After spending the better part of the last century in their good graces, it appears the Los Angeles Lakers have finally fallen out of favor with the basketball gods.
Just when the Lakers had started crawling up off the canvas, they were blindsided by a knockout blow.
Only six games into his comeback from the torn Achilles that ended his 2012-13 campaign, Kobe Bryant is back on the shelf with a broken bone in his left knee that could sideline him for the next six weeks, according to USA Today's Adi Joseph. Bryant's backcourt mate, Steve Nash, just had another four weeks added to his rehab schedule as he's still suffering from nerve-root irritation in his back.
This latest slew of injuries has left the franchise with a host of uncomfortable questions and some even more uncomfortable answers.
With hope diminishing for the present and no relief slated for the future, it's time for the mighty Purple and Gold to start waving the white flag. The 2013-14 season is already lost; the Lakers can't afford to give away a chance at a better lottery pick.
Writing on the Wall
It's been sitting there for months. Even in a best-case scenario, the Lakers figured to be fighting an uphill battle in a fully loaded Western Conference.
This season, obviously, has not been that best-case scenario.
L.A. has been decent (12-13), but decent doesn't cut it out West. The Lakers might be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, a force even, but an invitation to switch alignments isn't coming. Not even for teams that are begging for one:
Is it too late to join the Eastern Conference? Asking for a friend.— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 4, 2013
Here's a sad reality for one of the association's proudest franchises—embracing a tank won't look that much different from its current product.
Standings aside, this is not a good team by any stretch.
The Lakers are one of only four Western Conference clubs with a negative net rating (minus-2.7 points per possession, 20th overall). They struggle to find consistent offense and can't keep the floodgates closed at the opposite end.
The point guard spot is a wreck, and signing former NBA castoff Kendall Marshall is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Marshall's better than nothing, but the difference between the two could be marginal.
L.A. has shooters, but most are of the water-faucet variety. There will be scalding-hot nights and frigid ones. Given this team's dearth of reliable scoring options, those in-between nights aren't enough to put it in the win column.
Pau Gasol is the best healthy player on the roster, but his production is capped by a coach that doesn't know how to use him. There are complementary pieces masquerading as focal points and benchwarmers serving as role players.
Even at 35 years old, Bryant's still the best scorer on the roster and maybe the best setup man, too. But he's only as good as his body allows him to be, and that's a battle he'll likely be fighting over the rest of his career.
The Lakers might not even have enough talent to ward off the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies (two of the four Western Conference teams behind them), let alone climb over any of the 10 teams in front of them.
This latest round of injuries isn't fair:
But now is not the time to pout or ponder what could have been. This franchise needs to find some light at the end of the tunnel, a process that requires welcoming darkness in the present.
L.A.'s future is about as uncertain as it can get.
The Lakers have three financial commitments beyond this season: Nash ($9.7 million for 2014-15), Bryant (two years, $48.5 million remaining) and Robert Sacre ($900k for next season). Nick Young has a player option for $1.2 million, while the Lakers can decide whether to extend a $1 million qualifying offer to rookie Ryan Kelly.
Other than that, every player on the current roster is slated for free agency next summer.
L.A. knows this and is expected make a furious pursuit of the top names leading the 2014 free-agent class.
But is this roster really one player away from championship contention? Even if it is, would that be the player willing to sign on as Kobe's sidekick next summer?
The Lakers can't overspend on a style-over-substance move. "Pair an aging Kobe with another established, high-priced player like [Carmelo] Anthony or Rudy Gay and the Lakers still won’t have enough to fill out the rest of a contending roster," USA Today's Sean Highkin wrote.
This offseason isn't about finding a running mate for Bryant. It's about landing the type of player that Bryant can pass the torch to when his body has had enough.
Luckily, this draft class happens to be loaded with (potentially) transcendent talents. This crop of new NBA blood has drawn comparisons to the 2003 draft class, a superstar group headlined by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
It's a versatile group offering help from any angle.
Duke's Jabari Parker is an NBA-ready scorer, relentless rebounder, terrific passer and natural leader. He's also now sitting atop B/R draft expert Jonathan Wasserman's big board.
The player Parker surpassed, Andrew Wiggins, had drawn best-prospect-since-LeBron hype before arriving at the University of Kansas. While his production as a Jayhawk highlights the fact that he's still a project (15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds), his physical gifts are tantalizing.
Wiggins' teammate, Joel Embiid, is a 7'0", 250-pound package of intimidating rim protection, fancy footwork and tremendous upside. A native of Cameroon, the 19-year-old just started playing organized basketball three years ago.
If the Lakers want a point guard, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and Australia's Dante Exum could be franchise cornerstones. At the forward spots, Kentucky's Julius Randle and Arizona's Aaron Gordon have freakish size-explosiveness combinations.
L.A. needs a game-changer, and this draft board is littered with them. Now the Lakers need to put themselves in position to land one of those rising stars.
The Lakers need to illuminate the seat-belt sign. There's some turbulence on the horizon, worse even than what already has shaken this franchise to its core.
Tanking won't come easily for Hollywood's finest.
This is a proud franchise, arrogant even, but one with justifiably high self-esteem. The banners hanging from the Staples Center rafters speak for themselves.
Championship thoughts are hard to shake, even when the odds are stacked against them. This organization has a way of weathering some rough storms and always emerging remarkably clean at the other side.
But look at this roster—there is no quick fix in the cards.
Surely the Lakers would like to send Bryant out on a high note, but would a few first-round (or second-round even) exits really do the trick? Would anything short of that elusive sixth ring leave Vino with the last chapter he'd love to write?
The Lakers can't worry about a proper exit for their franchise centerpiece. It's time to start thinking about finding their next one.