The Lakers must come to grips with the fact that they not only aren't championship material, but they no longer set the standard the rest of the NBA strives to meet.
The Lakers have depended on a dominant big man going back to the franchise's origins in Minnesota. The most recent vintage has doubled down on that philosophy, featuring two of the game's top big men in Pau Gasol and the emerging Andrew Bynum. But the only thing the two-big-men approach has brought them lately is two rounds of playoffs.
If the Lakers are to return to championship contention, they'll have to downsize and upshift. The future of the Western Conference is the faster Oklahoma City Thunder. The present is the Spurs, who have gone up-tempo by necessity, with an aging core adapting to the league's faster style.
"That's the way of the NBA," Spurs big man Tim Duncan said in April. "That's how it's going. You need to get the ball up the floor. Teams are too big and guys are too good defensively. You need to get the ball up the floor and make things happen early."
Big men have become less dominant in the NBA because (a) NBA coaches have had a full 10 seasons to work on zone defenses since the abolition of the illegal defense rules in 2001, and (b) young players are more enthralled with taking jump shots and facing the hoop instead of developing inside moves.
"There aren't a lot of real, back-to-the-basket, low-post players anymore," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in the aftermath of his team's season-ending loss in Oklahoma City. "We certainly have two of them. Which is more important at this time? I would guess if coaches had their druthers, they'd rather have big players with their back to the basket and a combination of speed and quickness. But there's just not that many out there. There's a lot of players that have great speed and quickness, and they're a heck of a player, a lot of these guys. So they play the way the talent on their team allows them to play."
The Lakers weren't allowed to play their preferred, inside-out style during the playoffs, when opponents could devote all their attention to strategizing against them. The Denver Nuggets sent multiple defenders at Bynum when he was in the low post and clogged the passing lanes when Gasol was in the high post. The Thunder fronted Bynum with Kendrick Perkins. Both Bynum and Gasol saw their stats drop off significantly in the playoffs.
"You ask any coach out there, especially any coach with bigs, they'll tell you that the easiest position to take out of the game of basketball is a post-up guy," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "Because everybody, even from the fifth grade, you work on double-teaming the post."
The way to beat zones and double-teams is either through speeding up the game before the defense can get set or hitting outside shots when the perimeter defenders sag. The Lakers aren't equipped to do either.
After making 33 percent of their 3-pointers during the season, the Lakers made 30 percent of their 3s in the playoffs. (The postseason leader, San Antonio, has made 42 percent.) And it's not like they make up for their poor outside shooting with transition baskets; the Lakers' 9.3 fast-break points per game ranked 28th this season.
One more reason the double-big model has to end: It's clear Pau can't be Pau anymore. Not here, not with what he's asked to do in this offense and not after he's been put out there in trades both rescinded or rumored.
Gasol, gentlemanly as ever, made it clear while meeting with the media Wednesday that he wasn't comfortable as the third option. And after Gasol was part of the three-team trade to acquire Chris Paul that was nixed by commissioner David Stern in his capacity as de facto owner of the New Orleans Hornets, Kupchak admitted, "I don't suspect that he'll ever be the same, based on what took place."
Asked to specify why not, Kupchak said: "The trust issue. That's all. When there's pretty intense trade rumors, it's shocking to a player."
And we haven't even reached the two years and $38 million left on Gasol's contract. But if the Lakers make any move, it should not be for Dwight Howard or any other big man. Go after Deron Williams of the Nets (two years of Gasol's contract would be better than nothing back for Williams for the Brooklyn ballers) or Andre Iguodala of the 76ers or Monta Ellis of the Bucks.
Kupchak used a baseball metaphor when talking about his goals for the team.
"You'd like to hit a home run," Kupchak said.
What the Lakers really need is more akin to a leadoff hitter.