Missing Pieces: Lakers Search For Youth, Athleticism On Perimeter
In an eye-opening second-round sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers looked old, unathletic and tired. The fatigue is understandable, as the Lakers had played in three consecutive NBA Finals, racking up an extra 67 playoff games’ worth of wear and tear on their bodies. But to return to contention, the Lakers will need to get younger and more athletic on the perimeter.
Many have floated the idea of acquiring Dwight Howard for Odom and Bynum, but until a new CBA is instituted, there’s no way to know what Orlando will do. If a somewhat strict franchise player tag is put in place, they might be able to force Howard to stay. Conversely, if an entire season were lost, they would have no leverage with Howard, an unrestricted free agent.
And even with the league’s best defensive player in place, Los Angeles would still need to improve a perimeter defense that allowed JJ Barea and Jason Terry to penetrate at will. At 37, Derek Fisher is one of the league’s oldest point guards, and he no longer has the foot-speed to deal with the new generation of speedsters. Steve Blake, a 31-year old signed last off-season to a four-year $16 million contract, wasn’t much better in the playoffs.
With the amount of money tied up by their top four players, the Lakers don't have the cap room to bring in a top-flight point guard. The good news is they don’t need one; they just need guys who can hit open 3’s and play solid individual defense, and perimeter players with that skill-set are the most replaceable assets in the league.
Elite teams often overemphasize experience and NBA pedigree in filling out their rosters. That’s why the Lakers signed Blake last offseason, why Miami brought in Mike Bibby, Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and why Orlando gave Chris Duhon a four-year $18 million contract to be a back-up point guard.
But as Mark Haubner of the Painted Area blog pointed out, Duhon isn’t even as good as Bo McCalebb, a naturalized American point guard who played for F.Y.R of Macedonia in Eurobasket 2011. When he went undrafted in 2008, he fell through the cracks, ending up in Italy’s Serie A league and establishing himself as one of the continent’s top players. At 6’0 180, he was named to the Eurobasket All-Tournament Team, averaging 21.4 points a game and carrying his team to the semifinals.
Last year, the Spurs found Gary Neal, an athletic 6’4 sharp-shooter, in Europe. Neal, despite having no previous NBA experience being undrafted out of Towson in 2007, fit right in with the veteran squad and was a first-team All-Rookie player.
The talent pool of basketball players that NBA can teams can choose from is expanding rapidy -- a record 13.5% of the NBA’s players were born overseas. More foreign players means it’s harder than ever before for American players to make the league, so guys who would have made the NBA a decade ago are now playing internationally.
There isn’t a bright dividing line between the #450 and #451 best basketball players in the NBA; many European players, like Orlando Magic lottery pick Fran Vasquez, could easily play in the NBA if they so choose. Just because someone like Blake or Duhon has been in the NBA a decade doesn’t mean they’re better than a younger and faster player putting up better statistics in Europe.
Los Angeles, after trading its last four first-round picks, desperately needs an infusion of youth and athleticism. With Kobe and Pau aging, they need perimeter players who can handle tough defense assignments and spread the floor for their offensive stars. Ron Artest, an aging player with a propensity to dominate the ball, is no longer a great fit.
The Lakers need at least one point guard who can handle the league’s younger players at that position and one swingman who can allow Kobe to rest his legs defensively. Even without any salary cap space, those types of players can be found if you know where to look.