Lakers Offseason Report: The Long, Strange Trip From Dwight to Wes Johnson

wes lakersYou’d think the Lakers had found a way to clone Big Game James and Byron Scott just in time to flank Kobe in his quest for a sixth ring.  Lakers fans are sure to be on the receiving end of taunts like that one for the foreseeable future, having already begun planning the parades not but two weeks removed from Dwight’s departure.

(Full disclosure: I’m a crazy Lakers fan, but try to reign in my insanity to some extent on this site because (1) there are enough Lakers only blogs out there; (2) it’s fun to write about the NBA from a broader perspective; and (3) I like reaching more readers – hook it up with a follow – and one of best experiences writing here to date has been finding out which teams have the largest, smartest fan bases; to my surprise, 76ers fans hold pole position at the moment.  So when I write about LA, I suppose it’s fair to take it with a grain of salt.)

Cut us some slack.  It’s been a long, strange ten days for Lakers fans since Dwight ham-handedly left for greener pastures in Houston.  Observing what transpired as Dwight became a caricature of himself (“It’s Houston! It’s 50/50! He’s not sure! No it’s Houston!), only made the dwightevents all the stranger, and certainly no less unnerving.   It’s been well chronicled; LA simply does not lose marquee free agents.   Until they lost one.

And so the journey began with the initial shock that the Lakers, too, are subject to the laws of NBA physics: if you trade for a player in the last year of his contract who refuses to sign an extension and remains adamant and oddly detached in his insistence that he will not just test free agency, but intends to shop around extensively, then reject in spectacular fashion the coach for whom he explicitly advocates, only to select a coach he doesn’t want to play for, proceed to keep that coach even after it becomes blatantly apparent that Dwight either cannot or will choose not to succeed with him, and numerous alternative avenues to pursue exist, each of which boast superior young talent, you will lose that player.

sashaNow that you put it that way, why were we surprised that Dwight left?   Because it’s LA, and the Lakers always land on their feet.  It certainly didn’t seem that way when the Lakers used its biggest and only real free agency asset by signing Chris Kaman for the mini-mid-level exception.  The hits kept coming as news emerged that LA wouldn’t exercise its option on Darius Morris, but would indeed be bringing back Robert Sacre.  Lakers fans sighed a resigned, collective fuck: older and slower was not the anecdote to what ailed the Lakeshow.

Then it got weird.  Seemingly, LA’s plan B in free-agency consisted largely of getting the 2009 Lakers band back together.  First it was Farmar.  Then rumors surfaced that the Machine and Lamar (gotta love that Lamar’s imminent signing was reported by US Weekly) were on the way.  If that felt surreal, I quite literally awoke wondering if I had dreamt that LA reportedly had interest in bringing back Josh Powell.  It was true.  And it was sort of fun for the nostalgic among us.  Nonetheless, it warranted numerous WTFs.  This could not actually be the plan.

Fortunately, it wasn’t.  Submerged in a sea of “The Lakers Should Throw the Season,” articles, the escape from which would only lead only to more of the media’s bizarre obsession with amnestying Kobe, most assumed that all but the free agency scraps were no longer in the cards with the mini-midlevel no longer at the Lakers disposal.  That left LA in a strange spot: the Kaman signing indicated that LA still harbored at least some ambition for the coming season (there’s little reason to pay anyone more than the min. if you’re tanking), but there was little evidence to suggest that LA had any means of realizing it.)

This pic makes me very very nervous.

This pic makes me very very nervous.

Enter Nick Young.  A well-rounded player he is not, but that’s not a Lakers’ deficiency.  Gasol, Nash, and Bryant are the core of what the Lakers will be.  Each has his weaknesses at this stage of their careers, and the principal problem with the Lakers’ roster the last several seasons has been that all of its core players share a common weakness: speed.   It’s true that to be successful, all teams must surround their core players with pieces that either accentuate their strengths or ameliorate their weaknesses.   Given the severity of the Lakers athletic deficiencies, that axiom applies doubly.  (A major cause of which I’ve written about here.)  MWP and Steve Blake are fine players in a vacuum.  But both compounded the weaknesses of the Laker core.   Both were at a disadvantage athletically in almost every matchup, neither is adept at creating his own shot, and each struggles to finish at the basket.

