NBA PM: Could Lakers Stand Relatively Pat?

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Could Lakers Stand Relatively Pat?

The Los Angeles Lakers held their end of season press conferences today, far earlier in the year than they’re accustomed to due to the fact that they are lottery bound for just the third time since 1994. After a 27-55 campaign, major shakeups are being anticipated, but Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak made it seem like there could be more similarities than differences next season.

The hot topic of course is the status of head coach Mike D’Antoni’s job security. No definitive decisions are close to being made and the front office plans to take their time in evaluating whether they should move in a different direction.

D’Antoni certainly sounded like someone who expected to be back next season, pointing to the two years remaining on his contract. Meanwhile, Kupchak did voice a certain amount of confidence in him, questioning whether any coach could have done better based on the cards he was dealt. After all, D’Antoni only had Kobe Bryant in the lineup for six games this season. Steve Nash only made 15 appearances and the team’s potential was always limited by the squad being assembled with primarily players on one-year contracts as the Lakers looked to preserve financial flexibility.

According to Kupchak, the Lakers’ plan to create cap space dates back to four years ago. They’re finally going to be under the cap enough to sign a max-level free agent this summer with guys like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Eric Bledsoe (restricted) hitting the market. That doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to spend it, though. Kupchak is prohibited from talking about any free agents until after the league’s moratorium period ends in July, but he can talk about his own and he had very high praise for Pau Gasol, who is also set to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent.

“If you look at the (potential) free agents, there is probably not as good a player as Pau Gasol,” Kupchak said.

“His stats and his play showed he can be effective in any system,” D’Antoni added.

In 60 games this season, Gasol put up 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 3.4 assists on average. His bounce back performance after a down season last year went largely unappreciated by the masses because it didn’t do much to help the Lakers’ struggles overall. However, there should be ample interest in the two-time champion this summer. The New York Knicks, run by Phil Jackson, the coach who Gasol won two championships under, have already been mentioned as a possible suitor for him.

If Bryant had his way, Gasol would be re-signed. He’s long been an advocate and defender of Gasol’s and has a prominent voice within the organization when it comes to personnel moves. He’s far from a shot caller, but his opinion definitely matters and is solicited. Both he and Gasol have publicly butted heads with D’Antoni; the odds of both Gasol and D’Antoni being back next year are slim. It seems like an either-or scenario. Kupchak downplayed that notion, though, and did the same when asked about Bryant’s issues with D’Antoni.

Kupchak was a little bit more open to discussing the Lakers’ upcoming lottery pick. Unlike Jerry West of the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics’ top executive Danny Ainge, Kupchak had high praise for the upcoming draft class, stating that there are several players he believed could be “really, really good.” The Lakers have a solid history of drafting in the lottery, albeit in a small sample size. The last two times they missed the playoffs they walked away with Eddie Jones and Andrew Bynum – both of whom eventually made All-Star appearances and gave the Lakers several quality seasons.

The NBA’s draft order for the lottery was decided today and, if everything holds true to the standings, the Lakers will draft sixth. They have a 21 percent chance to jump into the top three. The lottery is on May 20. With Jabari Parker’s declaration yesterday, all of the top prospects projected to go in the Lakers’ range have declared. A lack of young talent has long been a weakness of the Lakers. Their lottery pick stands the chance to improve that. Or, he could be used to help the Lakers land their next star immediately. Kupchak admitted that they’re open to trading the pick, but the price tag will be high and there’s always a ton of competition in the trade market for stars. Outside of that first-round pick, the Lakers don’t have a ton of attractive assets. There are scenarios in which it could be their most meaningful addition and based on the way Kupchak sounded today, those scenarios sound most likely.

Does Bledsoe Want to be a Sun?

The Phoenix Suns have made it adamantly clear that they want to re-sign soon-to-be restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe. They acquired Bledsoe from the Los Angeles Clippers last summer in a three-team trade with the Milwaukee Bucks. Bledsoe came in as the most highly regarded backup point guard in the league and he proved to be a stud as a starter as well, averaging 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32.9 minutes a game. Unfortunately for Bledsoe and the Suns, he was limited to only 43 games this season due to a knee injury. Had he not lost half of the season the Suns would probably be in the playoffs right now; they came up just shy, being eliminated from contention in the final week of the season.

In their season ending press conference, management’s sentiments towards Bledsoe were shared by the rest of the team. Everyone wants him back, but in Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic’s most recent article he raised a very interesting question: Does Bledsoe want to be back?

“The only murky part is Bledsoe has not committed himself publicly to the idea of wanting to come back to Phoenix. He deflects repeated questions on the matter, providing answers about spending time with his family and working on his game in Birmingham, Alabama,” Coro writes.

Could Bledsoe be sold on the idea of playing for a bigger media market, like the aforementioned Lakers and encourage the Suns not to match?

The last time the Suns were involved with a highly coveted restricted free agent was when they signed New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Gordon to a sizeable offer sheet. Gordon publicly expressed his desire to play in Phoenix, but the Pelicans matched against his will because they didn’t want to let a player of his caliber go without receiving anything in return.

Potentially on the other side of the spectrum, would the Suns be willing to take the same hard stance – especially when they have quite possibly the league’s best value contract in Goran Dragic there to man the point if he indeed wants to play elsewhere? Only time will tell, but it does have to be a bit concerning for the Suns that as much as they have publicly committed to him and seem ready to give him a max contract offer immediately, he still hasn’t closed the door on listening to other offers.