For the last 18 seasons, the one constant in Los Angeles has been Kobe Bryant. Many others have come and gone, including some of the greatest to ever play, but the Lakers as a franchise have never deviated from the plan of tying their success directly to Bryant.
Of course, Bryant is older now and decidedly more human than we've ever seen him, and perhaps that's why his two-year extension worth $48.5 million came as such a surprise.
While it's rarely a good business practice to reward someone solely for past performance, Bryant's value expands well beyond the lines on the basketball court.
Bryant has been the star that has guided the Lakers' decision-making process for nearly two decades. That almost never happens anymore.
Eventually there will come a time when Bryant is no longer in the picture, but that day hasn't come yet. Balancing the desire to win now with the need to build for the future won't be easy, but at least the Lakers' uncertain long-term future presents them with plenty of options.
Best Player Available
When was the last time the Lakers have been able to acquire talent regardless of fit? Whether it be because of Bryant or the presence of coaches with a very particular offensive system, the Lakers have never truly been able to take a "best player available" approach to player acquisition.
With Bryant and Mike D'Antoni both set to have their contracts expire after the 2016 season and the Lakers having no players on long-term deals, talent can take priority over everything else.
In a way, it's sort of a fitting end for Bryant's last few years, as he wasn't necessarily a good fit or particularly needed when he joined the Lakers, as Eddie Jones was already on the roster. But we know how that played out.
Instead of solely building around Bryant and looking for particular fits, the Lakers are in a position where they can stick their nose in any and every situation.
Sources with knowledge of the discussions told ESPN.com that the Lakers did indeed engage the Nets earlier this month in some exploratory talks to see if Brooklyn had interest in such a swap. Sources say that the Nets balked at the idea when it was presented before Lopez's injury, but it's still noteworthy if it happened.
If there's a desperate team or a market inefficiency to exploit, the Lakers can be one of the first teams to take advantage. All it takes is the right mindset.
Load Up With Veterans
If the Lakers are operating under the premise that Bryant can lead the team to a championship in the next two years, then going the opposite route and acquiring very specific types of players could be an option as well.
Instead of balancing the present and future and finding players in their primes who can have an impact through both time frames, it may be easier for the Lakers to load up in Bryant's window only. Players in their prime will always be in high demand, but veterans typically only appeal to teams with serious aspirations of contending.
Whether the Lakers' contention hopes are legitimate with an aging Bryant taking up so much cap space can be debated, but finding older players who will come to Los Angeles on a discount should be no problem at all. Injured or not, Bryant still has an undeniable gravitas, and teaming up with one of the greatest players ever in one of the most attractive cities in the world won't be a hard sell for veteran players.
While it's possible that the Lakers will avoid this route after the Steve Nash trade turned out to be a disaster, it could allow for a cleaner "reloading" period once Bryant decides to hang 'em up.
Play for the 2015 Offseason
It may be hard for the Lakers to hold off when the clock is ticking on Bryant's career, but playing for the 2015 offseason might combine the best of both of the scenarios above.
Let's say that this offseason, the Lakers load up on veteran players signed to one-year deals that fit with Bryant, D'Antoni's scheme and the immediate direction of the franchise. Players like Shawn Marion, for example.
Because the Lakers don't have their 2015 first-round draft pick (owed to the Phoenix Suns), there's no reason not to go for it next season, so long as that doesn't come at the cost of future flexibility.
By loading up on veterans on one-year deals, the Lakers can really check all the boxes.
Competitive team in one of Kobe Bryant's last seasons? Check. Expiring deals that can be exchanged for future pieces if the right player becomes available? Check. The ability to acquire talent beyond next year without worrying about fit? Check.
Going with the same blueprint that was used this past offseason may not be sexy, but it could be successful, especially when you consider that the Lakers will actually have available cap space to play with for once. Although signing veterans on short-term deals would further require a "best case scenario" in terms of health, that was a given the second Bryant signed a contract extension with a repaired Achilles tendon.
Even if next year's "expendables" squad didn't work out, the Lakers would be all lined up for the 2015 offseason. If Kevin Love wants to come back to Los Angeles, that door will be open. If Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol or any of the other 2015 free agents want to play with Bryant in his final year and then take over one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports, they'll be able to do so.
The passing of the torch on the floor will need to happen at some point, and 2015 might be the best year to do it.
The best time to make the transition for who guides the franchise, however, is now. Difficult as it may be, the faith in the future now needs to be placed in the decision-making abilities of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss; not Kobe Bryant's ability on the floor.
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