Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Rebuilding Lakers Means Fire Sale Now

Broken! Soft! Tempestuous! Beaten! Strangely atrocious! This pretty much sums how bad the playoffs were for the Los Angeles Lakers, who are now on their way home early for the second straight season following an exasperating and embarrassing 106-90 Game 5 loss Monday night to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals, dispatching Los Angeles in the second round.

This is the second straight season of disappointments and woes, another somber moment after the Lakers were eliminated in the NBA postseason, pointing to signs of drastic changes needed. If the Lakers want to stay in contention each season, it's now time for an overhaul, extensive rebuilding to surround a discontented Kobe Bryant with fresher and younger legs. It's now time to move into another direction, to please the superstar guard before we might hear him request a trade out of Los Angeles.

Threats of Kobe leaving the Lakers can come at any moment now. The state of the Lakers franchise remains uncertain, another riddle to figure out in what should be an interesting offseason for a regal franchise, known for winning championships and raising banners into the rafters at Staples Center.

As for Pau Gasol, the Lakers tall, lanky forward from Spain, he is likely to be traded this summer after the brief postseason run, so the team will listen to offers. Gasol, a soft, spongy ballplayer when he can't hustle, grab rebounds and dictate the flow of the game under the basket with a post presence that no one has seen from him much in the playoffs, wasn't a dependable player and Bryant couldn't rely on him to be a second-scoring option.

The Lakers have a pair of largely gifted seven-footers the tallest front court in the NBA, but nonetheless failed to control the boards and close off the lane. The two were bullied by the Thunder, and so were the rest of the team other than Bryant, who refused to quit, despite trailing in the second half of Monday's elimination game. In some ways the Lakers have the best-worst team in the NBA, simply because they have the greatest superstar of this generation but have the most underachieving core of players alongside the Black Mamba, a team captain who hate to lose, hate to come up short of winning an NBA championship.

Kobe was not pleased with his teammates, nor the Lakers executives -- once again devoid of what he plays for, an honorable trophy each season. Bynum was supposed to be a reliable center, and more importantly, all grown up since he was given a five-game suspension for his dirty, thug-like hit on J.J. Barea in the Lakers' Game 4 loss to Dallas of the semifinals a year ago -- he's immature and apathetic after all -- but can become the most dominant center since Shaquille O'Neal. It's the darkest moment, equivalent to an episode of the Twilight Zone. After a wonderful dynasty early in the 21st century, now with a weakened and withered bench, an older core of players incapable of keeping up with the youth and emergence of faster players fitted to run a long marathon, the Lakers have to retool again.

If the Lakers take account of a rebuilding project, they could then again win more titles. But until then, the Lakers won't deliver the goods with their current roster. And now, with an abrupt ending to the Lakers' erratic season, Mike Brown's job status is mired in jeopardy. There's not much happiness in Lakersland. The storyline, after a miserable loss that extended this Lakers demise, is that Bryant is unhappy with the state of the franchise and the personnel decisions of Lakers vice executive Jim Buss. It is almost staggering that Gasol and Bynum went for a combined 2-for-11 and poured in seven points in the second half of an elimination game.

The newly minted executive, who is the son of owner Jerry Buss, finally had a wake up call, and now it's his responsible to make dramatic changes to make certain the Lakers return to usual form. All this season, the Lakers won based on finesse and experience, not youth, speed or hungriness. All this season, the Lakers won because of Kobe Bryant, and with the exception of Gasol and Bynum, it cut their season short. It's well-documented Bryant is here for the long term, obviously, but the rest of the team is called into question.

With all due respect, Magic Johnson, who had a contentious opinion regarding Brown, is not alone. There's already been much conversation on whether Brown will salvage his job for another season, all because he brought in a blue-collar defensive system and deserve credit for his acumen to emphasize a strong effort defensively. But, of late, the Lakers never committed to defense, and Russell Westbrook single-handedly dismantled the Lakers. It wouldn't be surprising if Buss fires Brown, especially when he and general manager Mitch Kupchak can now phone Stan Van Gundy about the coaching job here in Los Angeles.

