Franchise-Defining Moments Are Coming This Season for LA Lakers

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Franchise-Defining Moments Are Coming This Season for LA Lakers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol of LA Lakers

The future of the Los Angeles Lakers will be decided shortly. Key decisions await a franchise that may have to recalibrate its short-term goals.

The plan was to stay afloat early during the season while Kobe Bryant rehabbed his Achilles tear. Once Bryant rejoined the lineup, the Purple and Gold would get an opportunity to compete for a playoff spot and make some noise in the postseason.

Mind you, that projection quickly went out the door once the two-time NBA Finals MVP injured his knee. With Bryant scheduled to rejoin the team at latest around the Super Bowl, the Lakers have franchise-defining moments ahead.

 

Stand pat

The Los Angeles Lakers have dealt with a multitude of injuries, and as a result, they have not had their projected starting five share the court at any point in the season. Furthermore, some second-unit players have been sidelined as well.

Thus, the Lakers’ sub-.500 record can be attributed—at least on some level—to the amount of games rotation players and stars have missed. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol have been out for different reasons and hence, the team has suffered.

However, Los Angeles can stand pat and wait until its big guns return. The trio of Nash, Bryant and Gasol might be good enough to earn the team a postseason berth provided that they enjoy a relatively clean bill of health after the All-Star break.

Mike D’Antoni echoed those sentiments with ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Ramona Shelburne:

"That's too bad," coach Mike D'Antoni said at the team's practice Thursday. "You hate it for Kobe. He worked so hard to get back. But he'll be back. He'll be back in six weeks, and we'll deal with it and weather the storm until he gets back."

The Lakers have some intriguing complementary parts that will give the threesome some solid firepower to work with. Nick Young and Xavier Henry are having the best statistical seasons of their respective careers.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant and Nick Young could be a solid tag team.

Both have alternated between starting and coming off the bench. They have performed reasonably well and thus, the tandem will provide support to a three-man crew that is talented enough at least on paper to challenge for a postseason appearance.

With that said, one cannot escape what the other side of the coin looks like. Nash may very well be broken after battling serious physical ailments since arriving in the City of Angels.

Also, Bryant’s body might be on the verge of betraying him. Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes has the details:

With the latest injury occurring on the same leg as his Achilles injury, people are bound to wonder if the two are linked. The answer is maybe. As previously mentioned tibial plateau fractures are rare and Kobe’s break could easily be seen as a freak injury. However pictures of Kobe since his return do seem to show noticeable atrophy in his left calf muscle complex. If his calf was not a full strength, it may have played a role in the fracture.

Thus, there is a risk that things actually get worse if the Lakers maintain the status quo. Indeed, the health woes threaten to submarine the campaign and in addition, it would appear as though Gasol has checked out on the team. Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding has the story:

Yes, it’s always dicey to question the legitimacy of a player’s health absence, but considering Gasol was able to hit the weight room at Lakers shootaround Sunday morning before still skipping the Lakers’ loss Sunday night, it’s pretty safe to say he’s not hospitalized with his throat closing shut on the far end of that infection spectrum.

Hence, standing pat is definitely an option, but it would appear as though it’s not a great one. If the Lakers wish to compete for a playoff spot, they are probably better off taking this route…

 

Upgrade roster

The Los Angeles Lakers can potentially upgrade the roster and chase a postseason berth. It’s worth noting that L.A. has a design in place for the 2014 offseason that directly affects whatever move is available to it during the course of the campaign.

The Lakers are projected to have roughly $26 million in cap space if they renounce all of their free agents. Mitch Kupchak would like to secure the services of a star to play alongside Bryant for the duration of his contract (Bryant’s deal expires at the conclusion of 2015-16).

Thus, the Lakers can only accept expiring contracts this season when executing trades. Should they take on any long-term deals, it will compromise their free-agency plans.

Still, there are moves out there to be made. For instance, the Toronto Raptors are supposed to be tanking because the 2014 NBA draft is being projected as one of the best ones in league history, according to Chad Ford of ESPN Insider (subscription required).

However, Toronto seems confused by its own strategy. The Raptors have a chance to win their division and make the playoffs, which would essentially prevent them from obtaining a great first-round pick. Perhaps someone needs to swing an axe on their roster.

Enter Kupchak.

The Los Angeles general manager can offer Gasol for Kyle Lowry (expiring contract), John Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough. The Raptors acquire the Spaniard and can use him as a trade chip given that he has an expiring deal.

Harry How/Getty Images
Kyle Lowry could help the LA Lakers.

The Lakers receive immediate perimeter help to mitigate their injuries. Salmons cannot be swapped with a combination of players before early February, which actually works in the Lakers’ favor. It gives them time to assess Bryant’s health and determine if he will be able to handle the rigors of the remainder of the season.

Both Salmons and Hansbrough are under contract past this season, but only $1 million is guaranteed on their respective deals after this season, according to Hoopsworld.

Hence, if the Lakers and Raptors agree to this transaction, L.A.’s projected cap room is reduced to just about $24 million.

The Lakers still have cap space available heading into the summer to make a big signing and give Bryant a partner in crime. Still, one cannot escape the reality that all of the scheming hinges on Kobe Bean.

A healthy Bryant allows the Lakers to make moves and surround him with players who can help him make a playoff push; however, the team is not going anywhere if the four-time All-Star Game MVP is operating at less than an elite level.

There is a possibility that his body will betray him when he returns, which will set back the team. Given the likeliness that this will occur, acquiring talent to put next him, while eating a bit into their future cap space, might not be the best path for the Lakers to take.

 

Blow it up

The Los Angeles Lakers probably need to blow it all up. Bryant will rejoin the team and probably look like a shell of his former self because of the Achilles tear and knee fracture.

Also, Nash has been out of the lineup for so long that it’s fair to wonder if he will actually see the floor again in 2013-14. In addition, Gasol has seemingly quit on Los Angeles. There goes the “Big Three.”

The Lakers need to start planning for the offseason, and that starts with shutting down Bryant. The plan is for the five-time champion to play until 2015-16, and that requires him to be in peak physical condition.

Thus, the front office and coaching staff must end his season to ensure he does not end up facing an uphill battle next season like Derrick Rose.

The next domino to fall is Gasol. The Lakers have been a luxury-tax team in the past few seasons. However, the penalties for teams that consistently reside in this territory have become far harsher with the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

As it stands, the Purple and Gold are projected to be a tax team once again by season’s end. Mind you, if they cut their costs, they can avoid the luxury tax and the repeater rate, as outlined by NBA Salary Cap Faq, that kicks in with the 2014-15 campaign.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol

One way to accomplish this is by pursuing the rumored trade of Gasol for Andrew Bynum, reported on by Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com. Because only $6 million of Bynum’s contract is guaranteed, provided he is waived by January 7, 2014. Los Angeles can acquire him and subsequently release the former Philadelphia 76er.

The move puts the Lakers’ salary figure below the luxury-tax line and helps them avoid stiff penalties going forward.

The stick of dynamite Kupchak will use is not exclusively designed for the players, though. He might as well throw it at his coaching staff around the last month of the season because Mike D’Antoni ultimately hurts them in the free-agent recruitment process.

The former Phoenix Suns coach has had one faux pas too many with star players, and one cannot help but think that big names will shy away from Los Angeles if D’Antoni is involved.

As cliche as it may sound, the franchise’s future starts now.

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