Clark: Lakers must get younger, more athletic to become a serious contender in the Western Conference

There were a few moments in Monday night’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers when I couldn’t help but think back to the days of old.

I admittedly spent most of the game — well, the first half anyway — trying to keep down my dinner as I watched Portland fall victim to a 21-0 run and a 35-7 start to the game in Staples Center. It wasn’t competitive from the onset, which was disappointing considering the historically good matchups between the two organizations.

Now, when I say I was thinking back to the days of old, sure, the threepeat with Kobe and Shaq instantly came to mind. But that wasn’t what I was getting at on Monday. As I sat and stomached the first half, the 2008 World Champion Lakers roster was running through my head.

Names like Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, Lamar Odom and even Josh Powell kept coming up. Wondering how a team could completely scrap a title-winning roster in a matter of three years forced me to look at LA’s current roster. No question there have been some quality pickups, but only five players remain from that 2008 team — Kobe, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and everyone’s favorite, Luke Walton. @@[email protected]@

The Lakers front office has since added the likes of Steve Blake (you can have him back, Portland, even though you’ll never be happy with any point guard), Jason Kapono, Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Ron Artest. Yes, I said Ron Artest. I refuse to acknowledge his name change. Go rewatch the 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl in Detroit — or any interview with Artest, ever —and get back to me if you think “Peace” belongs in his name. @@I checked the names I promise! It was just too many links @@

My point here is that while LA has kept its nucleus of Bryant, Bynum and Gasol together, the pieces around them have taken a nosedive over the last two years. They are noticeably less athletic — that much is obvious — and aside from Kobe, no one else is capable of creating their own offense.

Fish — poor, sweet Fish — plays like he’s approaching his mid-50s and has for some time now. He can’t keep up with younger guards in the league anymore, especially with athletes as raw as Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose emerging as the new standard for an NBA point guard.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about the Chris Paul trade every time I see the Lakers play. Giving up half of one of the best rebounding combinations in the league would have been tough, but from Kobe’s recent comments directed at the team management, it sounds like that’s still very much in play. Here’s to you, Mr. Stern. Take a look at the Clippers current roster and record, and try to explain that veto to me now.

Yet, I can only weep over the Lakers struggles for so long. They’ll finish in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference barring any serious injuries. And once the playoffs roll around, it’s all about who gets hot at the right time. As a Lakers fan you expect to be the favorite from opening day, which make years like these last two years just a little more humbling.

Kobe was asked after the Portland game on Monday if he thought this team had enough pieces to win an championship this year. His answer was essentially what I’ve outlined here today. The core of a championship team is there, but the role players that have made so many LA teams special — the Trevor Ariza’s and Robert Horry’s of the world — are blatantly lacking.

The wheels have been spinning in LA this week. Following Kobe’s comments to the media about trading Gasol or keeping him, the team held a players-only meeting following the dismantling of Portland. From the outside it seems like they’re just trying to get everyone on the same page, at least from a personnel standpoint. The point Kobe made about Pau investing himself completely into the game as he remains on the trading block was accurate. But it didn’t change the approach of General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who said this in a release on Tuesday morning: “As general manager of the Lakers, I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans and the players on this team to actively pursue opportunities to improve the team for this season and seasons to come.”

“To say publicly that we would not do this would serve no purpose and put us at a competitive disadvantage. Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans.”

So, yes, nothing has really changed. And that’s to be expected. The All-Star break is this weekend, which is always an interesting point in the NBA season. Moves will be made, and organizations will continue to pursue those opportunities that improve the team (as long as Mr. Stern gives his personal OK).

If not this year, here’s hoping the Lakers can get back to their ways of old.

Younger, more athletic — Showtime.

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