If you hadn't noticed, things aren't exactly looking up for the Los Angeles Lakers right now. Dwight Howard's gone, Kobe Bryant's on the shelf with a torn Achilles, Pau Gasol's old (33), Steve Nash is even older (39), Jim Buss is purportedly running the show...
The list goes on. But not all is doom and gloom in Lakerland. Even Grantland's Bill Simmons, a well-known "Laker hater" due to his love of the Boston Celtics, was able to concoct a scheme (albeit a far-fetched one) for bringing L.A.'s top draw back to prominence.
The team's books will be clean, save for Nash's contract ($9,701,000), next summer. The 2014 NBA draft has been touted as the best and deepest in over a decade.
L.A. is still L.A., and the Lakers are still the Lakers. So long as the franchise doesn't completely run aground at some point (knock on wood), there will always be stars who want to wear the Purple and Gold and live in sunny Southern California year-round.
We're not talking about the Dallas Mavericks, who, despite the best efforts of exuberant owner Mark Cuban, bring neither the historical cachet nor the attractive location to reasonably expect free agents to flock there.
Not that the Lakers aren't in danger of falling into the same despair-filled pit of a superstar's twilight into which the Mavs are now creeping. The sadists among those who despise the Purple and Gold and the fatalists among those who love them will certainly identify with these hair-raising scenarios that could befall the NBA's biggest brand.
What if...Kobe Bryant isn't the same guy when he gets back?
This seems highly likely, given the dubious history of aging stars who've suffered the same Achilles tear from which Kobe is working to come back. One need only look across the hall, to Chauncey Billups' forgettable 2012-13 season with the Los Angeles Clippers, to get a glimpse at how difficult an injury it is to "shake off."
Like Billups, Bryant is a superb competitor who won't back down from the challenge of proving his doubters wrong. He's already attacked his rehab with his signature Black Mamba ferocity, to the point where he now expects to return to "full activity" by mid-August:
That would put him just four months out from when he felt the pop in his foot—a pop that usually requires about nine months to recover from, if not more.
Even if Kobe does get back to business so soon, chances are he won't be the same player anyway. At his age (he'll turn 35 in August), Bryant has already begun to deal with the deleterious effects that 17 seasons of NBA basketball have wrought on his body. A repaired Achilles certainly won't help in that regard.
If Kobe adjusts accordingly, by relying more heavily than ever on deception and skill over physical ability, then he can still be a productive scorer in this league, albeit with blatant limitations on the defensive end. If he doesn't, Bryant could just as soon submarine the Lakers' hopes for success amid his own stubborn attempt to prove that he's just as good now as he was pre-injury.
That, in turn, could scare away potential superstar successors in 2014 and 2015, who may not be so keen to team up with a hobbled (and delusional) Mamba.
What if...Kobe retires after the season?
It could be worse, though. The Lakers could lose Kobe entirely if he turns out to be far more limited in his abilities than he'd anticipated. Bryant said many times before that he doesn't want to hang around if he can't perform at an All-Star level.
If Bryant opts for retirement, he'd leave the Lakers without an on-court face for the franchise and without a steady link to the team's recent championship success.
Hypothetically speaking, that could be a good thing for L.A.. If Kobe's gone, there will be question as to who will bear the team's historic torch if/when another all-world talent signs on.
Then again, would the Lakers actually be better off without a resident superstar to entice another to come? And if nobody takes Kobe's place, how deep into the dark doldrums of mediocrity will the Lakers fall, and for how long?
What if...Kobe comes back, but he refuses to take a pay cut?
Keeping a relatively effective Kobe around for another two-to-three years makes sense for the Lakers, but only if the price is right.
At this point, there's no guarantee that it will be. Kobe has yet to so much as discuss an extension with the Lakers, given the serious nature of his injury:
Though he did hint to Serena Winters of Lakers Nation that he won't necessarily submit to a slash of his salary:
Granted, that may be more of a negotiating ploy than anything else. Still, if Bryant decides that he won't play for anything less than, say, $20 million per year (i.e. about a $10 million discount from what he'll earn in 2013-14), that still leaves the Lakers with some concerns as they attempt to build a winner around Kobe. That would leave L.A. with room enough to sign a free agent to a max contract, though any major maneuvers beyond that might be tricky.
And if Kobe thinks it is his right to take up more than half the Lakers' cap space on his own, then fashioning a contender in L.A. will be that much tougher for Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss.
What if...Kobe's return deters big-name free agents the way it turned off Dwight Howard?
Even if Kobe comes back at a price that's right for the Lakers (i.e. $10-12 million per year, like what Kevin Garnett got from the Celtics and Tim Duncan took from the San Antonio Spurs during their most recent contract talks), there's no telling what effect he'll have on the franchise's ability to bring in free agents.
Will Bryant step up his recruiting efforts? Will he try to woo those who come to L.A. seeking a taste of that Purple-and-Gold glory?
Or will he "keep it real" in a way that discourages other superstars from signing on, as he allegedly did with Dwight Howard? Will he be ready to cede at least some of his control over the team's affairs to a younger player? Or will he stubbornly hold onto his place in the Lakers' past without fully acknowledging the team's needs for the future?
