EL SEGUNDO, Calif.—They are the purple and they are the gold.
Especially the gold. They’ve won 16 of the 67 NBA championship trophies to date.
When you think of the legendary Los Angeles Lakers, the last thing you think of is an identity crisis.
Here’s the reality of today: Aging face of the franchise Kobe Bryant is coming off an injury usually so devastating that he might as well grow his afro back in the shape of a big question mark.
The new collective bargaining agreement and revenue-sharing system together severely limit the Lakers’ ability to outspend opponents in free agency.
And the greatest owner in sports history is gone and has left behind instability atop an organization that is waiting to see which of his children can really stand the heat.
Oh, and after all the dedication to maintain a consistent, classic style, they are trotting out black uniforms this season.
The Lakers are certainly in no imminent danger of losing the popularity of their global brand. And every organization, even the best of the best, must undergo ruts and makeovers.
But the Lakers need something to happen and happen pretty soon to remind everyone they are still the Lakers.
More than one somebody, when given an opportunity, has to seize it and do so much with it that it reassures Lakers fans that there is still something truly unique about the Purple and Gold.
“I knew Steve Nash would be special as a Laker!”
“Nick Young has played for a lot of teams, but it took him coming to the Lakers to become a star!”
“Forget Dwight Howard! Pau Gasol is playing like the champion he is! (And he’s going to re-sign for a cap-friendly minimum salary in 2014 and then recruit brother Marc to sign as a free agent in 2015!)”
In the vacuum of the post-Dwight era, the Lakers mostly need Bryant to dominate—yet again—to feel good about themselves.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak addressed the media Wednesday in advance of Mike D’Antoni opening his first Lakers training camp Saturday, and the strongest statement Kupchak made was in pushing his one element of continuity.
Kupchak wouldn’t specify when, but he expressed confidence Bryant will return without any hint of injury—and still be “the Kobe that we know and love” who is unwavering about shooting with the game on the line. Kupchak returned to referring comfortably to Bryant as the Lakers’ “best player.”
As for the future, Kupchak again accented the continuity.
“Kobe has made it clear that he intends to retire in a Lakers uniform,” Kupchak said. “And I know as an organization, we feel the same way.”
Bryant will likely accept a substantial pay cut after this season as he looks to position the Lakers for impact free-agent signings in 2014 or ’15. But Kupchak has been consistently on record as saying it’s far more difficult to bring star players in than keep star players you already have.
“The rules have been created where it’s going to be tough to get players to move,” he said Wednesday. “It really is.”
More than Nash, Young or Gasol, the Lakers are going to need an opportunity seized by someone or some two in 2014 free agency: LeBron James? Carmelo Anthony? Dwyane Wade? Dirk Nowitzki joining forces with two of the guys he respects most in the world, Nash and Bryant?
“If we get done what we want to get done, then great,” Kupchak said of next summer. “If not, we’ll move to the next offseason. And then we’ll move to the next offseason. I know at some point in time we’ll be able to put together a very competitive and attractive team.”
At some point in time …
That’s the Lakers’ reality now.
Even as Kupchak ponders how well-suited D’Antoni’s spread-floor style is for today’s NBA and suggests amid all the ankle-low expectations that “we feel we’re as good as anybody.”
This season, the crosstown Clippers are the team coached by a guy with a ring who also has real respect and a deep roster led by a fearless competitor and a flashy young star.
The Lakers are at a point where they are just hoping for things to break right, because they don’t know when they’ll be golden again.
Kevin Ding is the Los Angeles Lakers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Lakers for the Orange County Register since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.