Yeah, the future looks glum. So how do we make the best of it?
The headline is somewhat misleading. For Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, the only burning question is what to do about that acid reflux he must surely be experiencing.
The problems the Lakers are facing are not burning, they're incendiary.
Assuming Metta World Peace picks up his $7.7 million player option—and why wouldn't he?—the Lakers will be paying roughly $68 million to four men who, even if they return healthy, all face declining skills and advancing age.
Their franchise-player-in-waiting, Dwight Howard, had a disappointing season and is not guaranteed to return.
Whom to pursue? Whom to keep? Whom to wait for? What to do?
This offseason, Lakers general manager Kupchak has to play the biggest game of chicken the NBA has seen in a while—maybe ever.
Let's have a look at his options, which are both limited and monumentally challenging.
We start with the face of this franchise, which is in question for the first time in 17 seasons—unless you want to count the years Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal both vied for it.
Kobe vowed to return to the court, and far be it from me—or anyone in their right mind—to doubt the Mamba. But this time around, Kobe is battling both Father Time—who remains undefeated—and the Fickle Finger of Fate, in the form of his ruptured Achilles tendon.
The L.A. Lakers could bet on Kobe coming back quickly and at full strength. But he is only signed through 2013-14, and there's no guarantee he'll continue playing past next year, even if he does make it back.
If the team begins the season with Kobe on the bench again, as is almost certain, they could get off to the same disastrous start that put their backs against the wall this time around when Steve Nash had just two brief appearances in the Lakers' first 27 games.
Could the team amnesty Bryant? From a business standpoint, it makes sense. But that means the Lakers are betting against Kobe, and that's a dangerous game to play. They'd be giving up their Bird rights, which means they'd be competing salary-wise on a level playing field with everyone else—except for the fact that their cap space would be far smaller than Kobe's likely asking price.
That would almost certainly mean the end of Bryant's Lakers career.
Worse, with Bryant's steely resolve, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he did come back, sign with another team in the Pacific Division and play until he's 41—with every single Lakers game circled in bright purple-and-gold marker.
In every way possible, Kobe's situation is leaving this franchise holding its breath.
You may have 99 problems, but this, Mitch, is the one.
Howard certainly didn't bowl over the Lakers faithful this season, and vice versa, as D12 seemed progressively less thrilled to be in Tinseltown as this season of broken dreams unfolded. Further, Dwight was more Clark Kent than Superman in the playoffs. I'm sorry, but a superstar getting kicked out of a playoff game is mind-bogglingly unacceptable.
That vented, at the end of the day, he is still Dwight Howard, with gaudy numbers even in a down season, and he is seven years younger than Kobe. The Lakers are sure to offer him the five-year max deal he will covet, which would force the team to make Howard their centerpiece.
What are the odds he'll accept their offer versus someone else's—other than the fact that these are the Lakers, the most storied franchise in professional basketball? (Bite your collective tongues, Boston Celtics fans—and go read your own articles.)
L.A.'s advantage is the length of the max contract they can offer. Theirs can be five years; the most any other team can offer is four, which means more financial security for Howard if he remains a Laker.
But is that really true? With California's Prop 30 millionaire's tax now in effect in California, the Golden State will take 10 percent of Howard's gold over the length of the contract.
Texas, home of the Houston Rockets—who desperately covet Howard's services—has no income tax. Thus, according to multiple sources including this Houston Chronicle article, Howard would actually net more money as a Rocket over the first four years of the contract.
It's a wait-and-see game now...and the future of the Lakers depends upon this domino to fall one way or the other.
Besides Kobe, the other two viable amnesty candidates are Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.
Gasol, like Bryant, is signed through next year. But if the team manages to re-sign Howard, their luxury tax could run close to $80 million. Further, Gasol has lingering knee issues.
You could amnesty him, but Gasol is an expiring contract, and a big one. He may not be able to play at a consistently elite level, but you can bet your bottom dollar, a team will want him at the trade deadline for extra ammo toward a playoff push. You'll get something of value in return.
