The post-Kobe era could begin as early as 2014 in Los Angeles. Who can the Lakers lure to fill the void?
Is it too early to look ahead to 2014?
Probably. But we're all forward-thinking individuals here, am I right? So let's peer into the future. With the way the Los Angeles Lakers are playing right now, it's probably more fun to dream about the future at the moment anyways.
The perennially overstuffed Lakers cap sheet looks spotlessly clean heading into the summer of 2014. That's when every single contract on the books—including Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace—except for Steve Nash comes to an end. (Dwight Howard, of course, is a free agent in 2013.)
There's been a lot of talk recently about Kobe hanging up his, um, Kobe's, after his contract is up in 2014. Assuming that the Black Mamba really does call it quits, the Lakers will look to reload as quickly as they always do.
A bevy of top-notch free agents will be available in the summer of 2014. With less than $10 million in committed salary for the 2014-15 season, the Lakers can afford to splurge on a few, even if they re-sign Dwight Howard to a max contract before then.
Let's take a look at 10 free agents L.A. will target in two years' time.
Point guard has been an age-old problem for the Lakers. Luke Ridnour is no long-term solution, but he's an incredible luxury to have as a backup.
Steve Nash will still be on the roster in 2014-15, but he'll be 40 years old and who knows how healthy he'll be? Without Nash so far this season, the point-guard position has been a disaster for the Lakers.
Ridnour is a steady hand who takes care of the ball and makes good decisions. He's a serviceable outside shooter and is good enough to start in a pinch. He would be one of the best backup point guards in the NBA and should come relatively cheap.
Remember how good Ben Gordon was? It seems like just the other day he was matching Ray Allen shot for shot in the greatest first-round playoff series I can remember.
That was in 2009, and since then, Gordon has practically disappeared even after signing a massive contract with the Detroit Pistons. He's experiencing a mini-revival this year in Charlotte, but his value has still plummeted since leaving Chicago.
I'm pretty much throwing his stint in Detroit out the window. This guy can still flat-out score. If Mike D'Antoni is still around when Gordon hits the market, there are few players better suited to the system.
Gordon has shot over 40 percent on threes in every season of his career but one, and he has proven his worth in the playoffs (where he has a career scoring average of 20 points per game).
Gordon—a former Sixth Man of the Year award winner—would fit perfectly as a sixth man in D'Antoni's system. And he might come below market value as well.
Throughout his career, Carl Landry has been severely underrated. He's putting together another spectacular season coming off the bench with the Warriors this year.
He will never be an All-Star, but few role players deliver as much bang for the buck. Over his career, Landry averages nearly 18 points per 36 minutes. He's a career 54 percent shooter and gets to the line a ton, where he knocks down free-throws at a 78 percent clip.
Landry is active on the boards, but he really doesn't excel at rebounding, particularly on the defensive end. But as long as Dwight Howard is still around, that shouldn't be a problem. Landry has also improved his shooting range, converting 46 percent of his long twos this season.
Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne reported earlier this week that the Lakers could get Andrea Bargnani right now if they really wanted to.
Bargnani isn't a bad player, but as a former No. 1 overall pick, he's been a big disappointment. He's probably not worth giving up on Pau Gasol for right now, but as a free agent in a couple of years...maybe.
After all, Bargnani's skills pair well with Dwight Howard's. He's a 7-foot forward who likes to play on the perimeter and can stretch the floor with his range.
He's a former 20-point scorer who makes more than 36 percent of his threes for his career and was absolutely lighting the league up at the beginning of last season.
Though prone to injury, Bargnani could be a nice bargain for the Lakers since he'll always have the whiff of a draft bust around him.
Staying in Toronto, Kyle Lowry has emerged as a borderline All-Star caliber talent over the past couple of seasons.
His offense has taken off now that he has turned himself into a dangerous three-point shooter. Lowry has increased his points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and PER for the fourth consecutive season and is a terror on defense to boot.
Lowry is too good to be a pure backup to Nash, but with Nash's contract up in 2015, the Lakers can look at it as an investment for the future—and also an insurance policy against a Nash injury. Lowry has fashioned himself into a good enough scorer and shooter to play off the ball for stretches as well.
Perennially underrated, Anderson Varejao is finally getting his just desserts this season after taking the league by storm.
Varejao is shattering his career bests in points, rebounds, assists, steals, free-throw percentage and PER. He's putting up an ungodly 15 points and 15 rebounds on a nightly basis—the only player in the NBA to do so.
If Dwight Howard is still a Laker, then a Howard-Varejao tandem would be the best defensive frontcourt in the league hands down. Though Varejao's offense doesn't quite complement Howard's, he has improved as a scorer and does enough on that end to still be a net positive.
If he keeps up his current production, though, Varejao's services will come at a real premium.
Mayo is averaging about 20 points a night for the first time in his career, thanks to a blistering 51 percent connection rate from deep. He's producing career highs in PER, true shooting percentage, assist rate, and usage rate to go along with the best shooting and scoring numbers he's ever posted.
Joining the Lakers would be a homecoming of sorts for Mayo, who played his college ball just down the road from Staples Center at USC. Mayo would be a direct successor to Kobe at the shooting guard position, and though he'll never measure up to Bryant, he would thrive in a Mike D'Antoni offense.
Also, Mayo is making peanuts at the moment, so even if the Lakers give him a hefty raise, he'll still represent a palatable contract.
It seems like Luol Deng has been around forever, but the Bulls' starting small forward will still be on the right side of 30 when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2014.
Deng is an excellent complementary piece who makes a positive impact on both sides of the floor. He can get his own shot and recently improved his outside shooting as well.
Even with an increased scoring burden this season, Deng is still shooting an efficient 46 percent from the field and 83 percent from the line en route to 18 points a game.
The only question with Deng is how much longer his body will hold up. Though fairly young, he got an early start so he's accrued a lot of miles already.
Plus, this is the fourth straight season that Deng is averaging at least 38 minutes per contest. That's a big load to carry for someone who's relied upon heavily on both ends of the floor.
You won't find a better perimeter stopper on the market than Andre Iguodala. The league's best wing defender is perfect for the D'Antoni system.
Iguodala is long, rangy and supremely athletic. He flies up and down the court and makes plays on both ends of the floor.
While he's shown scoring ability throughout his career, Iggy operates best as a second or third option who can move without the ball and slash to the rim. He also creates a ton of opportunities for his teammates.
Under D'Antoni, Iguodala has the potential to be a smaller, more perimeter-oriented Shawn Marion. He's about the same size with the same freakish athleticism and a lockdown defender to boot.
In fact, the Lakers could use him right now. Do I hear Pau Gasol for Andre Iguodala? Anybody?
I couldn't resist.
It may seem impossible, but LeBron James has the opportunity to take his talents to somewhere other than South Beach if he exercises his Early Termination Option after the 2013-14 season.
If he does so, the Lakers—and every team in the league—should pour all their resources into wooing the 2012 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
As a matter of fact, the "LeBron to the Lakers in 2014" chatter has already begun. And it's not just homer-istic fans and lowly hacks like me churning the rumor mill, it's also respected NBA writers like Brian Windhorst.
Throughout history, the Lakers have shown that they don't rebuild—they reload. Nothing would revamp L.A.'s title chances faster than replacing Kobe Bryant with LeBron James in 2014.