age of 32, compared to 25 for the Thunder. Nash is amazing shape for a 38-year old, but not many point guards have been effective at his age. Bryant and Gasol have a great deal of mileage on their legs, and both are playing in the Olympics this summer. Metta World Peace is going to take half the season to get in shape. And Andrew Bynum could get hurt at any minute.
Many Laker fans would like to see the team trade Bynum for Dwight Howard, but I wouldn't count on it. I'm really skeptical about Howard's ability to return from back surgery and reportedly, he won't be ready to play when the season starts. Not many NBA players have been effective after back surgery. Also, I don't know why Orlando would trade for Bynum without the promise that he will re-sign. The Lakers could help out the Magic by taking on either Hedo Turkoglu or Jason Richardson, and either would help their bench, but both have obscene contracts that would put the Lakers deep into the luxury tax.
As I see it, the acquisition of Nash is enough to make the Lakers the No. 2 seed in the West, behind Oklahoma City. I think they're just better than San Antonio, and certainly better than everyone else in the West. That doesn't necessarily mean they'd lose to Oklahoma City in the playoffs. Their 4-1 series loss to them was much closer than a normal five game series, and the Lakers will make any matchup competitive because of their size advantage, but the Thunder would still have to be viewed as the favorite.
In the Clippers are suffering from not having a general manager. It's been more than a month since Neil Olshey left for Portland, and reportedly the Clippers have only interviewed one person for their vacant GM job - sideline reporter Kiki Vandeweghe, who Nets fans might remember as the man who guided New Jersey to an NBA record 0-18 start. Supposedly, support is building internally for Gary Sacks, who I'm told has been a solid personnel man for the Clippers for 17 years. It's funny, because I remember the Clippers being really bad for most of the past 17 years.
In the meantime Sacks, team president Andy Roeser, and coach Vinny Del Negro (who still has just one year left on his contract) have been running the front office through this very important offseason. I sure hope the new Clippers GM likes Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford - two of the most inconsistent players in the NBA - because those guys wouldn't be in every GM's vision.
Odom is actually a solid acquisition. Mo Williams didn't quite fit on their roster and Odom fills a nice role leading the second unit, or as someone who can step in to spell Caron Butler. With just one year left on his deal, he comes with little risk. I wouldn't expect him to be as good as he was when he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award, but he should be in better shape mentally and will probably be better than he was during last year's disastrous season.
The move I don't like is Jamal Crawford for four years and $25 million. Crawford is a one-dimensional player, in that he can score and literally do nothing else. He can't defend, he never passes, and doesn't do any of the little things that a championship quality team would need. He's been compared to a black hole, in that once the ball goes into him, it's never coming back. Crawford's scoring ability is predicated on his athleticism, which is already starting to fade at age 32, so locking him up through age 36 makes little sense.
There are 10-15 minutes stretches where Crawford looks like the second coming of Michael Jordan, although he's never been able to play at a consistent level, and that's why he's been most effective as a spark off the bench. Unfortunately for the Clippers, he's expected to start for them. Crawford does add a bit of a scoring punch to a team that could use one. But the Clippers are certainly going to regret this deal before the fourth year of the contract, especially since Crawford will be eating cap space that might be better spent in the future on a player who does play team ball, if and when say Blake Griffin and Chris Paul need one more piece to win a title.
If the Clippers had a GM with a long-term vision, then they might not have signed Crawford. Instead they have a front office littered with question marks. We have no idea who will be the person who tries to convince Chris Paul to stay after this season. We still don't know if Del Negro is the right coach for this team, and most Clipper fans will tell you that he's not. I'm really surprised that the Clippers didn't take this opportunity to let Del Negro go and bring in an established coach like Nate McMillian, Stan Van Gundy, or Jerry Sloan. Or there are some promising assistants that might have been a good fit like Mike Malone, Brian Shaw, Patrick Ewing, or Mike Budenholzer.
Despite all my criticism here, the Clippers should still have a really strong team next year with Paul and Griffin (assuming he improves). They have much greater depth than the Lakers, boasting Eric Bledsoe on the bench. I liked the move to bring back Chauncey Billups for one more year. And Caron Butler is a solid player. They could still use another big man to back up DeAndre Jordan and spell Blake Griffin, since they decided to give away Reggie Evans to the Nets.
I'd slot the Clippers in as the No. 4 seed in the West right now, behind the Thunder, Lakers, and Spurs, but ahead of teams like Memphis, Denver, Dallas, Utah, and an up-and-coming Minnesota squad. They should be good enough to win a playoff series again and then get downed in the second round by Oklahoma City.