The Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a baffling situation.
On one hand, they have the pieces to compete for an NBA title in the 2012-2013 season with one of the best perimeter players in the NBA in Kobe Bryant, and with perhaps the best big-man tandem in recent memory with veteran Pau Gasol and true center Andrew Bynum. The Lakers also have a pair of hard-nosed defenders in Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes, to go along with sharpshooter Steve Blake.
On the other hand, the Lakers often look sluggish and predictable. The core of Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum has been together for more than four full seasons, and often their shortcomings suggest that changes need to be made. The Lakers also lack a key bench player to create mismatches for opponents since Lamar Odom was traded to the Dallas Mavericks.
Upgrading this Lakers roster is easier said than done. The Lakers don't want to inject more money into an already bloated payroll, and don't appear interested in making a complex trade because they will likely fail to receive fair market value for their talent.
The Lakers can explore a few ways to improve their roster without a major shakeup. General manager Mitch Kupchak won't have a first-round pick to work when the 2012 NBA Draft rolls around, but there are players who may want to join the Lakers at a discount rate in the free agent market.
Here are some realistic off-season scenarios for the Lakers:
Bring back Odom. The veteran is rested after barely breaking a sweat with Dallas last season. Odom should feel comfortable reacquainting with the Lakers, and head coach Mike Brown can expect Odom to play closer to his level in 2010-2011 when he won the Sixth Man of the Year award than when he played in Dallas. There are a number of contract and trade barriers that can hold back Odom's return, but more than likely the Mavericks and Lakers can work something out.
Sign Brandon Roy. The former Portland Trail Blazers star retired from basketball in 2011, due to knee problems. Roy recently confirmed he is looking to make a comeback, and his possible addition to the Lakers could be a solid move for both parties. Roy has never reached the NBA Finals and would have a decent chance in L.A. The Lakers could use a smart and talented shooting guard when Bryant is on the bench. It's anyone guess how well Roy will play after his injury, but he is a gamble worth taking.
Sign Raymond Felton. Kupchak may have to decide between bringing back Ramon Sessions or signing Felton. While Sessions gives the Lakers the athleticism they need at the point guard position, Felton is a smarter player and better shooter and should bounce back from a poor season in Portland. Having starred at North Carolina, Felton is accustomed to playing for a team with a lot of pride in winning, so his presence with the Lakers would be welcomed. Sessions's defense was questionable in the playoffs, but he shot nearly 48 percent from the field in the 2011-2012 season. The Lakers could perhaps re-sign him as well as add Felton, but such a move would be contingent on trading Blake, and there may not be too many takers for the former Maryland guard.
Then there's the big one...
Trade Bynum for Dwight Howard. This deal has received extensive coverage from media outlets for several months. This might be an ideal trade for both teams. The Lakers want to win now, and the Orlando Magic have no chance of winning a title next season unless they add Deron Williams, and even then it will be difficult to unseat the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Both teams could use a shakeup. The Magic may lose Howard for nothing in free agency, and his presence on the team for another season might be an enormous distraction. For the Lakers, losing Bynum will hurt because when he is at his best, he is such a dominant force. Bynum had seven games where he scored 30 points or more in the 2011-2012 regular season (which is more than Howard), and in the Lakers' first 2012 Playoff game, he blocked 10 shots against the Denver Nuggets.
This should be an interesting off-season for the Lakers. With the continued emergence of the Oklahoma City Thunder and some very formidable teams in the East, the Lakers have major challengers in the 2012-2013 season.
For a fanbase that considers any season that the Lakers don't win a title to be a serious failure, the Lakers have some work to do.