For the first time in what seems like forever, the future of the Los Angeles Lakers is as muddled up and blurry as ever.
Even the great Kobe Bryant is not immune to the rampant speculation as to what the Lakers will do to revamp for another title run.
Sure, there are the usual crazy fanboy stuff where Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and LeBron James will join forces for a multi-year run, or that Kobe will come back 110 percent like Adrian Peterson and play exactly as he did last year.
The greatness of the Lakers is in no way over but there needs to be a change in the direction of the franchise. especially if the Lakers want to move forward into something better than a first-round exit.
Granted, this doesn't mean they need to amnesty Kobe (just a suggestion!), but they'll need to hope for certain things to break their way while they aggressively pursue avenues of free agency and trades.
I'll preface this by saying that Mike D'Antoni shouldn't shoulder as much of the blame as he has had to since the season ended—which was, really, the moment that Kobe went down. Do we really think he had any say as to how many minutes Kobe would play per night?
The first thing the Lakers should do, or hope to do, is to get Kobe as close to 100 percent as possible. This means that they can't rush him back even if he were to miss the beginning of the 2013-14 regular season. Everyone who has watched Kobe knows he will try his hardest to play, but if he isn't ready, management needs to have the gumption to shut him down. I'd doubt he will go Derrick Rose on us.
Given the team's age, health is a big issue for the Lakers. But Dwight Howard's decision whether to stay or go is a much bigger, more immediate issue.
Say what you want about his antics off the court or his propensity to endear himself to critics, but his play, when healthy, is the league's best at the center position. The Lakers will have to find a way to lure him into a contract or hope for the best.
The Lakers defense was terrible all year but didn't slip into all-time-terrible territory because of Howard—this was happening even when Howard was out or nearer to 50 percent than full strength.
Having a healthy Kobe and Howard back in the fold is key, but it won't be enough to push L.A. past what should be a loaded Western Conference next year. In order for that to happen, the Lakers will have to try and trade Pau Gasol for younger players.
Should the Lakers trade Pau Gasol?
D'Antoni has shown he isn't able to fully utilize the two big men, and with Kobe handling the ball, it's hard to incorporate Steve Nash into the kind of offense that the head coach and point guard ran in Phoenix.
Players like Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilysova and other stretch 4s are perfect fits alongside Howard and Nash. And with the Warriors having postseason success without David Lee, perhaps Golden State will be looking to move its All-Star power forward.
With the San Antonio Spurs getting a year older, the Los Angeles Clippers perhaps losing Chris Paul, the Denver Nuggets possibly losing Andre Iguodala, and injuries and age hounding teams like the Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzles, the Western Conference, while loaded, is there for the taking.
If the Lakers can get Kobe back near his former self, re-sign Dwight and trade Gasol for future assets and a shooter, there's a chance they can advance to the second or third round next season.