The next 10 months will go a long way toward determining how the Los Angeles Lakers fare for the foreseeable future.
Dwight Howard, the previously presumed centerpiece of the future, has left to join the Houston Rockets. Kobe Bryant, the one of the past and present, is attempting a comeback from the most devastating injury of his basketball life—at the age of 35, no less. Likewise, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, both well into their 30s, are looking to bounce back from the most injury-riddled campaigns of their careers.
It won't be long before the Lakers have to determine, to some degree, whether they're better off trying to rebuild through free agency, as the Dallas Mavericks have, or by way of draft picks and trades, as the Boston Celtics are doing right now.
LA's current predicament isn't so different from those faced of late by the Mavs and the C's. All three teams have won championships within the last five years. All three have since been faced with a quandary that's confounded many a team over the years: what to do about an aging superstar who's been the face of your franchise for years but can no longer carry the team.
Putting the "D" in "Rebuild"
Dallas decided to stand by Dirk Nowitzki, even as the organization was stripping itself of expensive assets in anticipation of tighter restrictions under the new collective bargaining agreement. Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer were all let go once the lockout was lifted. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Ian Mahinmi followed suit the next summer.
In their places, the Mavs plugged in a plethora of stopgap "solutions" on short-term deals—Chris Kaman, OJ Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand and Vince Carter, to name a few. The idea was to keep the team's cap sheet relatively clean so that the Mavs could pursue a major free agent or two to ride out the rest of Dirk's career and serve as the face of the franchise thereafter.
That's not unlike what the Lakers did last summer, when they swiped Dwight from the Orlando Magic in a four-team blockbuster. You've probably heard already about how "well" that went.
Big D talked a big game about luring the likes of Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to town, only to see those superstars sign elsewhere. Even Andrew Bynum, he of the bad knees and body slams, passed on the Mavs.
Instead, Dallas' precious financial flexibility was sacrificed to bring on (wait for it) Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington and once-and-former Mav Devin Harris.
Those additions may not be enough to vault the Mavs into the playoffs amidst a crowded Western Conference, much less into the championship stratosphere that Nowitzki's service to the franchise deserves.
An eerily similar scenario has already begun to play out for the Lakers.
Just about all of LA's signings from this summer will be working on one-year pacts in 2013-14. The lone (possible) exception? Nick Young, who has a player option worth $1.2 million for 2014-15.
The Lakers should be able to slough off a number of those contracts in time for July 2014, just as the Mavs did after last season.
In theory, the combination of LA's "ample" cap space and a market potentially flush with superstars, including LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, points to the Lakers reloading in a big way, with Kobe presumably coming back at a steep discount.
In practice, though, that plan is anything but foolproof.
The Lakers' cap situation is more complicated than casual references to their "clean" books next summer let on. And, as appealing a landing spot as LA may be, it's tough to imagine many big names opting out of their current contracts or ditching their teams to head West.
Especially if the management situation remains as shaky as it currently appears to be.
Such was the case with the Mavs. Deron Williams and Chris Paul decided to stay in their respective markets, while Dwight took his talents to another team in Texas.
The dangerous thing is, the Lakers, too, could be enticed to essentially "roll over" their cap space to 2015 if they still feel that free agency is the best means of rebuilding after striking out next summer. That year's class may well feature Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and Marc Gasol at the top.
Should the Lakers fail to snag a star from yet another bumper crop of talent, they might instead load up on lower-tier options, from Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan to Paul Millsap and Omer Asik, among others. Players of that caliber wouldn't put LA in position to contend for a title, though they would keep the team competitive, which may or may not be enough to placate a late-30s Kobe Bryant.
Then again, a bare-bones rebuild probably wouldn't satisfy the Black Mamba's desire to contend forever either. After all, why would Bryant, who's clearly approaching the end of his NBA career, want to waste whatever elite basketball he has left on a team that isn't equipped to deliver him a sixth ring?
Making the most of Kobe's last days has certainly motivated the Lakers' moves to some extent. Bringing in Howard and Nash during the summer of 2012 was as much about putting together a winner to please the late Dr. Jerry Buss as it was about maximizing Bryant's twilight.
But nobody knows how much longer Kobe's going to play, much less be a viable superstar.
The focus for the front office must be on the big picture, which includes life after the Mamba calls it quits.
Insights From the Enemy
General manager Danny Ainge did well to stretch a three-to-four-year title window when the team came together in 2007 into a six-year era. The additions of Terry and Courtney Lee, following Ray Allen's switch to South Beach, seemed to keep the C's in the Eastern Conference shuffle just behind the Heat.
