Shorthanded loss leaves Lakers with many questions
Andrew Goudelock, a 24-year-old guard who came to the Lakers starting lineup by way of Sioux Falls and Rio Grande Valley, sat in front of his locker reminiscing about the days when he was broke in the Development League and had to beg his girlfriend for money so he could afford groceries. Those hardscrabble days, it turns out, were less than a month ago. Goudelock signed with the Lakers in April and still hasn't received an NBA paycheck. This is what it has come to for the NBA's flagship franchise, which began the season with a backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, and is ending it with Goudelock and Darius Morris, neither of whom has ever averaged more than 4.4 points in the NBA. When Mike D'Antoni was asked which one of his unknown quantities would handle the ball in Game 3 against the Spurs, the coach went with Morris, "because he knows the plays." Yes, a team with a $100 million payroll and four future Hall of Famers is at the stage where they're satisfied just to have somebody who knows the plays.
The Lakers tragicomedy is nearing a merciful conclusion. The latest act started with an earthquake, centered 20 miles away in Marina Del Rey, and ended with the worst home playoff loss in club history. The Spurs routed them Friday at Staples Center, 120-89, with Kobe Bryant and his crutches in attendance.
"I know it's tough for him to watch us play," said Lakers forward Earl Clark. He won't have to endure it much longer. The Spurs are ideally positioned to sweep the Lakers on Sunday and, eventually, reach the Finals for the first time since 2007. With Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook out indefinitely because of a torn meniscus in his right knee, a path has opened for several Western Conference contenders, but the clearing is widest for the Spurs. They match up favorably with every team in the West except Oklahoma City, who ousted them in six games last season, and now the Thunder is severely shorthanded. If the current iteration of the Spurs can't make the Finals this year, when they don't have to deal with Westbrook, it's hard to imagine when they will.
"We're playing fairly well," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, which for him constitutes high praise. In Game 1, the Spurs were sparked by Manu Ginobili. In Game 2, they were led by Tony Parker. In Game 3 it was Tim Duncan, completing the trinity. Tiago Splitter sprained his ankle but he should have about a week to heal. The Spurs shot 61 percent Friday and turned Staples Center into a protest site, with the predictable "We want Phil!" chants starting early in the fourth quarter.
The season will soon end for the Lakers but the drama won't. They will move on to a summer stocked with questions, starting with the most pressing: whether Dwight Howard will re-sign. Howard enjoyed his time in Los Angeles even though it was monumentally disappointing, and the Lakers can offer him one more year and $25 million more than any other club. But he will be a free agent July 1, and given the Lakers age, record and lack of financial flexibility or draft picks, he will undoubtedly examine other options. After the emergence of James Harden, Houston probably represents the biggest threat to pry Howard away.
Howard demonstrated in Orlando that he is willing to use his leverage for a power play. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak claimed D'Antoni will return, but Howard is far more integral to the organization's future and they will appease him where they can. Howard has made clear he would love to play for Phil Jackson, and if the Zen Man can be coaxed back to Staples Center, the Lakers would also want to keep Pau Gasol because he is such a crucial element of the triangle offense. Barring that far-fetched scenario, though, it's unlikely this core is kept intact. The Lakers are willing to spend for a champion but loath to pay $100 million, plus a putative luxury tax, for a first-round flop. Gasol makes up nearly 20 percent of the payroll. Assuming Howard re-signs, Gasol could be a steal for another team seeking low-post help. Again, the Rockets are a logical landing spot, considering they already acquired Gasol once in the three-way Chris Paul blockbuster that was vetoed by the league office.
The coach and the system will help determine the personnel. D'Antoni was hired largely to maximize point guard Steve Nash, the only player under contract beyond next season, but if D'Antoni goes and the Lakers want to clear the books then Nash's fate becomes uncertain as well. Now 39 and plagued by leg injuries, Nash would be even more difficult to move than Gasol, but he can still shoot and is capable of reinventing himself the same way Jason Kidd did.
This season was a bust for the Lakers, and regardless of their transactions, next season probably will be as well. The Lakers' greatest asset is their potential for total flexibility in the summer of 2014, when several high-profile free agents can opt out and hit the market. They need Howard around in part to act as a lure.
The Lakers have not yet deployed the amnesty clause and they could solve many of their economic woes by using it on Bryant. But that requires Bryant to miss all of next season with his torn Achilles tendon. More likely, he returns by New Year's and the amnesty is preserved or spent on Metta World Peace. The Lakers need more youth, more athleticism and more outside shooting. They're not going to be able to solve their problems in one off-season. They might, however, solve them in two.
The Lakers have little in common with San Antonio, but if they wanted to follow the Spurs' blueprint, they could always stay the course, make subtle tweaks, and come back in the fall with a clean bill of health. The Spurs do not panic when they are upset by the Grizzlies or outlasted by the Thunder. They do not trade Parker or amnesty Duncan. They simply try again, and here they are, suddenly favorites to win the Western Conference. The Lakers, meanwhile, are as broke as Andrew Goudelock in Rio Grande Valley. It will take many months to mend.