We've still got two months of basketball doldrums through which to slog until the opening of NBA training camps and nearly three months until the 2013-14 regular season tips off, and already the Los Angeles Lakers have been written off by people left and right.
Yours truly included, and not without reason. Dwight Howard's gone. Kobe Bryant's working his way back from a torn Achilles. Pau Gasol's old and coming off surgery on both of his knees. Steve Nash is even older. Metta World Peace is gone. The title of "Biggest Summer Signing" in LA is currently split between Chris Kaman and Nick Young.
Other than that, everything looks just peachy for the Lakers...
Dire straits of this nature, while uncommon in the history of the league's marquee franchise, are far more familiar within the narrower scope of Kobe's career. In 2004, the Lakers parted ways with another superstar center (Shaquille O'Neal), albeit willingly and amidst threats that Bryant might play for the Los Angeles Clippers if such changes weren't made.
Not surprisingly, the season that followed was a tumultuous one. The Lakers missed the playoffs for just the fifth time in franchise history. They posted a 34-48 record while stumbling under the short-lived leadership of Rudy Tomjanovich and, after his midseason resignation, Frank Hamblen.
The suffering wasn't all for naught, though. The Lakers parlayed the No. 10 pick in the 2005 NBA Draft (i.e. their reward for stinking) into Andrew Bynum, who would eventually develop into a key cog on a two-time champion.
But not before the summer of 2007, when Kobe infamously lobbied the Lakers to trade Bynum for Jason Kidd, then of the New Jersey Nets (WARNING: this video contains strong language from the mouth of the Mamba).
That season started on a more promising note than most anyone expected. Bynum showed some serious flashes on the court at the tender age of 20, particularly during a 122-115 win over the Phoenix Suns, in which the big fella tallied 28 points (on 11-of-13 shooting), 12 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks.
Eight games later, the Lakers were off to a strong 25-11 start...and Bynum was done. His kneecap popped out of place after he accidentally landed on Lamar Odom's foot, and with that, the promise of LA's big bounce-back season seemed to fly out the window.
Except, things didn't turn out all that poorly for the Purple and Gold. In that crisis, GM Mitch Kupchak saw an opportunity to make a big move and seized upon it in a shocking way. He pried Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies at the trade deadline, thereby laying the foundation for a run of three straight NBA Finals appearances for the Kobe-led Lakers.
The question is, will the impending doldrums of the 2013-14 season be more akin to 2004-05 (a lost campaign that planted the seeds for a greater comeback down the lines) or to 2007-08 (a promising season that seemed lost before the Lakers jumped on/stumbled into an opportunity)? At what point in the life cycle of a franchise are the Lakers right now? Does anyone really know?
The answers to these questions will depend on how the upcoming campaign plays out, and, more importantly, how Buss, Kupchak and the team's brain trust react to its unfolding. In 2004-05, the Lakers appeared to understand that the ceiling for the squad wasn't so high and that stinking down the stretch wouldn't be the worst thing, especially with Rudy T's exit as cover. They climbed as high as six games above .500 under Tomjanovich before finishing the season on a 2-18 skid.
Three years later, Kobe's impatience (among other things) demanded that the Lakers not throw in the towel, even with another strong draft at hand. So, rather than risk more tumult from Bryant, Kupchak and company made that now-infamous swipe of Gasol.
As it happens, Bryant and Gasol will have everything to do with the direction in which the Lakers move this coming season. The team will lean heavily on Pau at the pivot from the outset while Kobe continues to rehab his ailing foot. An effective pairing of Gasol and Steve Nash can, if both are healthy, be enough to keep the Lakers relatively competitive, at least on the offensive end. Both are naturally unselfish and supremely skilled at the two most vital positions in basketball: center and point guard.
Not that it's necessarily worked well in practice. According to NBA.com, the Lakers were outscored by 33 points during the 539 minutes those two shared in 2012-13.
Kupchak, though, sounded more optimistic (however cautiously) about LA's prospects with Gasol and Nash leading the way during a recent interview with Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times:
Everything's good with Steve [Nash]. Pau [Gasol] should be fine. We've added some athleticism. We're hopefully putting ourselves in position where we can compete in every game.
That seems like a stretch, considering how injury-plagued last season was for each. Both established new career worsts for games missed: 32 for Nash with a broken bone in his leg and recurring back problems, 33 for Gasol with tendinitis in his knees and a torn plantar fascia.