What if...next summer's marquee free agents aren't interested in joining a losing team?
This is especially the case if the Lakers lose as much and as often in 2013-14 as they currently seem set up to. With their paper-thin roster, susceptibility to further injury and lack of flexibility with which to upgrade the roster, the Lakers are all but ticketed for a down year.
When coupled with the depth of the Western Conference, that could have the Lakers swimming with the fishes in the draft lottery.
That may be good for L.A.'s chances of landing Andrew Wiggins or any of the other blue-chippers slated to join the Association next summer, but it won't be so swell for the Lakers as free agent suitors. After all, are any of the Miami Heat's Big Three going to flee South Beach for the uncertainty inherent in a losing situation like that of the Lakers? Would Carmelo take a similar risk in leaving behind his hometown New York Knicks?
That seems doubtful, considering the time it typically takes for a team to congeal into a contender and the fleeting primes in which each of those stars is currently embroiled at one stage or another.
What if...those free agents don't wind up on the market after all?
It's also entirely possible that all four of those big names stay put. LeBron, Wade and Bosh would be hard-pressed to ditch their cozy circumstances in Miami if the Heat round off a three-peat next spring. Can you imagine any of those three forgoing a shot at a fourth straight title in 2015 and the immortality that such a rare accomplishment would afford?
Neither can I. Nor can I envision 'Melo parting ways with the Knicks if they crack the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014. They came within two wins of doing that this past May, and they will return most of last year's principals along with the additions of Andrea Bargnani and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr.
Beyond those four, the Lakers will have to keep their fingers crossed that next summer's top restricted free agents (i.e. Paul George, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors, Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward, etc.) don't all either sign long-term extensions by October's end or see their teams fend off competitors by threatening to match any and all offer sheets.
At that point, the Lakers would have to hope that Rudy Gay opts out of his deal with the Toronto Raptors, or they'd have to resort to throwing money at souped-up role players like Luol Deng, Andrew Bogut, Danny Granger and Marcin Gortat.
They could see if promises of beaucoup bucks would be enough to lure Tony Parker away from the San Antonio Spurs...or Dirk Nowitzki from the Mavs...or even Paul Pierce to play for a franchise he once antagonized as a member of the Celtics.
The free-agent class of 2014 could be deep, though it's just as likely that the pool of prospective employees dries up quickly for everyone, the Lakers included.
What if...the Lakers lose, but they don't lose enough to land a premier pick in the 2014 NBA draft?
That would hurt, though it'd hardly be the end of the world for the Lakers. They could always look to roll over some of their cap space into 2014-15, when another star-studded class of free agents comes available, while grooming a talented rookie to eventually be the face of the franchise...
Unless, of course, the Lakers try to, you know, win games and push for the playoffs this year. That is all too distinct a possibility, given Kobe's hypercompetitive nature and likely desire to prove to Howard that he made the wrong choice.
Among other things.
At this point, though, it's tough to envision L.A. finishing any higher than seventh or eighth in the West. The Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies and Warriors figure to occupy the top six spots in some order, with the Timberwolves, Trail Blazers and Pelicans fighting for the final two.
Those three teams perfectly fit the profile of a team that should be gunning for a playoff spot, even if it's not a particularly plum one. Such seeds serve as the perfect stepping stones for young, up-and-coming teams on the way to bigger and better things. Think of the Thunder in 2010, the Grizzlies in 2011 and the Rockets this past postseason.
The Lakers don't belong in that group whatsoever. They're old and only getting older, and they're far from title contention right now. If anything, the Lakers should do what their arch-rival Celtics have already done: blow the whole operation to smithereens, stink for a year and land a young savior.
But they won't do that, not as long as Kobe has something to say about it, presuming he's healthy enough to make a difference. He'll make sure L.A. goes all-out for a low seed.
And if the Lakers miss, they'll likely wind up with a late lottery pick, from which All-Stars rarely emerge.
What if...2014-15 turns into a disaster?
Falling in the NBA's "muddled middle" would only prolong the misery for the Lakers and their fans, who, for better or worse, expect to see new championship banners hung up year after year.
Suppose L.A. wins too many games to land a future superstar, strikes out in pursuit of mega-marquee free agents next summer, and comes back with a 36-year-old Kobe, a 34-year-old Pau, a 40-year-old Nash and various fluff from the market. That might be enough to once again push for a middling playoff spot.
That would only leave the Lakers out of the loop for what could be another promising draft class in 2015, while also sopping up much of the cap space that Mitch Kupchak could otherwise toss at Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rajon Rondo, to name a few, in the summer of 2015.
The Lakers might also try to roll over much of their flexibility from 2014 into 2015 and, if necessary, into 2016.
At which point we arrive at our final "what if"...
What if...the Lakers turn into the Mavs?
If that happens, the Lakers will have to resign themselves to life as an NBA also-ran, rather than a member of basketball royalty.
Unless/until someone comes along to rescue the Lakers from anonymity, be it a nostalgic superstar, a Hall of Famer with an itch for front-office work (Phil Jackson, anybody?), or someone with either the proper pocket depth or the flat-out gumption to wrest control of the franchise from Jim Buss' hands.
The possibilities are endless...and positively maddening.
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