It isn’t often you heap praise upon a coach who has gotten off to a 5-7 start, but kudos are in order for Mike D’Antoni’s stewardship of this collection of discarded pieces and declining stars. He tinkered with numerous lineups and combinations before settling upon Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol as his starters.
With the impending return of his main star, D’Antoni will have to juggle his rotation yet again. Kobe Bryant’s return creates a logjam at the wings and could affect the development of Xavier Henry, the effective scoring punch of Nick Young, or finding the best fit for Wesley Johnson. With an eye to the future and with so many expiring contracts, the decisions D’Antoni makes will be complicated and not necessarily related to wins and losses this year. This is a difficult chore before even considering how effective Kobe Bryant will be when he returns to the court.
The Lakers have been surprisingly competitive during Bryant’s absence with wins over the Clippers and Rockets and good showings against the Spurs and Grizzlies. This is so despite the abysmal performance of Pau Gasol, who has shot less than 40% on the season.
Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks have played well together since Steve Nash went down. Meeks’ hot shooting probably keeps him as a starter regardless of other moves, but creates a different set of problems for the Lakers going forward.
A Bryant – Meeks wing combination puts extraordinary pressure on Kobe to defend the opponent’s top wing player. A weak defensive team becomes even weaker. On offense it may be the best lineup for the coaching staff, however.
Kobe’s return most likely sends Shawne Williams to the bench and shifts Johnson back to a backup “stretch” four. In the short term such a move makes sense but in many ways a Bryant – Johnson pairing with the starting unit is the best choice for the Lakers long term.
Coming off an injury that is notorious for limiting quickness, and entering his 18th season, Bryant needs someone like the uber athletic Johnson to pair with. Alongside Bryant, Johnson could be the team’s perimeter stopper and weakside help defender. Offensively, the attention on Bryant would leave Johnson open for threes on the weakside and create seams for cutting. Johnson’s talent has the best chance of blossoming alongside Bryant. For the Lakers, that possibility is much more tantalizing than the steady play Meeks has provided so far.
Another consideration is the development of Young and Henry. Both players have thrived at different points this season with their roles. In the case of the 22 year old Henry, the organization has been desperately in search of young, cheap talent that they can rebuild with. Henry has a ways to go before becoming a consistent contributor, but his potential and skillset and effort are all worth investing in. His minutes should remain the same.
Nick Young is the player most likely to suffer a reduced role but he might be the player least able to handle a demotion. Young is one dimensional yes – he just shoots – but he has made a greater effort than in previous stops to defend, pass, and do the other less glamorous things. He has also incrementally improved his shot selection. Young also provides the Lakers’ with a bargain basement contract attached to a big time talent. Nurturing Young in a 6th man role can pay huge dividends for the Lakers in the future.
Having 5 players worthy of playing time is a good problem to have but with 4 expiring contracts and a player opt out possibility among the five, the Lakers can’t just play for this year but also have to consider the next few seasons. They need to decide who they want to keep and why.
This roster is built for a multiplayer trade. While Jodie Meeks is playing the best basketball of his career, this stretch most likely represents his ceiling as a player. The other 3 youngsters offer the possibility of more. Meeks’ greatest contribution to the Lakers may be being packaged with Gasol in a midseason trade that could begin to change the trajectory of the franchise.
We don’t know how it will play out yet, but we do know that all of these good, young players won’t be staying.