But Kupchak was also rather sunny when speaking of each foreign-born star's condition:
I expect both those guys to participate in training camp. Kobe is obviously the wild card right now.
I spoke to Pau about two weeks ago for 45 minutes. He said he feels a lot better than he did a month ago. He was optimistic that he'd be ready for training camp. He does plan on playing three or four more years, and there's no reason why he shouldn't with his skill level.
We saw Nash out here last week. If I had to guess, he feels he's in the 90th-percentile of where he wants to be. We still have two more months.
If they can both make a contribution in line with what they've done in the past, then we think we can win a bunch of games with this team.
Okay, so Nash might be 100-percent by the time training camp starts, and Gasol is "optimistic" that he'll be ready by that time as well. Not exactly news to put the anxious hearts of Lakers fans at ease.
What about Kobe, though? These Lakers can fiddle around all they want with Nash and Gasol, but they're not about to make a run at anything meaningful without Bryant back.
Per Kupchak, the date of Kobe's return to the court—much less his return to being Kobe—is still very much up in the air:
Obviously, we're all hopeful and we all know Kobe. When you guess on Kobe, he always tries to prove you wrong. The reality is he's doing what he should be doing. He's making progress probably weekly.
Does that mean five months is possible or it's really going to be eight or nine or 10? We just don't know. When he gets back in September, we'll take another look at him, but he hasn't been on a basketball court. It's really premature to try to predict other than try to be optimistic that he'll be ready for opening night or the 15th of November or the 1st of December or the 15th of December.
There's no doubt that Kobe will do everything in his power to be back in action ahead of the six-to-nine-month schedule outlined after his surgery. That's just part of who he is as a competitor. Wherever there's an opportunity to prove someone wrong, Bryant will find it.
Therein lies a dilemma. The longer Kobe's out, the worse the Lakers' prospects for immediate success become. But if Bryant tries to return too soon, the risk of re-injury increases significantly. Moreover, a rushed-back Kobe probably means a Kobe who, while effective in fits and spurts, is only a shell of his former self and will be until he gives himself the proper recovery time.
Heck, if Dwight Howard, an in-his-prime iron man, never quite shook the lingering effects of serious back surgery after hurrying himself into the Lakers lineup, who's to say that Kobe, who turns 35 in August, will have any more success rebounding from an injury that's (arguably) even more debilitating?
In which case, the Lakers probably stink their way to a lottery pick in the deepest draft in years, a la 2004-05. Or, perhaps Pau plays well enough to garner interest as a trade chip (and expiring contract) in a larger trade for one of a handful of potentially disgruntled stars (LaMarcus Aldridge? Kevin Love? Rajon Rondo?), a la 2007-08. Maybe something similar happens with Nash, who's under contract until 2015.
Whatever happens, the Lakers aren't going to tank intentionally. They'll do everything they can to win, so long as Kobe's around to crack the whip. In truth, making a good-faith effort to win now, despite so many signs pointing to the contrary, is a sensible strategy for the Lakers to pursue. No superstar is likely to ditch his current club to come to LA if the team doesn't appear to be trying to win.
That doesn't mean they'll panic if things turn south. Kupchak understands that attempting to lay too concrete a plan over a situation as rife with uncertainty as the one the Lakers are in is a futile endeavor. Taking a more pragmatic, open-ended approach keeps the Lakers flexible enough to pursue any number of avenues—from chasing a big-name free agent next summer to moving up in the 2014 draft to rolling over their financial flexibility from year to year—depending on how things shake out:
You have to look beyond next year. You can't say we have all this flexibility and we're going to use it all next year. You don't know if you're going to use it for a free agent or a trade or to sign back Pau or Kobe. We're in the position where we can sit down at the end of the year and look and see what's best for the organization. We're in control, so to speak.
In terms of the cycle that other teams go through, we're probably in as good a position as we could be. But there's a lot of unknowns. It's unpredictable what exactly is going to take place a year from now."
Should the Lakers stink, the draft will still be there. So will much of the cap space that could be on hand if Kupchak plays his cards right, according to Jared Dubin of Grantland.
If there's anything we've learned about the Lakers over the years, it's that they of all teams know best how to turn lemons into delicious lemonade, to squeeze something worthwhile out of even the most morbid of campaigns.
And that they'll always rise again—probably sooner and with a bigger bang than anyone originally anticipated.