The Los Angeles Lakers are at one of those rare moments in their franchise’s history where the team is at a crossroads. The team has a new coach, is eyeing its next superstar acquisition and is dealing with the reality of their star’s mortality. The failure in the Western Conference Semifinals sweep to the Mavericks is enough to throw any team into chaos and uncertainty.
The Lakers certainly are not immune to the ebbs and flows of a franchise and are in the ultimate quandary for title-contending teams: Do you let the championship core slowly diminish until you reach mediocrity, do you try to reload or do you blow everything up and hit rock bottom? That last option is not in the Lakers psyche nor in their plans. One of those first two options will have to do.
And if Dwight Howard is not in their future — it likely would cost the Lakers both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and that deal is unlikely for the moment — and having lost out on Chris Paul, the Lakers are forced to see if this group has one more championship run in them or if the team will diminish into the middle of the Western Conference.
What would it take for the Lakers to regain their spot as top dog in the West — heck, their own building? Lakers great and ESPN broadcaster Magic Johnson said it is going to take stellar years from Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to complete the trick:
“What Kobe has to look to now is look to get Bynum and Gasol going,” Johnson said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “He’s going to need help, especially this season, more than any season, for them to be really one of the best teams and win a championship. Those two guys have got to have banner years.
“At 16 years now … we can’t expect Kobe to carry the load the way he used to. Night in and night out he can’t [guard] the best player on the other team and then expect to go out and still get 25 to 30 points.”
Johnson also said Kobe Bryant needs to become more of a locker room leader, replacing a role left vacant when the Lakers traded Lamar Odom to the Mavericks. It remains to be seen whether the constantly demanding Bryant can be that kind of a leader — Scottie Pippen was always the good cop in the locker room to Michael Jordan‘s bad cop on the court.
Bryant scored 25.3 points per game last year (his lowest scoring mark since 2004) but he began slowing down some in the Playoffs. Bryant averaged only 22.8 points per game and shot 44.6 percent from the floor in the Playoffs. Bryant could take on a different role this year under Mike Brown. Brown might have him doing more of what LeBron James did for his Cleveland teams as more of a ball-dominator and creator. It certainly will not be like the triangle Phil Jackson ran.
If Bryant is going to be more of a distributor than he has been during this championship run, then that means Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum do have to step up.
Gasol has consistently averaged around 18.8 points per game and around 10.0 rebounds per game since joining the Lakers. But his postseason numbers also dropped to 13.1 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game. Bynum struggled too last year as he overcame his variety of injuries, averaging 11.3 points per game and 9.4 rebounds per game. He increased his play in the Playoffs, posting 14.4 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Now without do-everything forward Lamar Odom, the supporting cast might be stretched thin and the Lakers will have to rely even more on their three key cogs. It was clear last year that all three needed to be playing well to get deep in the postseason — remember how the Hornets gave the Lakers trouble in the first round too.
As the team moves forward and tries to cling onto its championship aspirations, Los Angeles will need “banner years” from all three to stay on the top. Otherwise, the Lakers will really have to put that next move into high gear.