The L.A. Lakers thought that they could sneak through the cracked championship window, but for the second straight season, the window was slammed shut on them by a superior squad. The Lakers were ejected 4-1 by the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the closer coming Monday. Immediately -- before Troy Murphy even recoiffed his hair -- the questions about the team's future infiltrated the locker room. Trades are brewing. Major shifts are on their way.
But what major shifts could actually get the Lakers back through that window? Four of us came up with blueprints that we think could land L.A. back in the winner's circle ... or at least past the second round. Check them out, and vote for your preferred option in the poll at the bottom.
THE +1 PLAN
by Tom Ziller
The +1 Plan is not dissimilar from the plan that the Lakers tried to execute in December: trade one or both of your big men for a new best player. Back before the season began, the Lakers were working on a deal to trade Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol for Chris Paul. Hornets GM Dell Demps autonomously got cold feet* and the deal died. Odom was booted to Reality TV, Pau fell off a bit and here we are.
There's another play here, one that the league office can't snuff out: trade for Dwight Howard. Brilliant idea, right? Of course, the Lakers reportedly tried to swing for the All-NBA center once the CP3 river dried up, but concerns about his thirst for free agent freedom stopped all talks. Eventually, he bizarrely committed to another season with Orlando. Now his bosses are gone and he reportedly wants to flee. Who knows where the Dwight Howard story goes from here? But there's every reason to believe it could go to L.A.
Even if Dwight demurs on L.A. again, we know he's easy to flip (candy on the runway, anyone?) and that he's prone to change his mind. Send out Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to land him, and rest assured that the L.A. lifestyle during the season will convince him to sign a long-term deal. It's not clear that the Magic would want Gasol and Bynum, but those are two big chips who could rope in another whale to get a deal done.
Once they land Dwight, the Lakers become an instant title challenger again. Howard had his worst season in a long time, and Bynum just had his best season ever. And Dwight was still better, especially on defense. With Howard and Kobe Bryant and a little magic from Mitch Kupchak to upgrade wing defense, L.A. would be in a much better position to compete for titles as Kobe's career winds down.
Don't get me wrong: I love to see the Lakers deal with a little adversity, and I couldn't have been more pleased to see the Thunder smoke them. But if the Lakers want to be saved, they need to go big. Really big.
* Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha.
OPERATION 'GET THE BALL OUT OF KOBE'S HANDS'
by Mike Prada
Yup, I got stuck with trying to argue for building around Kobe Bryant without trading for Dwight Howard. This is admittedly the most difficult of the four possibilities, and I'm not even sure I think it'll save the Lakers going forward. But thankfully, my job got easier with this piece of news from Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick.
For the Lakers, Williams could be a possibility if Howard is not. A source close to the three-time All-Star said he would be interested in joining the Lakers, though it would have to be via a sign-and-trade deal.
Amick goes on to say that Williams' preference is to stay in
New Jersey Brooklyn, but the fact that the Lakers are in his mind should spring Los Angeles to action. Allow me to make this argument: the Lakers actually need Deron Williams more than they need Dwight Howard.
This point of view rests on two major assumptions. The first one: now that Phil Jackson isn't the coach anymore, the Lakers are stuck in the wrong era. Two years ago, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were too physically overwhelming for teams. Now, with hybrid zone defense en vogue, the twin towers approach is a liability, especially with Bryant gobbling up so many post touches on his own. The loss of Lamar Odom, Los Angeles' versatile safety net that helped alleviate the lack of floor spacing, exposed the Gasol/Bynum tandem's shortcomings. Now that the Lakers aren't running the Triangle offense, both are essentially centers that would function better on their own than together.
The other one: point-guard play killed the Lakers late in the season. Ramon Sessions was an OK stop-gap, but he simply wasn't enough of a threat off the ball when it mattered in the playoffs. It's hard to play point guard with Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers need to find an upgrade there, and it should be someone with some credibility that can prevent Bryant from dominating the ball like he did this season.
The solution? Trade either Gasol or Bynum in a sign-and-trade package for Williams. At this point, Gasol probably doesn't interest the Nets much, but Bynum could, depending on their plans with Brook Lopez and their luck in the lottery. If Sessions declines his player option, he can act as filler to facilitate a Bynum/Williams trade. If not, the Lakers may have to get creative taking back a bad contract or recruiting a third team to provide the Nets with assets.
If this fails, priority number one is to turn Gasol into a solid wing defender, either a stretch power forward or a young point guard and other young assets. Perhaps the 76ers would deal Andre Iguodala and Lavoy Allen for Gasol. Maybe the Nuggets would put together a package centered around Danilo Gallinari. From there, the Lakers would then use the Amnesty clause on Metta World Peace in order to get their mid-level exception back, then do everything possible to woo the top point guards on the market. Steve Nash would be the pipe dream, Jeremy Lin would be the wild card and Andre Miller would be the fallback. Worse comes to worse, Odom is probably going to be a free agent again.
