|Pau Gasol's inconsistent play and uneasiness with Mike D'Antoni may lead to his departure. (US Presswire)|
The latest indignity for the Lakers was a loss in Houston on Tuesday night in which they'd once led by as many as 17 points and were undone by a stunning inability to protect the paint against onslaughts from the likes of Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith.
The Lakers also were undone by the Rockets' clever (but effective, if annoying) use of the Hack-a-Dwight strategy. Drama is percolating again in the Lakers' locker room, with Kobe Bryant backtracking on his "big boy pants" comment about Pau Gasol, clarifying that he supports his Spanish brother. Dwight Howard, he who couldn't make a free throw or protect the paint against attacks from the aforementioned warriors, acted puzzled by questions about why Mike D'Antoni didn't take him out down the stretch of a 107-105 loss in which Howard kept getting fouled, missing free throws and observing the Rockets' layup line with his feet firmly planted on the floor.
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"Why would he take me out?" Howard asked.
And they say NBA coaches and reporters have easy jobs.
There are serious issues in Lakerland again, but to much of this drama, I say, relax. I can't figure out why sweaty palms are always pressing the panic button in LA. It's nice there. There are mountains and outdoor spaces and healthy food options. It's 75 degrees about 300 days a year. Come on, people, live a little.
The truth, as usual, is complicated. Here are the main points to keep in mind as we endlessly dissect the Lakers' woes:
• They used training camp to install a new offensive system, the dreaded "P" word, and it failed miserably. Mike Brown was fired and D'Antoni was hired to install a new system in the middle of the season with no training camp. There was bound to be a significant adjustment period.
• This system has historically been proven to depend on Steve Nash, and Steve Nash still can't run or jump, much less run 70 pick-and-rolls a night while on the mend from a leg fracture. In addition, the other point guard on the roster most capable of running D'Antoni's system, Steve Blake, is on the shelf for 6-8 more weeks because of an abdominal tear. That's bad news, though I hear Toney Douglas is available. (For Lakers fans who've barricaded themselves in their homes for fear of being hit by large chunks of falling sky, that's a joke.)
• Pau Gasol has played inconsistently, is unsure of himself and is having an identity crisis while struggling to adapt to new demands and changing circumstances. In other news, the Walk of Fame is on Hollywood Boulevard.
• The Lakers are too talented not to be able to fix this, either internally, externally or both.
Which brings us to the solutions portion of this week's Postups, because we are all about problem-solving here. The answer to the Lakers' woes will be found via some combination of internal and external solutions.
Everyone is focused on trading Gasol. While I agree that the Lakers can't afford to wait until the trade deadline to determine if Gasol can function in D'Antoni's offense, it's a tad early to fire up the trade machine on that front. Last summer's free agents don't become trade-eligible until Dec. 15, and that's when the irons will start probing the proverbial fires.
First and foremost, the Lakers need defensive help on the wing and they need to strengthen their bench. For those reasons, league sources say D'Antoni is using whatever organizational capital he has to push for the signing of Raja Bell, whose agent, Herb Rudoy, is in the midst of buyout negotiations with the Jazz. Bell would immediately slow the wing penetration that is collapsing the Lakers' defense and exposing their rotational deficiencies on the back side. He's also a career 41 percent 3-point shooter who made a league-high 205 3-pointers in 2006-07 under D'Antoni in Phoenix. And Kobe wants him, so there's that.
In the absence of Nash and Blake, the Lakers need point-guard help, too. But several playmakers who'd be a natural fit for D'Antoni -- Luke Ridnour, Jose Calderon, Jarrett Jack, Ramon Sessions and Sebastian Telfair among them -- will be difficult for the Lakers to procure with their limited trade assets. Those trade assets are limited, that is, until Gasol enters the discussion.
Gasol is 32, has two sore knees and is off to the worst start of his career from a field-goal shooting standpoint (42 percent) and a scoring standpoint (on both a per-game and per-minute basis). He's also owed $19.3 million next season.
The Lakers have nearly $80 million on the books for next season, the first year of the escalated luxury tax. (And that's before re-signing Howard.) But they also have a $3 billion local TV deal, so they're a rare breed in the NBA's new financial landscape in that they could actually afford to send out Gasol's $19 million and take back more salary -- up to 125 percent plus $100,000 under revised league trade rules. In addition to the $5 million the Lakers can take back in a lopsided trade, they have three small trade exceptions ($544,000, $854,000 and $1.17 million) that could sweeten the pot.
All of this could facilitate Gasol being shipped to a contender looking to boost its playoff chances, or a team on the bubble looking to make the playoffs. In either case, the gravy for the Lakers' trade partner would be sending out more salary than it got back.
Rival executives believe the most likely landing spot for Gasol is Toronto, which could offer Andrea Bargnani in return and bolster the Lakers' point-guard deficiency with Jose Calderon, who is backing up Kyle Lowry. Sources say Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo has shown no willingness to part with Bargnani, but if pressure mounts for him to bolster the team's youth movement and win now by adding a veteran with All-Star credentials like Gasol, that could change.
On one hand, if Lakers fans thought Gasol was soft, wait until they get a load of Bargnani. But he's younger (27), makes half as much (though he has one more year on his deal) and would be the ideal floor-spacer to open the middle for Howard, who is uncomfortable sharing the low block. Gasol fancies himself a post player, and his range is decidedly less than Bargnani's, which makes him uneasy when pushed far out on the perimeter.
The Hawks also would make a certain amount of sense, though it's not clear whether GM Danny Ferry would want to clog up his cap space next summer with Gasol's $19.3 million. Josh Smith, threatening to leave as a free agent, would make the Lakers more athletic and bolster their wing and help defense. But could you imagine J-Smoove, who's long bristled at attempts to quell his trigger-happy 3-point shooting, being unleashed in D'Antoni's shoot-first, ask-questions-never system? He'd make Jamal Crawford look like Bob Cousy.
