Originally written on The I in Team  |  Last updated 5/23/12

I was surprised by the Lakers this season. I was fairly certain that this year would mark the beginning of a steady decline. Had I done playoff predictions, I probably would have banked on a 6-seed or so, for the Lakers. Turns out I jumped the gun on their demise. The condensed season didn’t have an overly negative impact on their regular season play (you could argue they were burned out for the playoffs). They put up a strong enough record to grab the 3-seed in the West.

Despite surpassing my expectations, as well as the expectations of many others, the Lakers find themselves at a strange spot. They probably hit the upper bounds of their ability this season. Expecting them to play better or go farther in the playoffs is a foolhardy exercise. They were only 6th in the West in point differential, a reliable indicator of a team’s overall play. That leaves management a tough proposition; they need to improve an older, aging, capped-out team.

As it stands, they have about $83 million in salary committed for next year (assuming they pick up Andrew Bynum’s option…which is all but a certainty). If Ramon Session renounces his $4.5 million salary, and the Lakers fail to extend qualifying offers to Ebanks and Darius Morris, they would probably come in somewhere around $79 million already committed, which is well over the projected cap of $58 million. That means they will be unable to make any big splashes in free agency. Since they’ll be well north of the luxury tax as well, they will be unable to make a medium splash, as the full mid-level exception will be unavailable to them. The only tool they have, in terms of free agency, is the mini-exception good for around $3 million dollars. For a stronger contender, that could be good enough to snap up some ring chasers, but the Lakers look far from championship caliber.

The only other option for the Lakers is trade. There are only three players of relevance when it comes to trade and one of them is probably out of the question; Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Kobe Bryant. I put them in order of likeliness to be traded.

I think Pau’s time with the Lakers has run its course. He’s been the unfortunate scapegoat for the team and for Kobe. Despite Kobe’s rantings, Pau played pretty decently this year. He wasn’t quite up to Pau standards that we’re used to, most notably slipping in FG% (down .028) and points (down 1.5), but he still was a very effective player. His impact was limited in the playoffs, but I’m willing to blame that on fatigue after the long season. Despite his performance, I think Pau and the Lakers both need a shakeup. He had quite the ugly bookend to the season, first getting traded…and then not, and then having Kobe throw him under the bus (despite Kobe’s own struggles), which I think has pretty much poisoned the waters. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they would be selling low on Gasol at this point. He’s only 31, and could easily flourish in the right situation. There is always a chance that he plays out of his mind during the Olympics, drumming up interest, which is the Lakers’ best hope at this point.

Otherwise, they may have to try and trade Andrew Bynum if the offerings for Pau are sub-par. Despite his injury woes in the past and bubbling immaturity, I would under no-circumstances, short of trading for Dwight Howard, part with Bynum. He is a skilled, 7-footer who is yet to reach his prime. Studies have shown that big men typically peak later than perimeter players, so despite the developmental time lost due to injury, Bynum is still on a good track. His ceiling is tough to imagine at this point; he could easily plateau, but with the right people around him, he could become an absolute monster. If I’m the Lakers, I only take calls from Orlando regarding Bynum.

Finally, there’s Kobe Bean Bryant. To be honest, this would be the best player to trade. His perceived value is much higher than his actual value (strictly in an on-court sense, I don’t want to get into endorsements, jersey sales, etc.). Despite experimental blood procedures in Germany, Kobe has continued to see his performance decline. He was able to stay on the court this season, while logging 5 more minutes per game than last season, but his production while on the court was down. If you look at raw per game totals, it appears that Kobe was better than say, last year. His scoring was up 2.6 ppg, his boards were up (marginally), but it was all a by product of playing more minutes. He was actually less efficient than last year, seeing his FG% drop by .021 and his 3p%  slip by .020. Another way to look at it, yes, Kobe increased his scoring by two and half points a game, but he also needed 3 more shots per game and .7 more FT’s per game to get there. If you believe in PER (I do but with a tablespoon of salt), he posted his lowest PER since his 4th year in the league.

Kobe is a great player, but he’s a midst a bad trend when it comes to his performance and percentages. It would be the ultimate, sell (relatively) high move on the Lakers part to trade him. The current incarnation of the Lakers isn’t improving, they need to change things up. The package for Pau might be meager and trading Bynum would be foolish. In a vacuum, trading Kobe would be easy. It could provide the Lakers with a new identity, younger players, and greater financial flexibility. The reality of the situation is that Kobe will be a Laker for as long as he wants to be. I don’t have a problem with that, but the Lakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They need to improve rapidly to cash in on Kobe’s remaining good/great years, the difficulty is actually executing that. This summer will dictate whether Kobe can capture that elusive 6th ring, unless Dwight comes West, I think Lakers fans will be disappointed.

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