The storyline no longer seems to be whether the team will be better or worse than they were last season—and remember, that season was an unmitigated train wreck, filled with injuries, a coaching change, the death of revered owner Dr. Jerry Buss and a Dwight Howard experiment gone horribly wrong.
No, the storyline now seems to have morphed: The team isn’t ready for a future that will be shaped by a complicated amalgamation of events, some evident and some completely unclear.
Let’s start with a few basics. Despite the ever-present panic button, Bryant’s rehab seems to be progressing at a reasonable, if not wholly optimistic, rate. Mike Bresnahan from the L.A. Times reports that despite Bryant’s annoyance at constant timetable questions, he’s pushing hard and running well.
He said his Achilles' tendon felt fine. It was more about getting his left ankle up to speed.
"It's really lack of flexibility and range of motion in the [ankle] joint. It's not anything to do with the tendon necessarily," he said. "Having the ankle locked up so long, it won't move."
Basic fact number two: Lakers management were completely and irrevocably constrained this summer by the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA). That is to say, given their present payroll, they were only able to fill out a gutted roster with one mini-midlevel exception of around $3 million (used on backup center Chris Kaman) and veteran minimum salaries which range just north and south of the $1 million mark.
They did stick one other arrow in their quiver this year when they selected stretch 4 Ryan Kelly as the 48th overall pick in the 2013 draft.
For those who complain that the Lakers haven’t signed the stars of the future, there are, after all, the inalienable facts of math.
What Lakers management has managed to do is walk an interesting tightrope. The largest portion of payroll, by far, is tied to Bryant’s league-leading salary of $30,453,805 and Pau Gasol’s $19,285,850. Both come off the books next year. In fact, nearly everything comes off the books next year.
This brings us back to the central premise—that the Lakers aren’t ready for a post-Bryant era. They have only three guaranteed salaries next year, plus one team option for the year after that. So, to the literal idea that a blank slate means "not ready"—yes, it is true. You can’t expect much out of nothing.
So is there no hope here, no fallback position, no battle plan whatsoever?
Actually, there is one—kind of. Management went completely counter to every pragmatic step that has paid off in the past. Instead of filling the gaps around star contracts with veteran role players, they went after a bunch of cheap, wild-card yahoos.
The current Lakers roster is filled with reclamation projects, former draft lottery busts, guys who were seen as stars in the making just a few short years ago and those who have never been on anybody’s map. The common denominator is that most are young and all are willing.
Xavier Henry got an “X” notched in his forehead the other night, care of teammate Wesley Johnson’s shoe. Henry had been leading all scorers prior to that, with 18 points a game through the first two. Jodie Meeks has suddenly learned how to dunk, and Jordan Farmar, who fled Phil Jackson's system as a rebellious kid, is thriving under Coach D'Antoni.
These are your classic step-deals—guys who pose no risk financially but could potentially pay off down the line. The Lakers hold their option rights but are not bound by them; instead, it's a season-long audition.
This is how you get ready for the future.
There’s always some risk of course, even if not financial. Nick “Swaggy P” Young can break your heart with self-centered play. Shawne Williams has gone bumping off the rails more than once. And Ryan Kelly’s foot could disintegrate the first time he puts any weight on it.
The upside? Bryant could come back and lead a team that has a lot more desire in it than some of the more recent Lakers rosters. He and Pau Gasol could accept reduced salaries next year, allowing the team to bring in a bona fide star or two. And if Bryant doesn’t come back? The Lakers have a lot more cap room to play with.
Still not satisfied with the cloudy crystal ball? Look, the Lakers have some entertaining prospects if nothing else. And if history tells us anything, management will find a way to keep their courtside celebs happy and paying the big bucks. All those banners that the Clippers are so eager to cover up didn’t get there by accident.