Left to right: Kobe Bryant, Mike D'Antoni and Pau Gasol
There are a multitude of question marks surrounding the franchise which will ultimately end up shaping the future of the Purple and Gold.
The Lakers are in a state of flux at the very top. Indeed, Jeanie Buss, the team’s executive vice president of business operations, recently created a stir when excerpts of her memoir Laker Girl surfaced.
She essentially announced that her brother, Jim Buss, bamboozled Phil Jackson (her fiancé) when the Lakers were looking for a new head coach early in the 2012-13 season (h/t Los Angeles Daily News):
I felt that I got played. Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn't sincere about it? Phil wasn't looking for the job, and then he wasted 36 hours of his life preparing for it when they were never in a million years going to hire him anyway. How do you do that to your sister? How do you do that to Phil Jackson? I hope the flirtation with Phil wasn't just a PR stunt. I still can't get my head around the whole story.
As the story goes, Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak held a meeting with Jackson and gave him a deadline to decide whether he wanted to coach the Lakers. The Los Angeles brass then called Jackson prior to the target date and told him that Mike D’Antoni was the Lakers' new head coach.
One can debate whether or not the front office made the right decision in their coaching search, but the execution was incredibly poor. It created somewhat of a rift in the Buss family and certainly gives the appearance that a dysfunctional bunch directs the Lakers.
D’Antoni struggled to capitalize on the talents of his best players during the 2012-13 campaign. The former Phoenix Suns coach made a series of moves that left many scratching their heads: He benched Pau Gasol, played Steve Nash off the ball and turned Metta World Peace into a power forward.
Although it seems clear that D’Antoni will be the head coach on opening night of the 2013-14 campaign, there is no certainty he will remain in that function throughout the season. Mike Brown was let go after losing a handful of games in 2012-13. It stands to reason that D’Antoni might suffer the same fate if the team gets off to a slow start in his second season on the Lakers' bench.
Between the disconnect in the Buss family and the coaching staff’s shortcomings, the Lakers are not exactly an attractive franchise for future superstars. This is incredibly pertinent because the team will have an abundance of cap room during the 2014 offseason.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have opt-out clauses in their contracts allowing them to join the free market; if they do, they will be on the Lakers’ radar. Granted, James is unlikely to leave the Miami Heat given the championship pedigree of his teammates.
Perhaps Anthony can be swayed into leaving the New York Knicks, but one has to wonder if he wants to share the stage with an aging volume shooter named Kobe Bryant.
There are other big names that will be part of the 2014 free-agent class, but again, the ownership situation coupled with the coaching staff may discourage great players from relocating to Laker Land.
These factors alone cloud the future of the team. And yet, the Lakers have another issue that complicates the franchise’s outlook: the health of Kobe Bean Bryant.
The Lakers all-time leading scorer ruptured his Achilles late in the 2012-13 season and was initially projected to return within six to nine months. Bryant has since been cited on the record as saying that he was "shattering" the recovery timetable, per NBA.com, which is great news in Los Angeles.
The sense is that he will be back sooner rather than later. Nonetheless, the front office is still clueless with respect to determining his return date. Bryant is the best player on the team, and any prolonged absence from the lineup directly impacts the Lakers in the standings.
In addition, his ability to return and play at a high level will shape the team’s future once the 2013-14 campaign concludes. Bryant is scheduled to earn $30.5 million in 2013-14 and has already made it known he has no interest in taking a pay cut to re-sign with the Purple and Gold.
If such is the case, the cap room Los Angeles projects to have in the 2014 summer is actually fairly small when compared to initial projections. Believe it or not, a hobbled Bryant is perhaps best for the Lakers.
In the event the five-time world champion does not fully recover his form in his first season post-Achilles surgery, it will give Kupchak the ability to negotiate a lesser contract with his superstar and make a big free-agent splash.
It’s worth noting that the two-time Finals MVP may be an obstacle as it pertains to bringing new players going forward. Metta World Peace said as much in an interview with Mark Medina of The Los Angeles Daily News' Inside the Lakers blog about Dwight Howard’s departure: “I always knew Dwight was going to Houston. Things weren’t clicking. Once Kobe [Bryant] said he could come back for three years, I knew Dwight was going to Houston.”
Everything the Lakers do revolves around Bryant. Thus, when Howard reportedly shared he would be willing to re-sign in L.A. provided that Mike D’Antoni and the former league MVP were jettisoned, the franchise passed.
Keep in mind, at the time that Howard made the request he was a 27-year-old center entering his prime, while Bryant was 34 years of age and injured. One might say that the prudent approach should have been to side with the younger superstar, but the Lakers evidently did not subscribe to that theory.
Ric Bucher of CSN Bay Area relayed the thoughts of Jim Buss via a source on the topic: "'Dwight didn't want to play with Kobe for 2-3 more years,'" Buss said. 'I'm going to stand behind Kobe because of his history with the franchise.'”
In terms of rapport between player and ownership, it seems fairly clear that athletes want the support of the guys at the top, as well as their loyalty.
Paul Pierce was quite vocal about the idea that other players (Dirk Nowitzki and Bryant) will get to finish their careers with the teams that drafted them and lamented the fact that he did not get to do so with the Boston Celtics (h/t ESPN Boston).
Thus, Buss sent a message that players will be taken care of as members of the Lakers. Mind you, that works if they do not step on Bryant’s toes. Fair or not, history suggests that talented players will be allowed to walk if they cannot coexist with the Lakers all-time leading scorer, as seen with Howard and Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal was traded to the Heat after a disappointing 2004 Finals defeat just as Bryant was entering free agency. The tandem was often tumultuous, and it became apparent that at some point they would have to be separated. Los Angeles chose the 2-guard and sent away the center.
Put it all together, and the Lakers organization is at a crossroads. The short- and long-term future of the franchise will be decided in 2013-14. The outlook isn't good, but there is room for things to improve.
The first order of business has already begun: The Buss family appears to have hashed out the issues that caused some divisiveness. A strong ownership is almost mandatory for a successful team, as evidenced by the run of Jerry Buss.
With those issues resolved, the Lakers will turn their attention to the coaching staff. D’Antoni has shown in his stops with the New York Knicks and the Lakers that he has trouble adapting his philosophy to his talent.
Hence, Los Angeles has to come to grips with the fact that D’Antoni will be an impediment when trying to lure in future players, especially if he builds his entire offense around Bryant.
The former Knicks coach failed to get Carmelo Anthony to buy into his system, and the same was true for Howard. Also, the 2012-13 Lakers may have faced a multitude of injuries, but a core of Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Bryant and Howard still should have won more than 45 games.
The failures on D’Antoni’s résumé simply do not bode well heading into 2013-14. Consequently, the Lakers must consider terminating his employment. From there, the franchise can look at the likes of George Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy and obviously Phil Jackson.
The man in charge will have to adapt his style to his players and more importantly rein in Bryant. The future Hall of Fame 2-guard often likes to monopolize the offense and make it his own. It will take a coach with cachet to get him to subjugate his game for the better of the team.
Give the Lakers the right coach and the backing from the front office, and they are one of the best destinations in the league. With Bryant accepting a secondary role on the team, it stands to reason superstars will be far more willing to join the organization and compete for titles.
All of this is at stake in 2013-14. The Kobe Bryant era is slowly but surely coming to a close. These are some of the steps needed for the Purple and Gold to reload.