A busy holiday season awaits everyone in the Lakers' organization as they prepare to face the Chicago Bulls on Christmas Day. Here's what to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
The Los Angeles Lakers are open for business. On Wednesday morning they and other NBA teams can start talking to agents (though no deals can be signed until December 9). On Thursday morning the doors of the El Segundo practice facility will be unlocked to players. Before you know it Christmas will be here and Derrick Rose will drop down the Staples Center chimney for the Lakers' season opener against the Bulls.
General manager Mitch Kupchak has a little shopping to do before then. The roster is largely the same as at the end of last season, but depth at certain positions needs to be filled out. There could be a trade or two. Someone might get cut. And the organization as a whole has to adjust to an entirely new coaching regime. It's a lot to jam into a few weeks' time, so to help keep everyone organized how about we scratch out a holiday season to-do list?
First, though, a brief note about the Lakers' ability to add players. Because they're way above the league's salary cap, to sign a free agent they'll need an available exception. The new collective bargaining agreement limits them (and other high-payroll teams subject to the luxury tax) to what's being called the "mini midlevel" exception: $9 million and change over three years. They can also sign players to contracts at the veterans' minimum. The Mini-MLE could bag a solid role player, but for the most part the Lakers won't have the cap room to bid on the choicest free agents.
They do, however, have the ability to take on new salary in trades. The Sasha Vujacic deal from a year ago left them with a "trade exception" they can use to acquire players who make up to $5.5 million. But like the McRib, the Lakers' trade exception is for a limited time only. (It expires on December 15.) Unlike the McRib, it won't give anyone a crippling intestinal fungus.
But enough with the salary-cap wonkery. Let's walk through what the Lakers have to get done in this most wonderful time of the year.
Meet the New Bosses
Gone are Phil Jackson and his posse of trusted assistants. Replacing them on the bench are new coach Mike Brown, offensive coordinator John Kuester, Italian import Ettore Messina and some other guys. They have playbooks that don't include the Triangle offense but supposedly will include something like what the Spurs ran in their Tim Duncan-David Robinson "twin tower" days, when Brown was an assistant under Gregg Popovich. I suspect the installation process will spill over into the regular season.
Say Hi to the Rookies
Last June, which feels like a thousand years ago, the Lakers drafted point guard Darius Morris from Michigan and shooting guard Andrew Goudelock from the College of Charleston. Normally the Vegas Summer League would've given Brown and his staff an early opportunity to see how the rooks fare against NBA-ish competition. The lockout killed the summer league, so the initial evaluation will instead have to take place in practice and the Lakers' two preseason contests. Of the two rookies Goudelock, who was a great three-point shooter in college, stands the better chance of earning some early minutes.
Amnesty Someone... Or Not
The new CBA allows each team to waive one player whose salary will then not count for salary-cap or luxury-tax purposes. This is the Lakers' chance to shed one of their several ugly contracts. Luke Walton, who in basketball terms is useless at this point, is the obvious candidate. But the front office doesn't need to act immediately. The amnesty clause can be saved and exercised (once and only once) in a later year. What the Lakers might do is hold onto it and, if he's still around by then, amnesty Metta World Peace before the 2013-14 season, when a newly punitive luxury-tax system kicks in. It's unlikely they'd amnesty MWP now because doing so would open up a hole in the depth chart they're ill-positioned to fill. Since Luke hardly plays anyway, he's more disposable in the near term.
Find a Reserve Shooting Guard
Shannon Brown has become a free agent, which leaves Goudelock as the only shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant. Kupchak has to find a veteran reserve he can plug in, and it better be someone who can shoot threes. Names to keep an eye on: Jason Richardson, Mike Dunleavy, James Jones, Peja Stojakovic.
Find a Reserve Center
At the moment there's only one center on the Lakers' roster. For the first five games of the season there might as well be zero centers on the roster as Andrew Bynum will be serving a suspension. (As you might recall he oh-so-intelligently decked J.J. Barea in the closing minutes of the Lakers' playoff loss to the Mavericks.) Last year Pau Gasol wore down from having to cover for Bynum during his various suspensions and injuries. That can't be the strategy this season. Names to keep an eye on: Kris Humphries (no, really), Joel Przybilla, Jeff Foster.
Prep Offers for Dwight Howard and/or Chris Paul
We went through this last year with Carmelo Anthony. We're about to go through it again with Howard and Paul. Both can opt out of their contracts after this season. Both maybe want to play in bigger markets, with more superstars, on better teams. Already, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, New Jersey is preparing to offer Brook Lopez and two first-round picks to Orlando. The Celtics meanwhile are looking to trade Rajon Rondo for Paul. If the Lakers want in on this superstar action they need to be thinking hard about whether they're ready to part with Bynum and probably Lamar Odom as well. The league hasn't yet announced when the trade deadline will be. It could be in March. But you never know when a deal will go down, so Kupchak and Jim Buss need to decide soon, if they haven't already, what they're willing to offer.
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