The worst is, it has been painful to watch the Lakers in the midst of a crisis, one that requires an extreme Hollywood makeover. Sending off Bynum to New Jersey for Deron Williams and Brook Lopez would be a good way to rebuild in the City of Angels -- or even sending the seven-foot center who selfishly is apathetic and doesn't care where he plays next season -- he may wind up in Orlando for Dwight Howard. Bynum, a pouty brat who was benched, sarcastically shot well out of his range, cried, played selfishly and laughed after a disgraceful loss, can be dealt over the summer for good value.

There's no doubt he needs to grow up on a team where his act of petulance and immaturity are problems for a franchise on a mission to amass championships, which traditionally the Lakers have done so well. If no one else knows, Bryant can admittedly tell us how incompetent and useless his current roster is collectively. At this point of Bryant's career, he's tired, mentally and physically burned out when all of this is on him. If they lose, he's the scapegoat. If they lose, he's the one to blame, for either being too selfish or too unselfish, for either being a facilitator or ball hog. Damned if he does. Damned if he doesn't. The hope is that the Lakers can eventually rebuild the current roster with blockbuster trades and signings to put them into championship mode.

Then, once it's all said and done, the Lakers can redefine themselves. There are a number of things -- if they can go back in time -- that the Lakers as a whole would handle differently, like choosing to hire Brian Shaw, which was Bryant's preferred favorite. The realization of the Lamar Odom trade spelled absolute doom, sending him to Dallas, a team that wiped the Lakers out of the postseason. And certainly, they slowly diminished without his services, trading him essentially for nothing in return, for which Bryant was furious and puzzled on what the future held following the deal that was unorthodox. A year ago, Dallas swept these Lakers in the semifinals.

This year, nothing changed, except they managed to win at least one game versus Oklahoma City but went home in five games. The Lakers, I fear, are in a world of trouble until they figure it out. It's not about the lost of the greatest coach of all time, Phil Jackson. It's not about Metta World Peace as the most reliable player Kobe can trust or even his state of mind. It's not about the Odom trade. It's about the Lakers reverting to winners. There were no real surprises, ever since a near-successful trade that would have sent Gasol and Odom to New Orleans for Chris Paul was vetoed.

While there were Rajon Rondo rumors across L.A. with speculations of Howard coming to the Lakers following their early season struggles in the first couple of months, they had to play with what they had, they were so erratic and then traded Derek Fisher, the veteran point guard who led them to five NBA championships. It is clear the Lakers are basketball royalty, and anything less than a championship is a failure. But after the game, after suffering a beatdown for the second straight season that created a soap opera, it was an eye-opener for one of the big-time sports franchises -- among them -- the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Cubs, Green Bay Packers, Duke and Notre Dame.

We didn't know it was going to be like this, when the Lakers traded for Ramon Sessions hoping to reduce their weakest area, trying to get faster, younger and more athletic but Westbrook was still too quick and lethal. It's telling, though, that the Lakers need more than just Sessions.

It wouldn't be surprising for the Lakers to pursue a local player in Brandon Jennings, a big-name free agent this summer. It wouldn't be surprising for them to release Brown and replace him with Jerry Sloan, Van Gundy or Shaw. This summer will be interesting, for sure, as the Lakers need to do whatever it takes to reestablish a lost personality.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lakers Show Signs Of Life With Comeback Win Over Thunder

The Los Angeles Lakers might have hope, after all, staying alive to end the disappointment of the mental breakdown in Game 2. When they needed to respond and avenge the losses of two disastrous games, the Lakers came away with a 99-96 victory Friday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals of the NBA playoffs and can tie the best-of-seven series if they win Game 4 Saturday night.

After barely erasing the memory of a dreadful beginning to this series, while nearly on the brink of dropping three straight to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers yet again expressed emotion and life in a riveting battle. For a while now, we had the notion this series maybe, just maybe, was over for the Lakers. But, right now, we can't rule out the Lakers, especially after what happened Friday night, pulling off a must-win to extend the series and refusing to allow the Thunder to pull out the brooms for a chance to sweep them. Suddenly, it would be interesting to see whether or not Team LA could send it back to Oklahoma City tied 2-2 on Monday, and with a scorer as impeccable as Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter and even a center as prolific as Andrew Bynum, when he does show up to have a consistent performance, the Lakers can beat the Thunder twice at home.

