The recent history of the Los Angeles Lakers has been nothing short of spectacular in terms of a sports franchise. This season marks the third straight year that the team has advanced to the NBA Finals and they are the defending champions. By achieving such heights the bar for the team has been elevated astronomically. However, this success has also had the effect of allowing fans and the media to ignore the problems, both present and future, that the Lakers face. There is no doubt that the Lakers have successfully dodged most, if not all, questions pertaining to the future (…the future, Conan?) of the franchise, its players, and its head coach. Instead the organization has chosen to blindside the media and fans by overachieving their way into the NBA Finals. (Their path there was nothing short of lackluster.) Here they can hide behind the historical ramifications of the series that the NBA and David Stern play up. Just around the corner, though, questions must be answered.
Whether the Lakers win or lose the NBA Championship is of no concern. If they win it will, for a time, be yet another distraction. As for now the Lakers are locked up, tied at two games with the Boston Celtics. As early as next week, answers may begin to be forthcoming about the future make up of the organization. Phil Jackson, who is in the last year of his contract as head coach of the team, has stated that he will make his decision at that time on whether he plans to remain with the team. It is a well known fact that Los Angeles is well over the salary cap and playing quite a bit in luxury taxes. In fact the Lakers will be paying the most out of every team when it comes to the luxury tax. They will pay $21.42 million next year. Perpetual tax payers, the Dallas Mavericks, will not even be paying as much as the Lakers. (Dallas will pay $17.79 million in taxes next season.) For Jackson to remain in L.A. he would have to take a sizable pay cut. There are those who feel that, if the Lakers do win the series with Boston, there is little chance of him leaving the Lakers and a shot of a fourth three-peat. However, Jackson is a smart man, a Zen man if you will (pun fully intended), he likely sees the paint chips forming on the gilded Lakers. He has said that he would not “buy into anything for three or four years…I don’t think that’s in the cards at all.” So what would he be buying into for the next three years if he remained with the Lakers? He would be buying into the aging and injured core group who are Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Ron Artest. His statement is far from a resounding declaration of confidence in this group of players if it is to be the Lakers’ core from here forward. There are two things that Jackson has shown to be partial to over his career: young superstars and money. Both are out there this summer. He has laid out the groundwork for a potential one year contract, in some of his statements, with the Lakers but after that it is up in the air. For Jackson to declare his intentions with in the week following the finals can only lead to speculation that he has already made up his mind. Pay cuts are not his style and less money is never Zen.
The most pressing question that has confronted the Lakers is the condition of Andrew Bynum’s right knee. He played only twelve minutes, just two in the second half, in game four against the Celtics because of major issues and discomfort (to say the least) with the knee. Bynum said that the knee had swelled to the size of basketball. Now it is medically unlikely that any appendage or joint should swell to such a size but that statement should give some indication of how bothersome his knee has become. Bynum had an MRI and also had he knee drained again on Friday. The MRI revealed no new damage to the tear in his meniscus. As of right now, his status for game five is still very questionable despite Bynum’s intention to play (he has said that he is 100 percent sure he will play in game five), after all this is a decision for doctors, coaches, and trainers to make, not players. This is just the latest injury on Bynum’s growing medical history form. His career has been marred by injury to the point where he has simply become an afterthought on the Lakers’ roster because of all the time he has missed; he is becoming Greg Oden-esque. However, he has shown glimpses of improvement and competency on the court. Despite his protracted growth, everything he has accomplished is far from being labeled as consistent. His erratic play and health have hindered the Lakers since they drafted him. There comes a point in which all investments must be cut loose if their returns do not yield profitable dividends. Bynum has proven to be a subprime mortgage. Los Angeles should begin to actively seek a serviceable replacement at the center position, if they do not then it is likely that they will default and there will be no bailout.
