The word "rebuild" doesn't exactly exist for the Los Angeles Lakers, which makes a blueprint for expediting the process even more imperative.
General manager Mitch Kupchak has his work cut out for him now that the franchise has just one player on the roster past the upcoming 2013-14 season, but that doesn't mean it's impossible for him to quickly build a championship-caliber squad.
In fact, it's easier that way. After all, he has plenty of money to play around with.
Some of the steps on this blueprint are more involved than others, but none are too difficult on their own. It's putting them all together that makes this a challenging process.
In just seven steps, though, the Lakers could be right back in the hunt for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. 2013-14 might be painful, but that doesn't mean the next season has to be.
The first key to an immediate turnaround is freeing up as much cap space as possible.
Unless Nick Young decides to use his player option and return for another season while making minimal money, the Lakers will have just one player on the roster: Steve Nash. Seriously, that's it. Every other player will be some kind of free agent or have a non-guaranteed contract.
Nash is owed $9.7 million, which could put a crimp in L.A.'s plans to re-sign Kobe Bryant and add more star players, but the collective bargaining agreement's stretch provision is the saving grace.
According to the new CBA, a team can take a player's salary if it stems from a contract signed during the pre-lockout CBA and stretch it out over a few years. The years are doubled and one more is added, then the payment is split over that number of seasons.
So for Nash, we're looking at paying $9.7 million over the course of three years, rather than one, dropping the financial expenditure for 2014-15 to just over $3.2 million.
That's a lot easier for the team to work with.
The only problem is that the Lakers would have to waive Nash in order to use the stretch provision, so he'd no longer be a part of the championship plans. Unfortunately, this is necessary since the point guard will then be on the wrong side of 40.
Kobe Bryant's look in the picture above says it all. He won't be particularly pleased with a pay cut, and he might even sarcastically clap once or twice.
However, the Lakers need their preeminent superstar to sign a cheaper contract once he hits the open market. If he insists on signing another max deal, he'll prevent Mitch Kupchak from having any financial flexibility.
That results in more empty fingers upon retirement.
Kobe won't be able to win another championship without significant help, and the caliber of players he needs can only be secured if the Lake Show has sufficient money to play with.
Here's a quote from Larry Coon's fantastic NBA Salary Cap FAQ:
A free agent's maximum salary in the first year of a new contract is never less than 105 percent of his salary in the last year of his previous contract. For example, a 10-year veteran free agent who most recently earned $20 million has a maximum salary of at least $21 million, even if that is above the league-wide maximum.
That means that if Bryant wanted to, he could be paid just under $32 million in 2013-14 and completely cripple the organization's hopes of signing multiple great players.
This cannot happen.
For the Lakers to realistically have a shot at two max-contract players and still be able to build a competent surrounding roster, Kobe needs to take $15 million or less. It's not like he needs the money anyway.
When surrounded by the right players, Mike D'Antoni can be a great coach. Such was the case earlier in the 2000s, when the Phoenix Suns thrived using his "seven seconds or less" offensive system.
However, those Suns were a special group, excelling thanks to the pick-and-roll talents of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire while bursting over with athletic shooters who could run the court with ease. Since then, D'Antoni hasn't experienced much success.
He simply isn't the right coach for the Lakers.
It's impossible to build a D'Antoni offense from scratch in just one season, especially when featuring an aging Kobe Bryant in the starting lineup. A more traditional coach, ideally one who specializes in building chemistry between players, is a much better option.
We don't yet know who will be available during the 2014 offseason, but one thing is certain: There will be a more appealing option than the incumbent.
While the free-agent class next summer looks absolutely loaded beyond belief, it's a bit of a mirage. Many of the stars who are technically hitting the open market have a caveat attached to their resumes: They're restricted free agents.
John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Greg Monroe all fall into this category.
The Lakers might have interest in pursuing each of them—especially George—but that would result in a lot of wasted time. Restricted free agents can sign with any team, but they're only putting ink to paper on an offer sheet; their original teams can still match the offer.
Does anyone realistically think that the Indiana Pacers won't match even a max-contract offer for their star player? Do we really believe that the Sacramento Kings or Washington Wizards are going to let their former Kentucky standouts escape?
There's a slight chance that Monroe could be expendable if Josh Smith and Andre Drummond both thrive in the frontcourt for the Detroit Pistons, but that's still unlikely.
The easiest way to lure away a restricted free agent is by offering an asset in return via a sign-and-trade deal, but the Lakers don't have any movable assets. Nash's contract isn't appealing, and the draft picks the Lake Show does possess (after the 2014 NBA draft) aren't going to be very valuable.
L.A. needs to save itself the trouble. Don't waste time pursuing George, Wall and the other top-tier restricted free agents.
With Kobe still in the backcourt and the incoming free-agent stars (more on that later) likely to be forwards, center must be a major priority in the stellar 2014 draft.
The Lakers can no longer think of Dwight Howard as the center of the future, and neither Chris Kaman nor Robert Sacre are likely to fill that void. Andrew Bogut, Emeka Okafor and Marcin Gortat are the top unrestricted centers expected to become available, but that trio doesn't stand out much.