Instead, the Celtics stumbled out of the gate before losing Rondo to a season-ending ACL tear in late January. Boston did well to slip back into the playoff picture thereafter but ultimately fell apart once Pierce and Garnett ran out of gas. The rest of the roster proved far less productive than the front office had hoped.
The C's could've given it another go with Pierce and KG this season. They could've chosen loyalty to franchise stalwarts over starting anew, just as Red Auerbach had done with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the late 1980s. They could've resigned themselves to fighting for scraps in the East's muddled middle while riding out the remainder of their aging stars' careers.
Instead, Ainge took bold action.
He first tried to work out a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers that, ideally, would've had Garnett heading westward after the C's swung a separate deal involving Doc Rivers.
The league's powers-that-be caught on quickly to that scheme. David Stern allowed Rivers to change addresses in exchange for a draft pick but stipulated that the Clips and the Celts would have to refrain from talking shop for another year.
Rather than taking his lumps and keeping KG and Pierce on hand, Ainge continued to root around for another deal that would encourage Garnett to waive his no-trade clause and allow the Celtics to get something in return for their Hall of Famers.
Lo and behold, the Nets, with their lofty ambitions and cavernous pockets, came calling.
By swapping quality pieces for a swath of spare parts (i.e. Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph and Keith Bogans), the C's all but ensured they'd stink enough in 2013-14 to get a plum pick in a loaded 2014 NBA draft.
More importantly, the package that Boston got from Brooklyn included three first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018) and the option to swap another in 2017. Those selections should come in handy in the years to come for the Celtics.
At present, the Lakers don't have the assets to accommodate such a massive transaction.
Their best trade chips, like those of the C's, are geriatric in basketball years. There wouldn't appear to be a partner that's willing to not only take on the salaries of Kobe, Pau and Nash, but also send back valuable picks and players. Additionally, the Lakers have all but committed themselves to their three "golden oldies."
For the time being, anyway. The team's thinking could shift dramatically over the next few months.
A slow start—fueled by Bryant's careful recovery, substandard returns from Gasol and Nash, or poor performance from the revamped supporting cast—may well force the team's brain trust to reconsider the wisdom of treading water out west.
Perhaps, then, the Lakers would once again dangle Gasol at the deadline or offer up Nash to a squad in search of some help at the point. Perhaps they'd field offers for Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson.
That way, the Lakers could get something in return for their assets, rather than losing them for nothing like they did with Dwight, while positioning themselves for a pre-Andrew Wiggins tank job.
To that end, the Lakers might not need to decimate their entire team to rebuild. The C's still have an injured superstar of their own, Rondo, around whom they can construct a team once he's healthy.
LA could take a similar approach with Kobe.
Adding a star through the draft might be enough to convince Kobe to stay, even if it means taking a pay cut. The combination of Bryant and a precocious rookie could perhaps lure another quality free agent or two to the Staples Center between now and the end of the Mamba's career.
There'd still be plenty of pain to absorb for both teams in question. C's fans won't be too happy to see their own Big Three replaced by a rash of rookies, role players and Rondo updates during the season to come, even less so if Pierce and Garnett thrive in Brooklyn. Neither will they be pleased if this rebuild drags into 2015 and beyond.
But Boston's supporters are smart enough to understand the importance of rebuilding. Ainge's last project put the C's in position to pounce when Garnett and Allen were made available via trade back in 2007. The championship certainly made the wait worthwhile.
The same goes for Lakers fans who, contrary to popular belief, are rather knowledgeable, by and large. Sure, they aren't used to losing and, as such, would react adversely to anything resembling LA's last disaster season in 2004-05. Any decline would warrant some public backlash from the fans.
It wouldn't take much, though, to get the Lakers faithful to admit that there's a silver lining to be found around even the stormiest of clouds.
The failure of the short-lived Rudy Tomjanovich "era" paved the way for the Lakers to draft Andrew Bynum, bring back Phil Jackson and, on the whole, set themselves up for the mini-dynasty that was built around Kobe, Pau and Lamar Odom.
The Best of Both Worlds?
The darkest hour comes before the dawn, but that hour needn't last as long for the Lakers as it would for most franchises.
There's no denying that the Lakers' brand and location render them an enticing destination for anyone of note seeking gainful employment in the NBA. They should be able to attract quality players over the next two summers, even if said players don't have the names of "James" and "Anthony" stitched across the back.
In truth, the Lakers are uniquely qualified to "split the difference" between the alternate paths tread by the Mavs and the Celtics. They can have their cake, with a flashy splash into free agency, and eat it too, with a painful bit of positioning ahead of a pivotal draft.
It all comes down to how willing the Lakers are to disrupt the balance between pain and gain in the short term in order to ensure their competitiveness in the long run.
Which path makes the most sense for the Lakers? Let me know on Twitter!
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