There is no question the Lakers made an outstanding trade last week when they not only sent underachieving Kwame Brown to Memphis but also added 27-year-old all-star Pau Gasol.
But while joy spreads around town I wonder if expectations for this season are unreasonable – like the Lakers recovering from where they are now to be real contenders for the NBA championship.
In my mind there are two realities. The Lakers will be of championship caliber next season after they start fresh and work out any problems that might occur with a new cast of players. And, the Lakers have much to accomplish in a short time in order to become elite this season. That’s not an impossible situation but it’s going to be difficult.
Let’s start with the negatives.
The Lakers had lost recent games to Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Cleveland, and Detroit and were plunging in the standings at the time of the trade. And with center Andrew Bynum out of action all this month with an injury their chances of moving up aren’t good, even with Gasol.
That leaves the strong possibility the Lakers won’t finish in the top four in the West, meaning they won’t have home court advantage in the playoffs. Houston won an NBA championship once as the sixth seed, but that’s a rarity.
Also, it remains to be seen if a front line of Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom will work out. That’s the projected lineup, but who would guard the small forwards? To me, that’s still going to be up to Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza, and where does their playing time come from? Would Odom be satisfied with less minutes and a reduced role?
Now to the positives.
Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an NBA TV analyst, says the Lakers are now the most talented team in the league. And in Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, the Lakers have the man who could make the parts fit.
Owner Jerry Buss has agreed to pay the NBA luxury tax in order to pay Kobe Bryant, Gasol and an anticipated huge contract to Bynum next year, ending speculation that he wouldn’t take that step.
Finally, the chances of Bryant staying rather than opting out of his contract following next season have improved dramatically. After Bryant demanded a trade last summer the Lakers chose not to trade him but to add talent in order to satisfy him.
When asked if the acquisition of Gasol increases the Lakers’ chances of keeping him for several more years, Bryant replied: “It doesn’t hurt.”
Actually, it would be foolish for Bryant to opt out of his contract now that the Lakers have improved their roster. Where could he go where the chances of winning would be greater?
In summary, the Lakers’ immediate future looks good, but playoff position and injuries will determine who wins the NBA championship this season.
Should the Lakers do remarkably well, emerge from the West, and play the Celtics in the NBA Finals, Boston, with a far better record, would have the homecourt advantage. That is an advantage never to be minimized.