The Los Angeles Lakers set their sights straight on a title upon the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash just one year ago. The San Antonio Spurs kicked them straight in the teeth in the first round of the playoffs after a see-saw regular season, and once more the Lakers are due for a busy summer.
The question is, where should the front office begin its renovation project? They need to address serious problems at the guard position, but also must improve bench depth and athleticism. Not to mention adding another defensive forward who can rebound.
My list of priorities is as follows: re-sign Dwight Howard, lock down a point guard in free agency or via trade. Then, and only then, add another athletic forward.
Why sign Dwight?
Howard has given the Lakers enough reason and leverage to feel comfortable heading into his free agency. Whether or not they re-sign D12, Los Angeles can make power moves during the summer months over the next two seasons.
Howard will also inevitably have a fist full of great offers, although none matching what L.A. can provide monetarily. GM Mitch Kupchak has even already envisioned a spot for Howard's jersey in the rafters next to some of the all-time greats.
Frankly, Howard's failure to embrace such gracious treatment and rise to his career potential raises red flags. Although he won't turn 28 until December, the franchise needs to demand more leadership from their still-rising star.
Howard's 2012-13 regular-season numbers overstate how well he played throughout a rocky first year in purple and gold. The big fella scored, rebounded and made free throws below career averages. Such a downward trend shouldn't be ignored, especially for a big-bodied player who absorbs heavy wear and tear.
Yet he is too valuable for the Lakers to let walk.
Look at Howard's in-season stats this way. His 12.4 rebounds per game (despite being a full 2.1 boards inferior to his previous campaign) were enough to lead the league. This while he came in clearly still hobbled by a previous back surgery and seemed to gain confidence in his body back as the season wore on.
Further, Dwight scored 17.1 points per game, tying one-man show Demarcus Cousins for fourth best in the NBA. Thrown into an offensive mix that never quite settled—alongside Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to boot—Dwight's offensive setback is more than justified.
All which means if he just made 60 percent of his free throws, there is no reason to say Dwight wouldn't have led all centers in scoring as well.
D12 has also made his name on the defensive end, earning three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards on Orlando. This year his 2.45 blocks per game registered as third best in the NBA.
Dwight Howard—despite the drama and occasional childishness—is even more of a commodity because his position isn't as well-stocked as say, the guard position. The fact that he performed near the top of the league in scoring, rebounding and defense in a down year merits a healthy extension.
Mitch Kupchak already buys into Howard's value and appropriately so.
If Dwight decides to walk, the Lakers might have a quieter summer, battle through next season and prepare for a star-studded 2014 free-agency class. Players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant stand to headline a group chock full of athleticism and talent.
Who can play guard?
The Lakers started a D-League backcourt against the Spurs in a decisive Game 4 loss at home. Remember when Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant were supposed to trot out together as a prolific point and shooting guard duo?
Due to injuries, they gave way to Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock by the season's forgettable end.
Bryant's ruptured Achilles is going to take time to heal. Nash is still going to be 39 and invisible on defense. Both will contribute significantly in the huddle next season, but together cannot give the Lakers all it needs from its guards.
Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and now Stephen Curry have set a high bar for point guard production in the Western Conference. Whereas Kobe used to be the Lakers' go-to defensive stopper for the league's best athletes, asking him to do so now would run him too thin by the postseason.
Nash has no hope of staying in any of those players and neither really do Chris Duhon, Steve Blake (consistently), Jodie Meeks or Darius Morris. Goudelock was playing D-League ball three weeks before the NBA postseason.
All signs point pretty clearly to point guard necessity, preferably one who can run a composed fast break, create for his teammates and defend some of the NBA's best athletes. Who are the likely candidates?
Chris Paul tops the list of most attractive point guards in free agency and can't be too pleased with the Los Angeles Clippers' first-round exit. Paul in purple and gold nearly happened in December of 2011.
The timing and payroll don't seem to be in L.A.'s favor unless you're a Clippers fan.
Another notable name on the free-agent list is Chicago Bulls' Nate Robinson, whose entertainment value and scoring skill make him a perfect fit for the bright lights of the Staples Center floor. He'd come off the bench and provide legitimate spark. Robinson is joined on the list by Jeff Teague and Brandon Jennings before the available talent starts to seriously slack.
Otherwise, the Lakers are going to have to receive one or two legitimate guards in a trade. Perhaps involving slightly weathered but still-talented Pau Gasol in a trade would garner such returns. Rumors about Gasol will swirl all summer long, and he is the Lakers' best chip to return an influx of younger talent and keep them from falling out of the hunt next season.
The Spaniard's return is hinged upon whether or not Howard leaves. If D12 is still around next fall, don't be surprised to see Gasol wearing another uniform. Only hope that his value after an injury-plagued and inconsistent season will still be enough to boost the Lakers back into contention.
The Lakers ranked fourth in team rebounding in 2012-13, led largely by Howard's effort and Kobe's extra attention to the glass (seriously, he averaged 5.6 per game, most of all shooting guards).L.A.'s 44.8 boards per game came despite sustaining the loss of its best bench glass-pounder Jordan Hill.
Howard performed below career averages, the coaching system changed in-season and Gasol had a concussion among other hindrances. So how can I be telling you the Lakers need rebounding help?
Well, to have perpetual success that carries into the postseason, the effort to clean up rebounds has to be collective. Metta World Peace is as strong as they come but the Lakers need more productivity than 5.0 rebounds per game (No. 17 in the league) from a starting small forward.
If Howard goes, Gasol will likely rotate back to full-time starting center. Rebounding and interior toughness will suffer marginally in numbers and noticeably by watching. Adding Hill back into the mix won't hurt L.A. any, but still won't be enough to re-calibrate the distribution of the rebounding effort off the guard's shoulders.
Rumors of Josh Smith movement last offseason and at the front end of the regular season leave a tiny trail to a potential signing. It would be an impatient move to sign top-tier talent, as the following year's free agency boasts a more impressive selection.
The Lakers are better off investing short-term midlevel money to a cheaper small forward than World Peace or a banger like DeJuan Blair. Either would provide support to the depth of the team's rebounding ability, a positive trait it must further emphasize moving forward.
If the Lakers add another body (and retain Howard) to haul in rebounds it will relieve some of the weight on Howard's shoulders. Those big shoulders could use it.
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