Blueprint for Los Angeles Lakers' Version of 'Rebuilding' Process
They compete for championships as if by birthright. They've missed the playoffs just five times in their 65-year history and have won 16 championships in 31 trips to the NBA Finals.
Their storied history, attractive location in Southern California and massive revenue streams leave the Lakers all but immune to the countervailing forces that dictate the league's circle of championship life. Superstars just don't ditch the purple and gold of their own free will and accord.
The Lakers don't rebuild; they reload.
Except they may have to resort to the former if their plans for the latter fall through next summer.
For now, the Lakers are trapped between those two paths—in the NBA's version of no-man's land. They would've been hard-pressed to contend for a title in 2014 with Dwight and certainly won't be any closer without him.
In fact, the Western Conference looks to be so stacked with legitimate hopefuls—including the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Howard's Rockets—that finding a spot in the postseason will be a tough enough task in itself for the Purple and Gold.
The Golden State Warriors should have a spot of their own sewn up on the fringes, with the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and perhaps even the newly rebranded New Orleans Pelicans duking it out for the final two or three seeds.
The Lakers, meanwhile, will look to break through that pack of potential playoff participants with a roster whose core features a soon-to-be 35-year-old coming off a torn Achilles (Kobe Bryant), a 39-year-old point guard who missed a personal-worst 32 games last season (Steve Nash) and a 33-year-old coming off the most injury-plagued and least productive campaign of his career (Pau Gasol).
A 33-year-old Metta World Peace would've been in the mix, too, except Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register is reporting that the Lakers plan to cut him via the amnesty provision once the window to do so opens on July 10.
The Lakers will still be limited by penalties related to the luxury tax after MWP's dismissal.
The addition of free-agent center Chris Kaman, which was reported by Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, and the salaries to be attached to those filling out the rest of L.A.'s roster practically ensure as much.
All of which is to say, the Lakers are just about screwed for the 2013-14 season—at least as far as consistently competitive competency is concerned.
Unless Kobe regains his former form by, say, January or February (doubtful), Nash plays more like his Phoenix Suns self (also doubtful), Gasol dominates inside (even more doubtful now that Kaman's on the roster) and the Lakers as a whole somehow discover a more effective defensive identity after losing one of the most impactful stoppers in recent NBA history (doubt doesn't even begin to describe how slim those odds are), L.A. will in all likelihood be fated to watch ping pong balls bounce in the NBA draft lottery for the first time since 2005.
As it happens, that didn't work out too badly for the Lakers. They added a 17-year-old kid by the name of Andrew Bynum with the 10th pick in the 2005 draft. All he did was suffer through multiple knee injuries before developing into a key cog on two championship teams and an All-Star starter shortly thereafter.
And as easy as it might be to laugh at the Lakers as losers in the Howard deal, they could've done much worse by having Bynum spend the 2012-13 season teasing out his hair on their bench rather than Philly's.
Luckily for the Lakers, the draft class of 2014 figures to be the deepest and most talented of the last decade. Andrew Wiggins is but the biggest name from a crop that's already drawing comparisons to the one from 2003 that featured the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.
Each of whom will be on L.A.'s radar next summer, depending on which of those perennial All-Stars exercise the early termination options on their respective contracts.
Call me a skeptic, but I have my doubts as to how much of a bonanza next year's free-agent frenzy will actually be for teams like the Lakers, whose payroll will consist solely of Nash's $9.7 million salary for 2014-15.
Are any of the Miami Heat's Big Three actually going to leave South Beach if the defending champions extend their current run to a three-peat? What are the odds that 'Melo leaves behind his hometown New York Knicks, who will once again rank among a select slew of teams to challenge the Heat in the Eastern Conference?
Would any superstar willingly leave his current, competitive squad to cast his winning lot with a Lakers team coming off a trip to the lottery, under the auspices of muddled management and with an old Kobe potentially lording over the entire organization?
The pool of restricted free agents would appear to hold plenty of promise at first glance.
However, that group gets whittled down in a hurry once you consider that the franchise-caliber talents in the group will either be locked into rookie max extensions (Paul George, John Wall, Greg Monroe) or shielded by threats by their current teams matching any and all offer sheets (DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors, Larry Sanders).
If the Lakers determine that luring a new cornerstone to L.A. in 2014 isn't in the cards, they could hypothetically consider a more concerted, less competitive strategy for the upcoming season.
Suppose the team stinks from the get-go, which is a distinct possibility at this point. Perhaps management urges Kobe to take his time coming back from his torn Achilles to ensure that he's in tip-top shape for the stretch run of his career rather than rushing him into action again.
While Bryant's away, perhaps Nash and Gasol play well enough, albeit on a losing team, to draw the attention of contenders in search of key veteran additions. Perhaps the Lakers flip those two for draft picks and/or young prospects.
Or perhaps the Lakers keep those two around to build chemistry while the front office bides its time.
Am I suggesting that the Lakers "tank" the season, that they pursue a strategy of temporary failure that's typically left to the league's more plebeian clubs? I'll let you pick a label.
How will the Lakers fare in 2013-14?
The point is, if the Lakers aren't going to win now and aren't going to realistically attract a marquee player shortly thereafter, then they might as well write off the 2013-14 season.
Use the losing as an excuse to clean house where necessary (Mike D'Antoni, anyone?), add a young talent in the draft lottery, re-sign Kobe—and Pau, if he hasn't already been sent packing—at a discount and maintain enough financial flexibility to be players in the market in 2015, when Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and Marc Gasol are expected to headline an impressive free-agent class.
They might actually seek out new places to play, assuming the Lakers bounce back and their competitors—on which some of these stars play—simultaneously decline.
In essence, the Lakers could adopt an approach not unlike the one that, admittedly, hasn't worked so well for the Dallas Mavericks since they won their title in 2011. Since then, the Mavs have struck out with Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, and weren't able to get a word in edgewise with Chris Paul, who recommitted to the Los Angeles Clippers at the opening of free agency this month.
The Lakers, though, would appear to have quite a bit more cachet with which to work than would the Mavs.
Mark Cuban has done his darndest to take potshots at the Lakers while appealing to players with his new-age sensibilities, but even he would have to admit that his Mavs don't carry the same weight that L.A.'s brand has had for decades.
And as bad as it looks for the Lakers to have lost Howard after going out of their way to convince him to stay, at least they made an earnest effort to keep him. The same can't quite be said of the Mavs with their own free agents after the way they split with Steve Nash in 2004 and Tyson Chandler in 2011.
Still, as Dallas has shown, pursuing a two-year plan predicated so precariously on the winds of free agency is rife with risk.
But the Lakers aren't the Mavericks, much less most teams.
If Mitch Kupchak and company play their cards right, history will once again side with the Lakers in relatively short order.
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