Lakers have more issues than just Kobe Bryant’s health

No one knows exactly what to expect from Kobe Bryant when he finally makes the move from the Lakers' bench to the court.
(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

The Lakers are 6-7, lingering in the bottom half of the Western Conference and running on a treadmill the size of a franchise while awaiting the return of Kobe Bryant.

But how will Bryant look? What’s the deal with Steve Nash? Who took over Jordan Hill’s body? And what’s the Grand Plan for the Lakers?

Here are seven questions about the Lakers’ immediate and distant future.

What do the Lakers expect Kobe Bryant to be able to do when he returns?

Here’s the scary part: No one in the organization really knows. There’s some optimism but also plenty of shrugging. He recently practiced hard for two consecutive days and then stopped after feeling “general soreness” in his left foot, the same one that housed his torn Achilles’ tendon.


There appears to be only one consensus. Bryant adjusted his slash-and-burn game a few years ago to become one of the NBA’s top perimeter players, and now he’d have to retool again by doing more damage from the post than outside.

It’s a potential problem because Coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense relies heavily on high screen-and-roll sets that players are enjoying.

Irresistible offense meets immovable Bryant? Add it to the many story lines when Bryant returns.

What’s going on with Steve Nash?

Better question: What isn’t going on with Steve Nash?

He’s pretty much covered it all in a little more than one season with the Lakers — ankle, back, neck, hamstring and leg injuries. I’m sure I’m forgetting three or four.

The gentleman of the NBA won’t be cut before the season ends because the Lakers would have to eat his salary ($9.5 million this season, $9.7 million in 2014-15).

But one of two things will happen next summer. Nash either retires or gets waived via the “stretch provision,” where the Lakers can pay him his $9.7 million over three years to soften their cap hit next season.

One thing they won’t be able to recover — the two first-round picks and two second-round picks they sent Phoenix to acquire him.

Is Pau Gasol really no longer an All-Star player?

I admit it. I fell for the narrative. Dwight Howard leaves L.A., Pau Gasol gets the post to himself and has a bounce-back season.

Instead, he’s been bounced around while shooting only 41%.

Here is a list of people shooting better than Gasol: Jeremy Lin, Mike Conley, Ty Lawson, Monta Ellis, J.J. Barea, Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Jose Calderon.

What do they have in common? They’re all point guards. Far from the basket. Little guys. Not 7-footers.

Maybe things get better when Kobe Bryant returns to action. Maybe not.

Gasol has long been rumored to be on his way out of town. He might not have a choice when his contract expires next June.

How close to .500 do the Lakers need to be to make playoffs?

They can’t simply be .500. They’ll need to be several games over it to avoid missing playoffs for the third time in 37 years.

Talk about kicking a team when it’s down. The Lakers lost Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and Steve Nash, and the Western Conference just didn’t care. (Come again? Nash is still around? Apologies.)

San Antonio keeps churning, Oklahoma City got healthy quickly, and the Clippers and Houston are obvious playoff teams.

The problem for the Lakers, in no particular order: Portland looks great, Dallas’s new backcourt of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon seems to be working, and Golden State is as good as expected with Andre Iguodala.

None of that even takes into account Memphis, which is gaining speed after an awful start, and a young Minnesota team with an MVP candidate (Kevin Love: 24.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.1 three-pointers a game).

The Lakers were seventh in the West last season with a 45-37 mark. They’ll need to hit 45 again to finish eighth.

-Is Mike D’Antoni under the gun to coach his way into next season?

Nah. He’ll be here next season. Their 6-7 mark so far without Kobe Bryant is actually an achievement.

But it’ll get interesting in about a year. He gets guaranteed money next season in the $4.5-million range but it’s a team option for 2015-16. If they don’t play well with whatever team they have in 2014-15, the affable D’Antoni won’t see that option year.

*Potentially troubling asterisk that could make all of the above moot: If the Lakers chase Carmelo Anthony next summer, D’Antoni’s run could be shorter than expected. They weren’t exactly best friends toward the end of D’Antoni’s tenure in New York. Maybe Anthony pulls a power play and asks to pick a coach, even though the Lakers aren’t in the business of being big-footed by incoming free agents. If they do, though, it’s a sign of a franchise a-crumblin’.

Can Steve Blake and Jordan Hill keep up this pace?

You mean the co-MVPs of the Lakers’ season so far?

What an unlikely duo, the skinny point guard who did almost nothing under Phil Jackson and Mike Brown but surged under Mike D’Antoni, and the lottery bust who did almost nothing under everybody.

As long as Steve Nash is slowed by aches and pains, which will probably be the rest of this season, Blake can average close to 10 points and eight or nine assists. Fantasy-basketball owners should pick him up NOW if they need the latter.

Hill’s a little more tricky. It’s really tough to be optimistic about a guy whose career scoring average (5.9) is lower than his high draft position (8th, 2009).

And you’d think Bryant would favor Gasol when he returned, somewhat boosting the dismal numbers of the four-time All-Star.

The Lakers don’t run plays for Hill now and they’re going to start running plays for him when Bryant returns? Don’t think so.

Edge: Blake.

What’s the future of the franchise?

The most important question of them all. And the hardest to answer.

There are two canaries in the coal mine and they involve money and other peoples’ players.

The next two summers are the pivotal points for the Lakers, the difference between a foundering franchise and one that can win a championship again before the 2020s.

As Kobe Bryant gets closer to his final lap(s), the Lakers actually have their first-round draft pick next summer (first time since 2007!) and will study a list of potential free agents including LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, Chris Bosh and Luol Deng.

If they fail next summer the same way they did a few months ago with Dwight Howard, they turn the page to July 2015. Possible freebies include Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Monta Ellis, Brook Lopez, Marg Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Arron Afflalo, Tyson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and DeAndre Jordan.

That’s a lot of names that will cost a lot of money. But the Lakers have plenty to spend thanks to Time Warner Cable and high ticket prices.

To be continued next summer. And the summer after that.

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan