Wait until next year

The NBA Finals are over as the Lakers were humiliated in Game 6, losing 131-92. There's really not a whole lot to say about this game that hasn't been said throughout the series. The Celtics proved that they are a better team. Their team defense was absolutely incredible, and they displayed a physical toughness that the Lakers were unable to match. Basketball is a game of matchups, and the Celtics certainly match up better against the Lakers. But the Celtics also displayed more heart and desire throughout the series.

Now that the season is over, it's time for the Lakers to examine several issues heading into next season:

--The biggest question facing the Lakers in 2008-09 is about Lamar Odom. There are times when Odom looks like a superstar, and during this season he thrived as a third option after Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But Odom was a disappointment in the playoffs, reclaiming his status as the most enigmatic and inconsistent Laker. I'm no longer convinced that Odom can play the small forward position after watching him fail miserably at defending Paul Pierce.

Odom has one year left on his contract at $14.5 million. He turns 29 next season and has some basketball left in him. He's always been an East Coast guy though and there's no guarantee that Odom will re-sign with the Lakers when he becomes a free agent. It may make sense to trade Odom now for someone who's a better fit in the Lakers starting five. His expiring contract may be appealing to some teams that are looking for future cap.

I have no inside information on trade possibilities, but there are some scenarios out there which might make sense. The Bulls might be looking to trade Kirk Hinrich if they draft Derrick Rose, and Odom might work well in Chicago's system. Hinrich could be the Lakers defensive answer to quick Western Conference point guards like Chris Paul and Deron Williams, as Derek Fisher ages. Jordan Farmar certainly didn't make anyone hopeful about his future at point guard with his play later in the playoffs. Other trade possibilities might include Richard Jefferson of the Nets and Shawn Marion of the Heat.

--Vladimir Radmanovic is another problem. He's making over $6 million a year for the next three seasons, but he's been a disappointment since signing with the Lakers last year. Radmanovic might be a better player in the right system, but he doesn't have a role in the triangle and doesn't defend well. I suspect Mitch Kupchak will be making lots of phone calls in the offseason to see if there's any market for Radmanovic. I imagine he'll also try to shop Luke Walton, who had an awful NBA Finals, but he's signed through 2013 (at roughly $5 million a year), and it's hard to imagine any team wanting an unathletic passing specialist.

--The Lakers have four free agents on their squad, the two main ones being Ronny Turiaf and Sasha Vujacic. I don't think too many Laker fans are losing sleep over free agents DJ Mbenga and Coby Karl. Turiaf is an unrestricted free agent and Vujacic is restricted. I'm sure the Lakers would like to bring both of them back. Turiaf has provided a spark off the bench throughout his Laker career and Vujacic's perimeter shooting can come in handy. I'd be surprised if Turiaf stayed though. NBA teams are famous for overpaying big men, and it's hard to see the Lakers going out of their way to outbid anyone for his services. He didn't do much in the Finals when the Lakers sorely needed his physical presence.

Vujaicic is a bit more likely to stay. His game seems to be improving, but it would likely take a contract similar to Luke Walton's to keep him. While he had 20 points in Game 3, he will also be remembered for letting Ray Allen blow by him late in Game 4, and he's had plenty of horrible shooting games. This is a tough call that Kupchak will have to make. It's possible that he'll think there are other available players who can do what Vujacic does.

Chris Mihm and Trevor Ariza also have player options. My guess is that Ariza will elect to stay with the Lakers at $2.9 million. He will likely play a greater role next season as a defensive specialist, and would then command a greater salary in 2009-10. He's also an LA guy and probably wants to stay. I don't know what his agent is thinking though. I think it's very possible that Mihm will opt out of his contract, given his less than minimal role in the playoffs. Although Mihm, could elect to stay for $2.5 million and be loyal to the Lakers after rehabbing him through a seemingly endless series of injuries.

--Many Laker fans think the team will be unstoppable when Andrew Bynum returns from injury next season. But I'm not so sure. Bynum delayed his knee surgery because of the unsuccessful effort to bring him back in time for the playoffs. Now there's questions as to whether or not his rehab will be completed in time for training camp. It's entirely possible that Bynum will come into the season very slowly. And when he does, one has to be concerned about a player who has had serious injury problems throughout his career since high school. That being said, if Bynum is healthy, and if he plays like he did early in the season, then Lakers are the team to beat in the NBA.

--Two people who need to look at themselves in the mirror are Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant. Jackson needs to ask himself why, after winning his first nine NBA finals, he's been out-coached by Larry Brown and Doc Rivers in his last two. Are there adjustments that he needs to make to his coaching style?

As for Bryant, he elevated his game to a new level this season. He learned how to be a facilitator and use his talents to make his team better. However, Bryant has to wonder why he wasn't able to drive to the basket at all in these NBA Finals, and why he wasn't more effective against the Celtics help defense. He needs to ask himself what he can do to get better and take his team over the final hump.

--Pau Gasol needs to hire a personal trainer this offseason and spend some serious time in the weight room. Gasol moves extremely well in the lane, but he was out-muscled by the Celtics all series. As mentioned before, he can't count on Bynum pulling down all of the rebounds next season. They're going to need Gasol to play strong in the post in certain matchups.

--Next season, the New Orleans Hornets will be favored by a number of people to win the Western Conference. The Celtics will also be in position to repeat. Additionally, I expect the Spurs to stay in the mix, the Rockets to be better in Rick Adelman's system with a healthy Yao Ming, the Jazz to continue to be a force, and you can never forget about the Mavericks, Warriors, and Nuggets in what will be a brutally tough Western Conference. And don't forget the Portland Trail Blazers, who have Greg Oden joining a promising young team that includes Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. It's not going to be an easy road back to the Finals at all. But the Lakers certainly have the ability to get back there if Bynum is healthy and if they make the right move with Odom in the offseason.

June 17, 2008 9:24 PM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor
 

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