Superteam On Life Support
The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t the first “superteam” to open to lackluster reviews. The Miami Heat began the 2010-11 season with a 9-8 record; how bad would they have looked if one of their stars hadn’t been healthy? It’s not a perfect analogy, as Miami’s three stars were all in the prime of their careers while all four of the Lakers stars are dealing with significant injury issues. Nevertheless, if Los Angeles is going to pull off a similar turnaround, they’ll need to follow the same path.
When Miami lost to Boston on Opening Night in 2010, they started Joel Anthony and Carlos Arroyo next to their Big Three. Their bench went four deep -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Eddie House, James Jones and Udonis Haslem. Two years later, when they ran Oklahoma City off the floor to win their first NBA title, their “other” two starters were Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers, while Mike Miller, Norris Cole and Haslem were their primary reserves.
Over the course of two seasons, the Heat transformed themselves into a championship team. It started with their stars -- LeBron James became a post player, Chris Bosh embraced playing as a small-ball center and Dwyane Wade took a more secondary role in the offense. However, the contributions of the other five players in their rotation were just as essential; no team is going to win a title playing a number of below-average players significant minutes.
As they get healthy, the Lakers' four stars will need to tweak their games to mesh as a unit. However, if the rest of the rotation isn’t upgraded, it won’t be enough to get them out of the Western Conference, much less win a championship. The Lakers aren’t getting anything from their supporting cast on either end of the floor: right now, their only reserve with a PER over 15 is Jordan Hill.
It’s been the same problem for more than two seasons: the Lakers do not surround their star players with enough athleticism or perimeter shooting. Metta World Peace (33), Antawn Jamison (36), Steve Blake (32) and Chris Duhon (30) are well into the decline phase of their careers; they just don’t have the lateral quickness to play defense at a championship-caliber level. At the same time, defenses don’t respect the jumpers of any of their young guys -- Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris or Hill.
It’s a worst of both worlds situation. The Lakers don’t have enough floor spacing to elite offensively or enough team athleticism to be elite defensively. The result is a negative feedback loop: turnovers leading to easy fastbreak points, putting them in deep holes they have neither the offensive firepower nor defensive ability to dig themselves out of.
Even in his prime, World Peace’s inconsistent jumper would have made him an imperfect fit as the Lakers' fifth starter. In 2012, he’s become a spot-up shooter that opponents are content to leave wide open, hoisting 5.8 three-pointers a game as the Lakers play 4-on-5. When he does have the ball in his hands, he’s more likely to commit a turnover (1.9) than make an assist (1.8).
Perhaps the most telling play of the Lakers' ugly loss to the Knicks on Thursday came in the second quarter, when Carmelo Anthony easily went-around World Peace’s ball-hawking defense to get an open dunk. He needs to shift down the defensive spectrum and play as a small-ball 4 to remain effective. Los Angeles can’t win a title with him as the starting small forward, especially since Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant will need to be given the easier defensive assignments on the perimeter.
Without Nash or Blake, the Lakers have had to start Duhon at point guard. Unsurprisingly, that’s been a complete disaster. On defense, he’s an unathletic and undersized PG who can’t do anything to slow down guys like Raymond Felton or Russell Westbrook. On offense, he’s a non-entity who doesn’t need to be guarded, averaging only 6.4 points a game per-36 minutes played.
There aren’t many answers on their bench either. Hill is a solid backup center, but there won’t be many minutes for him at the 5 when Gasol returns. Jamison is about as effective as Steve Novak defensively, but he’s not nearly a good enough shooter to make up for it. Jodie Meeks is an excellent shooter, but he’s a one-dimensional player who brings nothing else to the table. Morris and Ebanks, while talented, don’t have to be guarded when they don’t have the ball in their hands, meaning the Lakers are essentially playing 3-on-5 whenever they’re in the game.
Here’s the good news: there are plenty of talented basketball players who aren’t in the NBA. It’s easy to see why Los Angeles doesn’t want to add any more salary: not only are they already paying two head coaches, but they have the highest payroll in the NBA. However, with so much money coming into their franchise, it’s crazy not to upgrade their roster immediately, not with Kobe, Nash and Gasol in their 30’s and Howard set to enter free agency at the end of the season.
They’ve been linked to Delonte West, who would be an absolutely perfect fit. A 28-year-old, 6’3, 180 combo guard with a 6’6 wingspan, he has the size, athleticism and defensive chops to match up with both backcourt positions. Offensively, he’s capable of running point, spacing the floor and getting his own shot off the dribble. Last season in Dallas, he was a two-way force with per-36 minute averages of 14 points, four rebounds and five assists on 46/35/89 shooting. He’s not currently on an NBA roster because of a long history of off-court issues, but the Lakers have the veteran leadership to keep him under control.
The Lakers need to think outside the box. How nice would Gary Neal, whom the Spurs signed out of Italy, look in Los Angeles? The only spot where it’s hard to find surplus talent -- the interior positions -- they have covered. They could add athleticism and scoring ability at the back-up shooting guard with Chris Douglas-Roberts, James Anderson or Bill Walker. Chris Wright or Derrick Brown, both 6’8+ wings who have played well in limited NBA minutes, would give them athleticism, length and defensive activity at the 3. Donte Greene or Justin Harper would give them an athletic stretch-4.
There are plenty of names out there; the Lakers need to do their due diligence and find some replacement-level basketball players. Going from below-average to average can be as big a jump as average to good or good to great. No coach is better than the personnel available to him, as the Lakers found out when scapegoating Mike Brown didn’t change anything. Mike D’Antoni is being paid $4 million a season; that’s money that would have been better spent on four $1 million a year players.
No matter what happens, the Lakers won’t win a title if Howard’s back doesn’t improve and he can’t figure out a way to knock down free throws. That, however, is mostly out of their control. What they can control are the players around him. When the Heat won their title, three of the nine players from their Opening Night loss (Arroyo, Ilgauskas and House) were out of the NBA while two more (James Jones, Joel Anthony) were bit players on their bench. Upgrading the back of your rotation won’t draw many headlines, but it’s a necessary step to building a champion, regardless of who your star players are.