Either way, with the NBA turning into more of a speed game than a size game, the Lakers need to get more athletic and find a real point guard more than they need Dwight Howard.
THE #ILLUMINATI SOLUTION
by Andrew Sharp
There's a reason this franchise has made the playoffs in 34 of the last 37 seasons. The Lakers sold their soul to illuminati a long time ago. Jack Nicholson brokered the deal. And as bad as things may seem right now, they've got a true superstar, real tradition that today's stars care about, a built-in industry for marketing, and the best weather in the country. Any player would want to play there. If you think about it, the Lakers are what the Knicks think they are.
All of which is to say... We should expect them to pull off something ridiculous here, just to screw with everyone. It's why the CP3 trade wasn't even a little bit surprising, and why they can probably put together something even bigger this summer.
So, here's the Hail Mary.
Step 1: Bynum and Ramon Sessions for Dwight Howard. Not only does this allow them to sell high with Bynum, but they're grabbing the best big man of this generation when his stock is as low as it'll ever be. Assuming they believe Bynum can stay healthy, Orlando's not getting a better offer from anyone in the league. Plus, if these teams make this move early, it'll leave the Nets completely screwed, which clears the way for...
Step 2: Pau Gasol in a sign-and-trade for Deron Williams. Making this work will take significant lobbying from Kobe along with some bad luck in the lottery for Brooklyn, but it CAN happen. Williams is reportedly interested already, and that interest will multiply a thousand fold once it becomes clear the Nets have no shot at Dwight AND the Nets lose out on the top pick. Deron Williams doesn't want to spend the second half of his prime passing to and Brook Lopez, he's apparently less than thrilled about joining the aging core in Dallas, so... What's a better landing spot than L.A.?
I was trying to figure out reasons this couldn't work, because it seems unfair and too good to be true. But then, that's why it could totally happen this way. It's so evil, only the Lakers have could pull it off.
Also, f--k it. Let Jack coach.
THE NUCLEAR OPTION: AMNESTY KOBE
The problem with the Lakers' roster is that Mitch Kupchak can't get fair value for anyone in a trade. Kobe makes approximately $47.5 trillion next year; Bynum's a headcase, worth more to L.A. than anyone else; Pau Gasol is coming off his worst year as a Laker, and a calamitous postseason; Metta World Peace ... okay, I just wanted to type that and force you to consider who on Earth would trade for Metta.
So the Lakers have to get creative. And that means amnestying Kobe Bryant.
Put aside the instant heart attack it would give at least 60 percent of the Lakers' fan base, and it's not that crazy a move. Kobe made $25 million in 2011-12, and the Lakers were about $27 million in excess of the salary cap, not including cap holds; Kobe's number increases to $27 million next year, but the Lakers have contracts coming off the books (Jordan Hill, Matt Barnes) that would give them a little wiggle room when signing free agents. It probably won't be enough to get both Deron Williams and Dwight Howard to Los Angeles without working a sign-and-trade -- the Lakers should probably pray for Shaq to be installed as the Magic GM; he would definitely look into Howard-for-Bynum and spare parts (Kupchak: "Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake?" Shaq: "Done, and you can have Jameer!") -- but both guys would fit nicely if the Lakers did manage to swing one, and the Williams-Gasol-Howard trio would instantly become the league's best triumvirate.
What's more, from a viewer's standpoint, it makes for great basketball: Williams would finally get his due as a playmaker and scorer playing in L.A.'s bright lights, and Gasol/Howard would give the Lakers finesse on offense and dominance on defense down low.
If those trades don't work, the Lakers could aim for one of Williams or Howard, or tie their franchise to Bynum and let him develop while shopping Pau. Having Kobe's contract off the books gives them a lot more flexibility, in any case, and Bynum's a much better building block than most young players; among post players, only Howard, Marc Gasol, or Roy Hibbert are in the same league, and Bynum doesn't turn 25 until October.
Kobe would, of course, be aced out of the most player-friendly contract in the NBA (and perhaps in NBA history, given his no-trade clause), but don't cry for him: instead of making $30 million two years from now, he would just go to the other team in Los Angeles and team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the wing scorer-hungry Clippers, or head to Chicago to play with the scoring-starved Bulls and team with Derrick Rose once he returns from injury.
Oh, and he would definitely try to drop 100 on the Lakers in every single meeting. That would be one way to best Michael Jordan.