Around this time last year, the Lakers popped the blue pill.
As Laker GM Mitch Kupchak is plenty prone to do, he made quick work of the trade market and brought in the likes of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash without giving up Pau Gasol and managed to unload Andrew Bynum on the hapless 76'ers in the process.
The move resuscitated Laker fans' impotent expectations. Gone were the days of speculating the efficacy of Regenokine therapy and questioning Kobe Bryant's shot selection, and soon would come the dawn of a Dwight Howard-led dynasty. Laker fans were all but camping out on Figueroa Street waiting on a parade as they rested reasonably assured of at least an NBA Finals appearance.
Nobody needs to tell Laker Nation that the 2012-13 season went horribly wrong shortly thereafter. It was a failed experiment of throwing together a host of marquee names and praying that it all worked out. It didn't, and now the Lakers have a much more bitter pill to swallow: a roster mired in unsavory contracts and, for the first time since 1997, heading into a season without playoff expectations.
Swallowing the red pill is always painful—but the NBA is a business where the worst place to come face-to-face with reality is on the court. Here are some points to be made about the Lakers moving forward, and how they can most quickly return to contention.
The Lakers Don't Absolutely Have to Re-Sign Dwight Howard
Laker fans seem to want Dwight Howard back long term, but to paraphrase Howard's demeanor in the 2013 NBA Playoffs: it's not the end of the world if it doesn't happen. By requesting a team that is going to be perennially in contention, Howard (like LeBron James before him) is revealing that he understands he will only go as far as the teammates around him. Unlike James, Howard fails to realize that, as a potential future face of the franchise, the onus is on him to create a perennially contending culture.
Nowhere was Dwight's defense-first mindset more needed than in Lakerland, where it became increasingly evident that Bryant's on-the-ball defense had essentially evaporated. Nash will play out the rest of his career getting routinely torched off the dribble, and seven-foot Spaniard Pau Gasol amounted to little more than a matador in the paint.
The Lakers need to breed a culture of defense first—a culture that proliferates in the four contending teams (San Antonio, Memphis, Indiana, Miami). Theoretically, the responsibility of changing that culture would fall squarely on Howard's shoulders.
The problem is that Howard isn't a natural leader. While NBA legend and former Laker Shaquille O'Neal was well-liked by the entire league and notorious for acting like a big spoiled kid at times, the similarly affable Howard lacks the singular drive and simple desire to dominate that seemed hardwired into Shaq's DNA.
Shaq choked the life out of teams with his ferociousness on the court, then shook hands with his opponents and signed autographs for their kids afterwards. Howard seems to be smiling all the time, whether he does it because he can't seem to be made to care that the game could end in a loss, or whether he's doing it to sarcastically register his all-important emotions with the refs at the expense of his team.
Translation: Howard is a good second-best player on a team—not someone you build a franchise around. The question is do you handcuff yourself by signing your second best player to a max contract and limit the possibilities of landing the right mix of free agents in 2014? Perhaps you'd prefer to keep Howard this year and he fights like a dog to keep the Lakers above .500—all the while pushing the Lakers out of the running for a lottery pick in the loaded 2014 NBA draft? Is the "maybe it's better if the Lakers don't sign Dwight Howard" argument making sense yet?
The Lakers Cannot Afford to Re-Sign Kobe Bryant in 2014—At Any Price
Bryant is trying his best to be the basketball version of Norma Desmond, clinging onto whatever statistical life he can still muster in order to make the case that he isn't actually over the hill. Call it what you like, but the tape does all the talking. Bryant is going to be no longer anywhere near the player he once was, and those who watched his defense suffer over the past two seasons will only see it approach Nash-esque levels of futility once the repaired Achilles robs him of what little mobility he had remaining on the defensive end.
The main case for not re-signing Bryant, however, is actually far more league-based than it is anything that has to do with Kobe. Hero ball, for lack of a better word, is dead. If there was anything evident from this year's playoffs, it's that refs are calling far less ticky-tack incidental-contact fouls and teams are pretty much inviting players to take hero shots. The teams that advanced through to the Conference semifinals were, without exception, gritty, defensive-minded teams with an emphasis on sharing the ball and giving everyone touches—about creating the best opportunity for the best-suited player.
Bryant, for all his Wilt Chamberlain-inspired assist mongering, is not a proponent of this school of basketball. It's not that he refuses to buy into the team—it's that for so many years, he was the team. He doesn't know any other style of play besides "guard the other team's best perimeter player, slash-in and take mid-range jumpers"—and he clearly wasn't content playing off the ball watching Nash run the offense last season.
Bryant really should round his career out as a Laker, but if the Lakers don't re-sign him in 2014, something tells me they won't regret it. NBA pundits like to break down players like assets whose appraisals are based on quantitative analysis, but oftentimes fail to account for a locker room culture which may undermine a team's chemistry. If Bryant wants to chase the record books while feeding his pocketbook, he might end up doing it with another team.
Short-Term Rebuild in 2014
2014 free agency is the true test for the Lakers, and with so little on the books and a likely forgettable season in the works, the prospect of the offseason only becomes far more enticing. The much vaunted 2003 draft class comes off the books in the 2014 offseason, so the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and yes, LeBron James will be free to sign elsewhere.
What the Lakers ought to be looking at, though, is also budding young stars with great two-way games like Paul George, or defensively established players with big upside like a Larry Sanders. Complementing these top players with more defensively versatile swingmen like Thabo Sefolosha or Iman Shumpert would be a good way to build a strong core moving forward.
And if the Lakers really do play poorly next year, there's always the loaded 2014 NBA draft. While I don't see a team of Kobe's ghost, Gasol and Nash winning the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, there is a lot of exciting young talent (including NBA defense-ready bigs like Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein or Kansas' Joel Embiid) on deck for next year.
Despite a disappointing season in 2012-13 and probably another one on slate for next year with the likely departure of Howard, nobody navigates the league's machinations more gracefully than Kupchak, whose various personnel moves over the span of his career have managed to keep the Lakers in contention for the better part of the past decade. The Lakers will swallow the red pill this season, but 2014 presents an opportunity for the Lakers to make the league see purple and gold.