Minnesota? Rival executives have long bought the notion that the Wolves want to accommodate Ricky Rubio's desire to play with Gasol. They, too, have a point guard D'Antoni covets in Ridnour, and could offer Nikola Pekovic, 2011 No. 2 pick Derrick Williams (whom coach Rick Adelman is down on), a first-round pick and filler. But unless the Lakers got Kevin Love in the deal -- which they wouldn't -- it's difficult to see how such an exchange would fit into their tiny window of opportunity to send Kobe off into the sunset with his sixth championship before he retires.
So, in the short term, the answer will be a smaller but significant transaction to pluck Bell off the buyout pile and scour the D-League and free-agent ranks for a serviceable point guard. (Hey, if D'Antoni stumbled on Jeremy Lin once, I suppose it could happen again.) But while I tend to agree with a rival executive who insists it's "only a matter of time" before the Lakers' talent and D'Antoni's system mesh, time is not really their friend at this point.
With 12 home games already in the books, the Lakers have played 30 percent of their home schedule. Things will get harder before they get easier, and the 7-foot elephant in the room -- Gasol -- will move closer to the front burner of the Lakers' long list of concerns.
And with that, a less-than-panicky trip through the rest of this week's Postups:
• There are small signs of progress in Houston, as Rockets rookie Royce White has capitulated and begun seeing the team's recommended psychologist, Dr. Aaron Fink of Baylor University. White remains away from the team and continues tweeting away in seclusion, although the tone of his social media commentary has swerved distinctly away from attacking the Rockets. (Evidently, the fine deductions in his first couple of paychecks resonated.) However, sources with knowledge of the situation caution against characterizing these developments as any kind of breakthrough in the team's efforts to accommodate White's desire for what he has called "consistent" and "appropriate" treatment of his anxiety disorder. The White situation evolves daily, and there's no clear end game in sight. White deserves compassion, but he's resisted legal counsel offered to him as well as help from the National Basketball Players Association. The Rockets also deserve credit for not giving up on him. One person briefed on the matter has concluded that a lesser organization would've long since begun the process of voiding his contract.
• With their sixth straight win Tuesday night, a 117-11 victory over the Nets in Brooklyn, the Thunder keep rolling along in the aftermath of the controversial decision to trade sixth man James Harden rather than sign him to a max extension. It hasn't only been the contributions of Kevin Martin, whose 48 percent 3-point shooting off the bench has helped space the floor in Oklahoma City's sometimes stagnant offense. It's been the continued evolution of the Thunder's winning environment.
"I think we're in a good position," Russell Westbrook said. "I think we've been doing a better job of fitting everybody in and making sure everybody feels comfortable. We're in a good spot."
Much like the Spurs, the Thunder have created an unflappable atmosphere under the leadership of GM Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks, whose top three players are both 24 or younger and possess Finals experience.
"We have a good group of guys who understand that it's part of the business and you have to move forward," Brooks said. "James was really good for us, there's no question. You can't deny or argue that. ... But all of our guys buy into what we're doing, and they do a good job of doing it every day."
One observation: It doesn't hurt that Ibaka has expanded his offensive game after Harden's departure. Ibaka's scoring average has increased from 9.1 points per game last season to 14.5 through 19 games. He's shooting a career-high .595 from the field and has expanded his arsenal beyond the immediate basket area. How has he done this? "He's 23," replied one executive in the league. Early returns are that it was the right decision to max out Ibaka instead of Harden. As we approached the quarter-pole of the season next week, the Thunder still look like the team to beat in the West.
• Speaking of Westbrook, he weighed in Tuesday night on the Mavs' addition of former teammate Derek Fisher. "Leadership," he said, when asked what Fisher would bring to the Mavs. "D-Fish is a team guy, a great locker room guy, a good guy to learn from and to talk to. I've talked to him many times throughout this year already. He'll be a good piece for them." Presumably, those pep talks will cease now that Fisher is with a conference rival, but Westbrook said the time he spent with Fisher was invaluable. "Just watching him [and seeing] how to be a professional," Westbrook said. "He's one of the most professional guys I know -- just coming in every day, taking care of business and being focused."
• There's a lot not to like about the new name of the New Orleans franchise, such as the fact that pelicans soaked with oil became the symbol of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Or how about the fact that the Louisiana baseball team by that name played in the segregated minor league along with a team known as the Atlanta Crackers? You might say this name change is for the birds. (Hey, don't blame me. I didn't say that. I said you might say that.) Sadly, the only part about this that is remotely appropriate is that pelicans, like the franchise that will soon bear the name, have been shuttled on and off the endangered species list several times. Here's rooting for the birds to prevail; at least the real ones.
• The days when athletes covered themselves only with towels in the locker room are gone. They now cover themselves with their own reporters. In the most blatant sign yet of athletes controlling the content and the message, Nets star Deron Williams has employed his very own beat writers to chronicle the team's daily travails through the prism of everything D-Will. Only on DeronWilliams.com can readers enjoy game stories written from a D-Will-centric perspective, whether he had anything to do with the outcome or not. (OK, granted, he usually does.) Nearly every headline contains the term D-Will; every story leads with the website's main (and only) character. Every quote from the man himself appears in bold-face italics, double the size of the rest of the copy. All that's missing in this alternative universe is the elusive scoop that can put any sports website on the map. So when D-Will lands an exclusive interview with D-Will and D-Will writes up the story, I wonder: Will there be anyone left to link to it after the internet explodes?