Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol won't be around forever. But with Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sounding optimistic about both veterans sticking with the team for the foreseeable future, now seems like a good time to examine the options on the 2014 free-agent market that would pair best with L.A.'s incumbent stars.
When asked if Bryant could still be a Laker in three years, Kupchak said, "If he can play at a high level, I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be."
"There really has been no discussions beyond next year for obvious reasons," Kupchak said. "You have a player who is up in age and just had a devastating injury. Obviously, we created an environment with our team where were looking to have financial flexibility a year from now, so that plays into it."
Kupchak also left the door open for forward Pau Gasol to stay with the Lakers beyond the end of his contract, which also expires this year.
"We're in a cycle," Kupchak said. "We're hopeful that within a year from now, we'll have enough flexibility. We're hopeful that Pau and Kobe can continue to play and we'll have options to rebuild the team."
All right, so Kupchak thinks Bryant and Gasol could both remain franchise cornerstones for another few years. But whom should the Lakers be targeting for the not-so-far-off summer of 2014?
A couple of caveats warrant mentioning before we get started.
First, we're going to assume the Bryant returns to health, stays productive and generally retains the same tendencies that have marked his NBA career to this point. A natural, age-related decline is definitely in the cards, but we're assuming No. 24 looks pretty much like himself for the foreseeable future.
Second, we're operating under the assumption that Gasol will also remain an effective player.
Third, and most obviously, in targeting ideal players to pair with Bryant and Gasol in 2014, we're taking for granted that Kupchak is serious about signing both of his stars to contract extensions that won't financially hamstring the franchise.
So with that stuff out of the way, it's time to consider what big-name star would fit best alongside Bryant and Gasol.
It's likely that the Spaniard will finish out his career almost exclusively at the center position. As his foot speed continues to diminish, Gasol will be best utilized as an interior presence on offense. He'll basically be confined to the low block and the elbows, but he won't ever venture much farther out than that.
We all saw what happened when Mike D'Antoni tried to utilize Gasol as a stretch-4, and it wasn't pretty.
In addition, Bryant is going to need more rest as he ages. That means the Lakers' ideal target has to be capable of taking over the offense for significant stretches when Bryant hits the pine.
Got all that? Good. Here are three options, organized in ascending order of likelihood:
The Pipe Dream: King James
Remember all of that stuff about "fit?" Well, forget it. There's no such thing as a bad fit when LeBron James is involved.
He's the best player alive and could essentially fill any and every need the Lakers have.
James could facilitate, play power forward alongside Gasol and easily control the game for as long as Bryant needed to rest. Defensively, Bryant would never have to match up with the opponent's best wing player, and whatever quickness disadvantages the Lakers' aging stars suffered on D, James would erase with his otherworldly help.
As a matter of fact, there's really no point in continuing the list of ways James would help the Lakers. He'd do anything they needed him to do. The only issue would be whether or not Bryant would be willing to take a backseat to a bigger star.
Of course, this already unlikely scenario is also predicated on James exercising his early termination option (Spoiler alert: that'll be the case for the next two options as well.), which he'd have to do before June 30, 2014.
It might sound crazy, but there's actually a pretty good chance James opts out after next season. Think about it: If the Miami Heat don't win a championship, James will think long and hard about sticking around in Miami.
Plus, if Dwyane Wade's health continues to fall apart at the end of every regular season, LBJ won't be very confident in Miami's ability to continue its title streak much longer.
Nobody's saying James is the most likely target for the Lakers in 2014, but there's no question that he's the best one.
Mellow Out? More Like 'Melo In
The case for Carmelo Anthony is similar to the one for James: He's a superstar who could play the 4, take over as the offensive focal point and might be ready for a change of scenery after the 2013-14 season.
Anthony has the same termination clause in his deal as James, meaning he'll have the option to become an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season.
If the New York Knicks don't take a major step forward this year (and there's no compelling reason to think they will), 'Melo might start to get a little desperate in his currently unfulfilled quest to win a title.
For what it's worth, Bryant told Hoopsworld's Alex Kennedy in 2011 that he wouldn't mind pairing up with Anthony:
I would actually like to play with Melo...I would love to play with Melo because I would know that I have an inside presence. That’s really been the biggest strength with our Lakers team. We have a lot of guys who can play in the post, and that’s how you win championships...But yeah, I would love to play with Melo.
So, does anyone think Bryant might like to play with 'Melo? It wasn't clear to me from the excerpt.
Like a Bosh
It's appropriate that Chris Bosh is the No. 3 option here. After all, that's the role he's been filling with the Heat since 2010.
But in this instance, he's in this position because he's actually the top target for the Lakers.
That's because he's actually the most likely big name to end up with the Lakers, and he would fit perfectly into D'Antoni's system. (Note: I recognize the leap of faith I'm making by assuming that D'Antoni will be the Lakers coach a year from now. Just go with it.)
First of all, Bosh would be able to shift back to his natural power forward position with Gasol at the 5. There, he'd constitute the fulfillment of D'Antoni's wildest dreams: a highly skilled big man with a deadly jumper.
Bosh is arguably the best mid-range shooter in the NBA, and he showed the ability to take his perimeter game all the way out to the three-point arc last season. He's an absolutely ideal floor-spacer in D'Antoni's beloved offensive scheme.
Plus, we know from Bosh's time with the Toronto Raptors that he's capable of taking over as a No. 1 option when necessary. Don't let the past three seasons with the Heat erase the last five years of Bosh's career with the Raps in which he averaged at least 22.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in every season.
Granted, it's hard to envision Bosh giving up the $20 million he could make in the 2014-15 season by exercising his ETO. But if the Lakers offered him a four-year deal worth something like $60 million, he'd have to at least give it some thought.
Onward and Upward
This is going to be a trying season for the Lakers. But with the possibility to retain both Gasol and Bryant at reduced rates next summer—and the chance to haul in a very big name to help them out—the outlook in Lakerland could soon improve.
It's not a pleasant or familiar concept for Lakers fans, but right now they're just going to have to be patient.