Now try to imagine how much public interest the Lakers would be given if they impressively bounce back and turn an unexciting semifinals into a dramatic, watchful spate of games. If there's one player enjoying it all, it's Kobe Bryant, the Lakers superstar who lives for the challenge against each opponent and hates to lose. What you and I saw was the Kobe Show, refusing to take another defeat and agonizing letdown that stopped the Lakers from gaining a step closer toward redemption. The strongest of them all was Bryant, as usual, to rescue Los Angeles from hell, and perhaps, the brink of elimination in which the Lakers would have been one game away from an second-round exit without a chance to erase the bitter destruction of the blowout in Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks a year ago.

It's clear Bryant -- in the most important game of the Lakers' season -- was the catalyst and survived a long, gut-wrenching marathon. The marksman, Bryant, refused to watch his team trail in the playoffs. With his competitiveness and athleticism, he still has the capability and healthy body to play the game late in his 16-year career. He has played the game like an ageless shooting guard, a youthful veteran leader, longing for a championship when he already own five rings. You could see it in his eyes. You could sense it. This time around, the Lakers drew fouls and converted on 41 of 42 free throws. The quick turnaround was huge for the Lakers, and without Bryant's services, they would have most likely dropped dead. It was Bryant's usual determined, possessed stare, a serious facial expression, and indeed, he indicated it on the court by his body language, scoring 36 points and going a perfect 18 for 18 at the line.

Bryant was at the top of his game, and when he's at his best, he's ultimately that damn good. You never know what could happen with Kobe "Bean" Bryant on the court. Up until now, he and the Lakers were older, slower and age had been a glaring problem. In contrast, the Thunder were surely too quick, too aggressive and too potent. Fair or not, the expiration date is quickly approaching for Bryant, which is drawing much debate as to whether he can earn his sixth ring. If the Lakers lose, the talk around town will be that the Busses plan on drastically making changes and rebuilding around Bryant for an overhaul. The Lakers have plenty of work left -- amazingly, playing aggressively to resurrect any struggles that could have ended their season in a four-game sweep.

You can argue that the Thunder wouldn't be nearly as good or even more efficient than the Lakers if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook weren't there. You can argue that the Thunder wouldn't be the deepest team in the playoffs if there were no James Harden. It was all about Bryant, the greatest scorer on earth, scoring 14 of his 36 points in the fourth. If he keeps knocking down shots and getting to the line, along with help from his supporting cast -- such as Steve Blake, who answered back after receiving death threats via Twitter by some idiot -- then fear the Lakers. Blake, serving as Bryant's sidekick, had 12 points and hustled for the ball much of the night. And it was good for Bynum, to be sure, though no one ever knows when he's a show or no-show.

He was reliable with 15 points and 11 rebounds, and then Gasol corralled 11 rebounds and delivered six assists. Though, Bynum was only 2-for-13 from the field, and made 11 of 12 free throws. At tip off, they were off to a quick start, controlling an eight-point by the end of the first quarter, but then later in the game they became too relaxed and torpid. At the end, the Lakers finished on a 12-4 run that erased a five-point deficit, and luckily Durant missed a potential game-tying three-pointer.

Right after, Bynum denied Serge Ibaka's shot at the buzzer, and the Lakers escaped while the home crowd sporting gold shirts celebrated. It's been exactly three days since they lost Game 2, blowing a seven-point lead by playing carelessly in the final two minutes, a game they had a chance to tie. It was strange, however, as it has been ever since he was traded out of town, to see Derek Fisher in an Oklahoma City blue uniform. But the Lakers were refocused and pulled off one of the toughest wins, without hanging their heads and giving up on themselves, which quickly turned this into an engaging matchup.

It's a start.

Old or not, don't rule the Lakers out.