Building Ideal LA Lakers Team Both Around Kobe Bryant and Long-Term
That's not quite mission impossible, but it's going to be tough. The Lakers can create max cap room this offseason, but there isn't an awful lot of flexibility beyond that. Miss on a draft pick or have a few critical injuries, and the Lakers will be in big time trouble.
With that in mind, maybe the best course of action isn't to completely swing for the fences this offseason and bring in just any max free agent willing to play for the purple and gold.
The following plan may be slightly more realistic than idealistic, but here's one way to build around Bryant in the twilight of his career.
Draft Dante Exum
Lakers fans have undoubtedly been scouring the collegiate ranks for the team's next superstar. With guys like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Joel Embiid looking like franchise building blocks, this is an awfully appealing draft class.
While the Lakers would surely love to land any of those college stars, the future of the franchise could come from the land down under. Dante Exum is an 18-year-old, 6'6" point guard from Australia that has a shockingly refined game for someone of his experience.
Exum changes speed and direction like a great pitcher would, and the footwork on his drives is sublime.
He can get to the rim in a flash. He can navigate the pick-and-roll like a pro, and with his defensive potential, he'd be a perfect fit next to Kobe Bryant, as he could always take the tougher of the backcourt matchups regardless of size.
Do the Lakers have a realistic shot at Exum? It might take some luck, but there are a few things working in their favor.
The first is the depth at the top of this class. The second is that there aren't many teams slated to draft ahead of the Lakers that need a point guard. The Orlando Magic look like the only team with a clear-cut need at the point, and you can't rule out the possibility that Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State is higher on a few boards around the league.
A better tanking effort for the rest of this season may still be required, as the Lakers are currently pegged to have the 11th pick. Exum, meanwhile, is widely regarded as a top-6 selection. If somehow the Lakers can scoot up in the lottery a few spots, there's a decent chance Exum will be on the board for them to take.
But why Exum? While the other aforementioned prospects could all help the Lakers, guards usually have the quickest transition from college or international play to the pros. Damian Lillard and Michael Carter-Williams are pretty good examples of guys that have hit the ground running from day one.
Put a player of Exum's skills and natural ability with Mike D'Antoni, who is a point guard whisperer, and the Lakers' prospects would be looking up pretty quickly.
Renounce Everyone, Use Stretch Provision on Steve Nash
Let's throw sentimentality and the attachment to any current Lakers out of the window.
Pau Gasol? Thanks for the memories. Jordan Hill? Go get paid elsewhere in free agency. Steve Nash? Take this $3.2 million per year for the next three seasons and find a beach somewhere.
That's what will need to happen for the Lakers to create as much cap space as possible. By renouncing all the cap holds and Bird Rights for every free agent on the roster and using the stretch provision on Steve Nash, the Lakers can create roughly $26.5 million in cap space.
That's the number we'll use for this exercise, as it includes seven minimum cap holds and the draft slot for the eighth pick in the draft.
While moving on from every player on the roster may seem harsh, it doesn't rule out the possibility of a few players coming back once other free agents are signed. The short-term priority is to create as much space as possible to build the best roster.
It's possible that a medical retirement could free the Lakers of Nash's entire salary, but it's unlikely to be granted. Waiving Nash and using the stretch provision on his deal worth $9.7 million will clear $6.5 million, and that's just too much money to pass up.
Maintain Two-Year Window
The Lakers are clearly entrenched in a two-year window. That's the length of Kobe Bryant's extension, and that's how many years Mike D'Antoni has left on his current contract, with the final year being a team-option.
For the Lakers to make this work in the short-term, they'll need players that fit both with Bryant and in D'Antoni's system. A pure talent grab might not be the best way to go.
That may be especially true when you consider the length of contracts that will be offered in free agency. A true max free agent in his prime, like Carmelo Anthony, will want a deal for the full four years. That's also true for young restricted free agents like Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward and Greg Monroe.
The Lakers have to weigh the very real possibility that Bryant isn't a consistent contributor over these two seasons, and they also have to prepare for what could follow once his contract is up.
Is a player like Monroe good enough to carry a team largely on his own in D'Antoni's system if Bryant goes down with injury or is much more ineffective than he's been in the past? Probably not.
Is Anthony? That's debatable, even if you assume he'd want to take less money to play in Los Angeles in the first place (and for Mike D'Antoni again).
It may be hard to be patient in acquiring the next great Laker in free agency, but Bryant's extension didn't leave an awful lot of wiggle room. Ben Rosales of SBNation.com explains wonderfully here:
"It is this issue that is at the core of the problem with the Kobe extension: the Lakers are robbed of all available flexibility during the course of this plan. They have to follow this strict cap regimen and can't deviate from it so long as they are targeting max players in each of the following summers."
Barring a miraculous signing like LeBron James, the Lakers may be better off staying in the two-year window. If they go small this year, they can still contend for a guy like Kevin Love next offseason, or have no one on the books in 2016. It's hard to play for the future, but Los Angeles can be the home for the NBA's next great superstar meet-up so long as they don't panic.
Targets at Each Position
Following the plan of keeping every free-agent contract offered smaller than two years, here are a few targets to go after with the available $26.5 million if guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony aren't available:
Ramon Sessions - (1 year, $6 million)
Patty Mills - (1 year, $1.5 million)
James Anderson - (1 year, $1.5 million)
Shawn Marion - (1 year, $5 million)
Jordan Hamilton - (1 year, $4 million)
Matt Bonner - (1 year, $2 million)
Boris Diaw - (1 year, $3 million)
Dante Cunningham - (1 year, $2 million)
Jason Smith - (1 year, $3 million)
Emeka Okafor - (1 year, $5 million)
Would any combination of the following players launch the Lakers into title contention? Probably not, but it would leave the door open for the next year's free agency class, which could feature the likes of Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert and a host of other talented players.
Even if this would be another play for the future, that's certainly more ideal than settling for players who will tie up future cap room and flexibility in exchange for a few more meaningless wins.
Here's the projected lineup for the Lakers if they were able to acquire the majority of those targets while staying under the cap:
PG: Dante Exum
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Jordan Hamilton
PF: Shawn Marion
C: Jason Smith
Sixth Man: Ramon Sessions
Throw in Nick Young (we'll assume he accepts his player option), Emeka Okafor and Boris Diaw, and the Lakers have a pretty solid 8-man rotation using the $26.5 million in available cap space. Although there are health and age concerns, this would be a veteran group with plenty of experience playing under D'Antoni's system or one similar to it.
Filling in the rest of the roster with returning Lakers like Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson, or veteran minimum candidates like C.J. Miles and Aaron Gray, or young D-League guys like Dewayne Dedmon or Pierre Jackson, could make this a pretty solid team.
Truth be told, the Lakers may be able to do a little better than this, depending on how much sway Bryant still holds with players around the league.
Obviously in this particular scenario ,a lot would be riding on Bryant's health, but that's true regardless of what happens this offseason.
It may not be sexy, but building a well-balanced roster in D'Antoni's vision and keeping the door open for the 2015 and 2016 offseason might be the best way to go.