Throughout the franchise's storied history, centers have always played a key part in championship runs. George Mikan started the trend during the BAA and early NBA days, while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol continued it in more modern times.
Finding a star center is crucial, and the Lakers are lucky that it's possibly the strongest and deepest position in the next draft class.
L.A. might not want to admit it, but a playoff berth at the end of the 2013-14 season is looking increasingly unlikely. It's possible, but a lot depends on the health of Kobe's Achilles and the expected rises of many former Western Conference lottery teams.
At the moment, the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers seem like postseason locks. That's already six of the eight spots.
The Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans will all be competing for the final two playoff berths, and I'd put the Lake Show fourth in the pecking order.
A lottery pick seems likely, which is depressing to fans in the present but beneficial for the future rebuilding process. And unless the ping-pong balls bounce favorably and give the Lakers a shot at drafting one of the "Elite Seven" (Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon or Andrew Harrison), they should be looking at a center.
According to DraftExpress' latest mock draft, five centers are projected to go in the top 15: Montrezl Harrell (who you can see pictured up above), Mitch McGary, Joel Embiid, Isaiah Austin and Willie Cauley-Stein.
The Lakers should stay away from Embiid, who is very much a project player, but drafting one of the other four is the best way to ensure strength at the 5 for the near and distant future.
Now comes the toughest part of the process: finding the star players.
Kobe is already on board, forming one third of the Big Three that seems to be so necessary to compete in the modern-day NBA. However, two more puzzle pieces are still vital.
Carmelo Anthony has already been gaining steam as one of the premier targets, and for good reason. He has a great relationship with Kobe, who has repeatedly stated that he'd love to play with 'Melo, and it's not too unreasonable to expect him to leave the New York Knicks.
N.Y. has no easy way to acquire financial flexibility soon, and there's not much hope of championship-caliber success right now. If he's made out as the scapegoat by the brutal New York media, he's as good as gone.
Of course, the only way to fill the void left by the disappearance of the New York spotlight is to come to Hollywood. It's a natural fit.
Signing Anthony isn't just a priority for the Lakers, but a necessity.
L.A. would love to land LeBron James as well, but that's more of a pipe dream. The world's best player will be hard to lure away from South Beach and Dwyane Wade, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are currently a more likely landing spot than the Purple and Gold should he choose to opt out.
In this blueprint, the Lakers have to look elsewhere. Fortunately, there are still an abundance of options.
At this point in the process, our hypothetical roster consists of an unnamed coach without D'Antoni as a last name, Kobe, 'Melo and a rookie center (preferably Harrell). Power forward is missing, which makes Zach Randolph an interesting target.
Z-Bo has a player option, and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if he chose to exercise it and become an unrestricted free agent. Memphis hasn't done much to improve after losing to the San Antonio Spurs, and another premature exit seems to be looming.
Randolph would be a perfect complement to the rest of the roster, primarily because he's a gritty interior presence who contributes in many facets of the game without functioning as an offensive black hole.
He's an ideal piece in the starting lineup, though free agency does present L.A. with even more options.
The Miami Heat have provided teams with the ultimate overarching blueprint for how to win championships in this era of the "super team."
First, find a Big Three that features one ridiculously dominant player. After that, fill up the roster with players who can function as three-point marksmen or lockdown defenders. Preferably both at the same time.
Using our blueprint here, the Lakers have already successfully completed the first step, though it's up in the air as to whether Kobe or 'Melo will be functioning as the premier stud. I'd lean toward Anthony, given the Mamba's rapidly advancing age.
However, we still have to figure out the second part.
The free-agency class is filled with role players and veterans who would be willing to accept less money for a shot at ring-chasing opportunities. This summer, players have already been taking pay cuts—Chris Kaman and Nick Young in particular—todon a purple-and-gold jersey during a rebuilding year.
Imagine what they'd do when the league's premier franchise (well, it's debatable between the Lakers and Boston Celtics) is truly chasing a championship again.
Players like Brandon Rush should be the first targets, seeing as there will still be a little money to spend. Rush has been largely forgotten after he missed the vast majority of 2012-13 while rehabbing a torn ACL, but he's still a solid perimeter defender and top-notch three-point shooter.
It doesn't stop there.
Think about players like Richard Jefferson (three-point specialist), Thabo Sefolosha (defensive ace), Jason Smith (big body on the inside), Kirk Hinrich (quality backup point guard) and Vince Carter (veteran who needs a ring). The possibilities are nearly limitless.
In fact, we could realistically be looking at a lineup that looks something like this:
- Point guard: Luke Ridnour, Kirk Hinrich
- Shooting guard: Kobe Bryant, Thabo Sefolosha
- Small forward: Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson
- Power forward: Zach Randolph, Elton Brand
- Center: Montrezl Harrell, Jason Smith, Robert Sacre
If any roster would have championship potential, it would be that one. That's a deep team with quality backups at every single position and a good deal of star power in the starting five.
While it will take a bit of luck to make all these steps happen, no individual move is that unreasonable.
Now it's just a matter of putting the plan into action.
Good luck, Mitch.