World Peace has a much more reasonable contract than Gasol's, and he had a reasonably productive regular season, but he's in an even more steep decline than Gasol. He's also worth much less on the trading block than Gasol. Between the two, MWP is the more likely amnesty candidate.
Steve Nash's contract is not eligible to be amnestied, simply because Nash wasn't on the roster when the collective bargaining agreement was reached (thanks, Andi S.). Even though Nash, too, is not the player he once was, he's signed through 2014-15, and as an off-ball player, he had a productive season when he was on the floor.
What Kupchak has to weigh are each player's productiveness and trade value versus the value of signing other players to fill their shoes. Which brings us to our next slide...
Once Chris Duhon is waived, and the team option on Jodie Meeks is declined, the roster will be down to six—but assuming no one is amnestied and Howard signs, the Lakers' swollen cap means they can do precious little to improve their roster.
On his best days, Earl Clark is closer to Vlade Divac than he is to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, but that's plenty good for a Lakers team that's closer to those rebuilding years than to their glory years. Clark had some ups and downs this season, but the ups were frequent and impressive enough to earn him a contract extension.
Antawn Jamison is a bargain when his price tag is weighed against how much he contributed; he'll likely get a contract offer.
That's about it—unless you want to consider coach Mike D'Antoni. To assemble the players who can execute his very specific system, on a nonexistent budget nonetheless, is a tall order. I'm not saying D'Antoni isn't a great coach—on the contrary, I think he is.
But I don't believe he's the right man to get maximum effectiveness out of the patchwork roster the Lakers will almost surely have to send out on the court.
With little—as in no—cash to spare, Kupchak has to both keep Kobe's seat warm and fill out a roster with at least serviceable talent. It's a daunting task.
The first and biggest question is who, at a Walmart price, can adequately replace Bryant while he's recovering?
Look no further than our ol' pal Shannon Brown.
Brown can play both the 2 and the 3. He's signed through 2014, but he's massively unhappy with an unexpectedly reduced role in Phoenix, and it's likely the Suns will get rid of him.
There's not even a general manager right now in Phoenix; the time is right to sneak in and grab Brown for the L.A. Lakers' second-round pick and a dispensible asset.
You know he would relish the chance to come back to L.A as Kobe's replacement and try to play Lou Gehrig to Kobe's Wally Pipp (note to Shannon: Wally Pipp in a cocaine-induced fever dream could never even restring Kobe's Nikes, but that's OK—we're not looking for you to make us forget No. 24. Solid nightly contributions will suffice).
The Lakers could also take a flyer on Corey Maggette, late of the Detroit Pistons. The former Los Angeles Clipper still has a house in the L.A. area—he's neighbors with Kobe, no less—and claims to be completely healthy, although he was persona non grata in the D.
For the rest of the roster, Kupchak has to think way out of the box, taking a chance on forgotten players or ballers past their time who might turn back the clock for one more year on basketball's brightest stage.
A seat-filler of a move would be to bring back Lamar Odom. The former fan favorite will resemble his former Lakers self in name and face only, but can still contribute off the bench.
At the point, a potentially affordable option is to watch which backup guards the Houston Rockets cut loose. Right now, the Rockets have a plethora, and they're sure to let at least one go.
The Rockets will certainly waive Francisco Garcia, who impressed in the playoffs, but who's not worth near his $6.4 million team option.
Also awaiting contract status are Patrick Beverley—a solid defender who overachieved both during the regular season and the playoffs—and Aaron Brooks (yes, the same Aaron Brooks who killed the Lakers in the postseason just a few years back).
The Houston Rockets acquired Brooks for some kite string and lint at the trade deadline. He'd be nice to have playing for L.A. versus against them.
In the frontcourt, Kupchak would do well to focus on Dorell Wright, who flew under the radar off the Philadelphia 76ers bench. He can shoot the three-ball and play competent defense.
And to back up Clark at center, signing a very affordable Jason Collins to a one-year deal would likely bring goodwill and pique fan and media interest, even if he'll add little to the stat sheet.