The Lakers and Bucks, along with those other fourteen, non-playoff teams, are gone. Both got swept; both were never even in one of their playoff games. The Nuggets, Rockets, and Celtics could be soon to join them—but we’ll give them their chances to prove us wrong. At least one of those teams (Denver) is experiencing something like an upset, proving that spring often breeds the chaos that disrupts the understandings and assumptions that have colored league-wide perceptions all season. In other words: who knew Steph Curry was this good; that the Warriors, lacking David Lee on their front-line, could simply shoot their way through all of their flaws? And who’s to say that another of these series can’t turn around, on the crux of a similar surprise? We’ll allow for wonder, for those still alive—and only prognosticate on those who are now departed.
Brandon Jennings’ contract is up. J.J. Redick’s, too. Plus Marquis Daniels’, Joel Pryzbilla’s, Mike Dunleavy’s, Samuel Dalmebert’s, and Monta Ellis has one year left on his, along with Ekpe Udoh, Gustavo Ayon, and Larry Sanders. Eryan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden, Ish Smith, Luc Richrd Mbah a Moute and little-used rookie John Henson are the only players who are locked down for longer. For the best of everyone involved, I say send Jennings packing—he’s a legitimate talent in need of new context. Trading Ellis’ onerous 11-million dollar contract seems impossible, so he’s likely to stay around a season. Interim Coach Jim Boylan is probably about to see the door, so what’s next? Like almost any middling team, the Bucks lack defensive presence, despite having, in Larry Sanders, one of the top lane-cloggers in the league. My suggestion is to bring in a very defensive-minded coach (one who won’t wear on the roster like Scott Skiles did) and focus on getting stops, building Thibodeau-style sets around the strength of Sanders and Mbah a Moute.
Orders on high have it so this team is not to tank, and remain somewhat competitive every year. The structure of NBA talent flow, currently, is perversely set against this admirable outlook. There is no reward for not tanking; the Draft Lottery was a less-than-terrific invention. As a Bucks fan, one merely hopes something unbelievably fateful happens to the franchise (that they get the kind of franchise savior that Curry represents), but Milwaukee’s recent basketball history suggests there’s no luck on the way. Buckling down on building a defense is, always, the best bet for a city that lacks the ability to draw star-power—just look at Memphis. While the Bucks (like the Grizzlies) probably can’t compete for a title unless several kinds of lightning strike, they can at least build a team capable of scary playoff noise, and giving their fans extra pride, and something to get their heartbeats moving upward. Thankfully, they don’t face the task of trying such a thing in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers
What’s to say that hasn’t been said, ten-thousand times? This team is a mess, and counting on much of a Kobe resurgence to save them is probably not the answer. Dwight Howard isn’t, either; at least not if they don’t replace Mike D’Antoni with someone who instills a stricter defensive culture (and any confidence in his players), because it’s become clear that D12 sorely misses the structure that Stan Van Gundy provided. That structure made him one of the best defensive presences in the game’s history, and a smiling star. We’ve had a long look at Howard now, and it’s actually pretty clear who he is: a once-in-a-generation NBA body and skill set, who’s apt toward petulance and team-breaking. Like Dennis Rodman before him, he’s an incredible asset if you can keep him in check. D’Antoni has openly quarreled with his players in the media, often throwing them under the bus (Kobe, the L.A.-untouchable, included) and shown a remarkable stubbornness in adjusting his strategies to his personnel; keeping anyone in check was the last thing he was doing. Any rebuilding done in earnest must begin with a professional coach.
And make no mistake: it is time to rebuild. Steve Nash’s health isn’t going to improve in year 40, and Steve Blake isn’t the right man to replace him. Similarly, Pau Gasol’s body is aching to the point where he must be considered a more Spurs-like player; he should be rested a tremendous amount throughout the season, in the event that his play (still completely terrific, when available) is needed for the playoffs. The Lakers, in essence, need a whole lot of fresh, cohesive talent, and someone to guide it. Howard, and the questionable value of their aging stars—and the ability to spend, spend, spend—are, it seems, the only things that separate them from any other team facing a rebuild. That, and the insanely high expectations that their legacy and fan-base provide.