Bynum is not the only injury concern the Lakers have to worry about on their roster. Since the summer of 2007, Kobe Bryant has been Mr. Basketball. During that time he has played for the United States basketball team and the Lakers. With these two organizations he has played 237 regular season NBA games, 64 playoff games (including the current finals), and 28 games with Team USA. In total, he has played in 329 games in a three year span. To say that this accomplishment is insane would take top honors at the understatement awards. With the finals series against the Celtics currently tied at two games apiece, he will have to play in at least two more games, possibly even three so the end number could be as high as 332 games when all is said and done. Simply incredible. This number does not even include practices and hours spent in the gym. Kobe is the one piece of the Lakers that is not necessarily a question going into the future because he signed a three year extension with the team this season but the wear and tear on his body certainly is cause for concern. It would take a fool to question his motivation and his drive to win and this season has been a perfect example of just that. Bryant has been battling injuries all season, some disclosed, others not. Most notably he has dealt with a broken finger, a swollen knee, ankle, and back injuries. What toll has this taken on his body? He is sitting out of the FIBA World Championships in Turkey this year not because he hates America and only plays for money but because he needs a summer off to nurse his injuries. He is banged up. It has been some time since a face of an organization, if not the league, has begun to slow in their career. Bryant has hit his pinnacle and is on the way down, though his play on the court certainly speaks to the contrary on given nights, and the Lakers have not prepared for this sea change at all. (No, Shannon Brown is not the solution. It is befuddling how he has so much hype surrounding him.) He may have a few more years left in him; he will at least will himself to play better than he is capable of. That is what the great ones do. For the Lakers, though, their shortsightedness has hurt them. In three years Bryant will likely retire and Los Angeles will have the unenviable task of filling the biggest roster vacancy since Michael Jordan left the Bulls.
Success has also adversely affected the Lakers. This may seem counterintuitive but when it comes to draft picks it is far from it. Los Angeles has guaranteed itself late first round picks for the foreseeable future. They also dealt several picks to the Grizzlies in the Gasol steal…err, deal. Marc Gasol became one of these picks. The Lakers took a gamble on the untested seventeen year old Andrew Bynum in 2005. He has already been discussed in this article. Since they drafted Bynum tenth in 2005 they have had only one pick in the top 20, Javaris Crittenton. He was drafted nineteenth in 2007. (In 2010 he pulled a gun on Gilbert Arenas.) Of course poor draft position means that a team is winning and that is the goal of every team no matter what sport so the Lakers should not be held in fault for their poor draft history this past decade, but the end result of that poor history is the appalling state of their bench players.
It may seem as though we here at the Beef are beating a dead horse complaining about the Lakers bench ad nauseam but we seem to be the only people who have taken notice until very recently. Los Angeles has a terrible farm system, to make a baseball comparison. They drafted Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, and Jordan Farmar and therefore these are the players that they must build around for the future. To this list they added Shannon Brown, Josh Powell (who could see more minutes in game five), and D.J. Mbenga. Mbenga may be a great humanitarian and leader in Congo but on the floor he is still the raw player he was when he was on the Mavericks. (We at the Beef love this guy, seriously.) Each of these players has played an average of four seasons yet none have been able to work themselves into a starting rotation that was rather fluid until this season. Nor have they been able to establish themselves as reliable roll players. Phil Jackson has come to terms with the limits of their skills and no longer plays any of them for any significant amount of time and especially not together. When he is forced to rest a starter he will only put one of these players on the court at a time. It would be a rare sight to see Farmar and Brown in the backcourt again during the finals. If the Lakers are ever forced to hand the reins over to Farmar it will be their Ides of March. He was good at UCLA but his skills as a guard have yet to develop into NBA caliber. The best hope for the mediocrity on the bench would be to package them in various trade deals in hopes of acquiring more talented pieces to build upon.
For now the world can completely ignore the problems that the Lakers will face moving forward. Why should anyone be forced to care about the future? If the Lakers wind up losing to the Celtics, a multitude of questions about their future will rush (like Kareem Rush) to the forefront. Jerry and Jeannie Buss have a ship that is growing increasingly unseaworthy on their hands, it has yet to take on water but rust, corrosion, and barnacles are all becoming serious problems to its structural integrity. The captain is on the verge of jumping ship and each of the crew members has questions surrounding them and their performance. If nothing is done soon, the post Kobe years (a concept and time period that is rarely discussed) will be quite barren. In the world of sports, three years is almost an eternity. Three years is all Kobe is signed on for. The rest of the cast do not matter as much as him. He is the heart of the team and, with all respect to Magic Johnson, Bryant is the Lakers. Kobe and the Lakers have proven doubters wrong on countless occasions but one cannot help be notice that the end is drawing near. Los Angeles has three years, maybe less, to find some answers.