So when LA’s reaction to the Nick Young signing appeared debased from reality, allow me to suggest that it was only partially so.  The Lakers need wing scoring, especially if Kobe misses significant time, and Young will provide that at a semi-elite level.   He’s also a plus athletically, and a strong finisher.   No, he’s not Byron Scott or even Eddie Jones, but he’s probably better than Shannon Brown, and the Lakers will gladly take that.

Days later, the Lakers said goodbye to Metta. (It shocked no one, but some thought that LA might keep him around).  Several pundits saw this countervailing the notion that LA would attempt to contend this season.  To me, it suggested the opposite.  Metta’s defensive prowess  disappeared along with the guy named Ron Artest, save a few body-types he remained particularly adept at slowing down.   Only his great hands, intimidating presence, and reputation as a great defender endured.   He’d be a nice addition to teams like Chicago and New York, which possess elite perimeter athletes.   But he’d mostly been a liability in LA the last several seasons.   Metta flashed occasional signs that his offense could return to its Sacramento form, but much more frequently exhibited a penchant for ill-advised shots, clogged the post for more skilled players, and generally sucked any rhythm from an already hard to watch Lakers’ offense.  Thus, despite his competitive fervor that earned Bryant’s respect, Metta was near the worst possible fit alongside Kobe.  It’s great to remember his Game 7 heroics, but it’s silly to pretend that it was emblematic of his days in the golden armor.

Most importantly, losing Metta allowed the Lakers to leverage its best remaining asset: it offered free agents the opportunity to showcase their talents on the league’s biggest stage.  This, I suspect, was behind Nick Young’s decision to join LA.  And its beyond suspicion that it landed the Lakers its most talented prospect since it stole Trevor Ariza from the Magic in 2008.

It comes with double the bias, since I’m a Cuse fan too.  I think that the acquisition of Wes Johnson is a homerun for the Lakers.  Not a home run in the sense that he’s sure to develop into an all-star, but certainly a steal within the context of reasonable expectations given what LA had to work with.  This kid absolutely dominated at Syracuse, which is why he went #4 to Minnesota in the 2010 draft.   The game he displayed at Cuse never translated in Minnesota, which explains why he was available to LA at the minimum salary.   Over the past five years, however, few organizations have been more dysfunctional than Minnesota.   And it’s no rarity to see top talent fail in poor conditions.  Some can be reclaimed by superior organizations; think Chauncey Billups, Tyson Chandler, Jermaine O’Neal, Mike Bibby, and Lamar Odom.  Of course, for every Billups and Chandler there are at least three Marcus Fizers, Stromile Swifts, and Michael Beasleys (coincidentally, one player who helped stunt Wes Johnon’s growth).  So no, we can’t go ahead and pencil Wes in as the next Lamar Odom.

Wesley Johnson

You can’t tell me anyone that high above the rim isn’t an uber-athlete. (AP Photo)

The Lakers do, however, have a reasonably strong track record of taking talented players to the next level.  Recently, LA’s turned Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, and Earl Clark from no names into handsomely compensated, solid rotation players. There’s good reason to believe it can do the same for Wes Johnson, who’s much further along offensively than Trevor Ariza when he came aboard.   In Phoenix, Wes began to flash the game he left behind in upstate New York .  His game’s been discussed at some length by Darius at FB&G.  He’s a legit 6’8”, has a nice stroke from the outside, and a polished offensive game that simply hasn’t shined in the NBA for any number of reasons.  He works hard on defense, and has both the size, length, and elite athleticism to be a stopper and a great finisher on the break.  (That’s one place I’ll quibble with Darius’s profile, which inexplicably concludes that he’s not a great athlete.)  In short then, Wes Johnson is everything that LA’s lacked at the 3 for several seasons.

Assuming that LA’s stuck with D’Antoni for at least the next year, I’d also expect to see quite a lot of Wes at the 4 .   He’ll pleasantly surprise many a Laker fan with underrated rebounding prowess, though his post defense remains a work in progress if I’m being kind.  This makes Johnson’s entire aresenal considerably superior to that of Earl Clark just one year ago.  That worked out reasonably well, and sets what I’d describe as a floor for what we can expect from Johnson.  His ceiling is less defined — that’s a good thing.   Perhaps he’s Trevor Ariza.  Perhaps he’s a bit more than that.   In either event, that’s a hell of a signing at the minimum.

With two strokes of a pen, LA’s perimeter has transformed from slow and thin to deep and flexible.  I won’t be booking my tickets to Finals just yet, but given what’s transpired over a long, strange ten days, you can forgive a Lakers fan for feeling that there may well be hope for next season after all.

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