Time and again, the Lakers ran into a roadblock that nearly tripped them.
Mike Brown entered his first season as the Lakers’ head coach without a full training camp to fully teach his concepts. His players entered the 2011-12 season without enough time to learn them. The rest the Lakers enjoyed during a prolonged lockout suddenly evaporated as they navigated a grinding 66-game schedule. The disconnect between players and coaching staff led to constant rotation shuffling and underutilized roles.
Yet, the Lakers still featured three elite players in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. They could’ve fared better than losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the Western Conference semifinals had they held on to fourth-quarter leads in both Games 2 and 4.
So, no, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak won’t blame the team’s fallen season on a nixed deal that would’ve sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, Gasol to the Houston Rockets and Lamar Odom to the New Orleans Hornets.
“I’m not going to look at what could’ve been and make blame as to why we got beat in Game 5 of the second round,” Kuphcak said last week in his exit interview. “That certainly is not a reason why we got beat.”
Still, the league’s irresponsible decision to nix the deal had long-term ramifications. It set an unsettling precedent for NBA Commissioner David Stern, acting on behalf of a franchise that didn’t have an owner at the time, to intervene in basketball decisions. The Clippers eventually secured Paul, who carried them to the Western Conference semifinals. The Hornets secured little in return for an injured Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman (trade bait), Al-Faroug Aminu and a first-round pick from Minnesota that had similar value as the Knicks’ pick in the original deal. In an interesting twist, the Hornets then won the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft lottery. And the Houston Rockets lacked the cornerstone player they hoped for in Gasol to give them a playoff push.
As for the Lakers? One team official told The Times’ Bill Plaschke weeks ago that the blocked trade may have set the franchise back for five years. It’s definitely plausible. Below are four different variables that affected the Lakers.
1. The Lakers would have had a playoff-tested point guard. The Lakers still managed to upgrade their backcourt by acquiring Ramon Sessions. But that didn’t come in handy much in the postseason, where he averaged 6.8 points on 35.3% shooting against Oklahoma City. Should Sessions either exercise his player option or the Lakers sign him to a long-term deal, he will have a much better showing in future seasons. But the Lakers wouldn’t have needed such a transition period with Paul.
Sure, some adjustments would’ve taken place. Bryant would have to generate offense more off the ball. Paul and his teammates would have to adapt to some degree on playing at the right pace. Bynum would’ve had to improve his conditioning to keep up with Paul and run more pick-and-roll sets. But these are all good problems to have and represent all areas the Lakers would’ve solved during the season.
Once the playoffs started, the Lakers wouldn’t have had such issues. Paul would relentlessly attack the basket. He would ensure crisp ball movement. Paul would add another presence in matching Bryant’s intensity and work ethic. And who knows? Maybe some of that would’ve rubbed off on Bynum too.
2. The Lakers would have cut payroll while also upgrading their team. The team’s front office has a huge challenge this offseason in somehow finding a way to improve the Lakers while also trimming costs. Yet, the Lakers would’ve accomplished that same goal had the Paul deal passed. Consider the contracts between both Gasol (three years, $57 million) and Odom (two years, $17 million). Meanwhile, Paul’s contract this season was worth $16.4 million and a player option for $17.8 million next season. When you add up all the salary figures, The Times’ Mike Bresnahan reports the Lakers would’ve shed $41 million in salary and luxury taxes over two seasons if the trade had been approved.
The Lakers still found ways to save money.
Trading Odom may have hurt the team’s bench but saved the Lakers $34 million in combined salary and luxury taxes. The Lakers also reduced payroll by trading Derek Fisher to Houston as well as Luke Walton and Jason Kapono to Cleveland before the March 15 deadline. The Times’ Bresnahan reported those trades allowed the Lakers to save $2.32 million in salary and luxury taxes this season and $6.95 million next season if Sessions decides to stay. That compares very little, however, to what the Lakers could’ve saved in the original Paul deal.
3. The Lakers may have been in a better position to make another deal. Kupchak described the Sessions trade and the Fisher for Jordan Hill acquisition as essentially one deal. It’s possible the Lakers could’ve taken the same approach after securing Paul. After all, the departure with Odom and Gasol would have left a void in the frontcourt. Perhaps the Lakers would’ve felt the same need to move Fisher because of a bloated backcourt. Or maybe the deal would’ve provided the momentum needed in flipping a deal involving Bynum as the centerpiece for Dwight Howard. We will never know.
4. The Lakers wouldn’t have been as much on edge this season. The Lakers still would have experienced hiccups. There still would have been an adjustment period under Brown’s system. The Lakers would have had to scramble in filling in the frontcourt depth lost from Gasol’s and Odom’s presence. And the bench, outside of any major upgrades, still would’ve been awful.
Still, the Lakers wouldn’t have acted constantly on edge leading into the March 15 trade deadline anticipating major changes. Most of that hinged on Gasol’s flimsy standing. Even as he remained professional through the whole process, Gasol never sensed he was wanted. As much as the Lakers put on a united front, the team’s day-to-day body language and statements suggested the team continuously walked on eggshells. Say all you want about athletes needing to stop worrying about that speculation. But it’s only human nature that this would be an issue, no matter how much the Lakers tried to keep it from affecting their play.
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