There's never a "good" time for the Los Angeles Lakers to be terrible, but for this franchise, which prides itself on its tradition of winning, the failings of the 2013-14 NBA season thus far may occasion some unfortunate consequences for the future of the Purple and Gold.
Particularly if the team intends to rebuild through free agency.
Beyond the immediacy of a 14-23 record, 10 losses in 11 games, persistent injury problems for Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash and the collapse of the supporting cast—none of which is entirely shocking by any means—the Lakers must concern themselves with what happens next. How can the Lakers get back to their usual business of competing for championships? And how can they do so in short enough order to satisfy Bryant, whose desire to win at least one more title (to match Michael Jordan's six) is anything but a secret?
Agents, Not Free
The stock answer, it seems, is free agency. With a serious perusal of the NBA's annual "hot stove," L.A. should be able to find a superstar to both buoy Kobe's hopes of contention now and carry the organization's mantle going forward.
Especially now that the Lakers are due to be flush with cap space—even when taking Bryant's hefty extension into account—to a degree that feels foreign to a franchise with an established track record of free spending.
Trouble is, this summer's stock of top-notch sidekicks for the Black Mamba isn't likely to yield a singular talent "worthy" of the Lakers' fiscal admiration. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh appear to be all but locked into a successful future with the Miami Heat. Carmelo Anthony has been witness to a frustrating storm that's engulfed his New York Knicks on multiple occasions this season but still seems unlikely to leave behind his team of choice—and the millions more the Knicks can pay him.
Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph could be available if they opt out of their existing contracts, though neither fits the profile of someone who could propel the Lakers to a Larry O'Brien Trophy, with or without an active Kobe. The same goes for Luol Deng, whose time as an unrestricted free agent might not even come if he inks an extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
At this point, the summer of 2015 seems like a much better bet as an opportunity for the Lakers to reload. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan are among the most prominent players slated to hit the market that July.
But of those big names, only Love, who some NBA executives believe has his sights set on a leaving the Minnesota Timberwolves for L.A. per Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, seems at all destined to ditch his incumbent club. Aldridge has led the Portland Trail Blazers' renaissance, Rondo might soon spearhead his own with the Boston Celtics, Gasol figures to be a cornerstone of the Memphis Grizzlies for the foreseeable future, and Chandler and Jordan are both the lynchpins of their respective squads' defensive aspirations.
Dollars and Ws
As for the Lakers, it's tough to imagine them being a haven for star free agents if the state of the franchise doesn't shift in some dramatic way over the next year-and-a-half. For all the glitz and glamour that's part and parcel of being a Laker, there seems to be a growing understanding among the game's most marketable players that winning trumps all else in terms of building a personal brand.
LeBron James was a burgeoning global brand before he left Cleveland and cemented his status as an icon once he started winning championships in Miami. That change of address constituted a jump from the No. 19 media market in America to the No. 16 media market for James, per Nielsen.
Which is to say, market size likely had very little to do with the growth of LeBron's own brand.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have both enjoyed tremendous success in their off-court endeavors, even though they play in the NBA's third-smallest media market. It certainly helps that both have become fixtures at the All-Star Game and on All-NBA teams, and that they've guided the Thunder through several deep playoff pushes.
The sorts of pushes to which the Lakers had long been accustomed, but that they could only hope for amidst their current circumstances. Come July 1, 2015, will players like Love and Rondo really want to bolt to L.A. if the grass there isn't any greener? Will Marc Gasol want to play for a team that's rubbed his brother the wrong way so many times? Would Aldridge leave behind a winning culture in Rip City, or would Jordan switch locker rooms at the Staples Center?
L.A. is still L.A., with all the same draws (i.e. weather, activities, food, weather, people, weather and have I mentioned the weather?) that have attracted NBA players to make their offseason homes in Southern California for decades.
Quality of life means a lot in today's NBA—perhaps more than it ever has. With the latest collective bargaining agreement further flattening out the financial differences between teams, players now have greater incentive to choose their employers based on factors other than money, since most suitors are confined to similar contractual parameters.
By the same token, a team's prospects for success can be and probably are that much more important to a player's free-agency decision when the disparity in dollars from one offer to the next is as small as it is now.
Competition Off the Court
If the Lakers don't have a clear plan in place for returning to championship contention by the time a given marquee free agent hits the market, they can't necessarily dig deeper into their pockets to compensate. The team's unmistakable brand might matter to some, as might the willingness to spend into luxury-tax territory in pursuit of victory, but neither of those factors carries with it a direct correlation to wins and losses.
And it's not as though the Lakers will be the only team with money to throw around in 2015. According to Basketball Reference, there are 10 teams that currently sport smaller salary commitments for 2015-16 than do the Lakers. That collection includes the New York Knicks, the Dallas Mavericks, the San Antonio Spurs, the Phoenix Suns and the Toronto Raptors, among others.
That roster of teams will inevitably change as trades and signings come and go. The Knicks' share of cap space will shrink significantly if/when Carmelo decides to stay, as will the Mavs' should Dirk Nowitzki stick around beyond this season. The Spurs, Suns and Raptors, meanwhile, will all have to consider extending and/or retaining their own young stars between now and then.
Still, the point is, the Lakers won't likely be "lone rangers" in any race for the services of a major free agent. They'll have to compete with franchises at various stages of the contending life cycle off the court, just as they'll have to for victories on the court.
A Reputation, Misrepresented
While it may be true among superstars that L.A. is the place to be and the Lakers are the team to play for there—which may not be the case, given the Los Angeles Clippers' recent rise to prominence—the idea that the Lakers have regularly pillaged the market for the best and brightest talents is a misnomer, if not an outright myth. Only once have the Lakers won a bidding war for a max-level free agent who came from another team: in 1996, when Shaquille O'Neal left the Orlando Magic.
Back then, the Lakers could count on legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss and Jerry West, the team's general manager and the man whose silhouette can be found on the NBA's official logo, for reeling in free agents, as was the case with Shaq. But neither of those two icons remain active within the organization; Dr. Buss passed away last year, while West left his post with the Lakers in 2002.
Since then, Jim Buss, Dr. Buss' son and the team's executive vice president of player personnel, and Mitch Kupchak, West's successor in the front office, have done well to steward the franchise to a pair of Kobe-led crowns and a stunning reload in the summer of 2012 that, at the time, appeared to have L.A. ticketed for another parade down Figueroa St. However, neither has come close to luring a pricey free agent to the franchise in his time at the helm.
The biggest and most expensive signing for those two? Ron Artest, who signed with the Lakers for four years and upwards of $26 million in 2009, before changing his name to Metta World Peace.
In the defense of L.A.'s front office, the team has lacked both the need for a major outside addition and the financial flexibility to pull it off for some time. Its illustrious history is filled with instances of acquiring star players with draft picks and trades rather than with signatures on contracts.
If anything, Shaq is the exception that proves the rule. The Lakers' run of success in the 1960s began with the selections of Elgin Baylor in 1958 and Jerry West in 1960. Those two laid the foundation for a team that would go on to acquire Wilt Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers in 1968 and win the franchise's first championship in L.A. in 1972.
Likewise, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't have been a Laker if he hadn't pushed for a move out of Milwaukee in the mid-1970s, though the Knicks were in the mix for his services, as well. Moreover, L.A. didn't truly take off again until the team selected Magic Johnson in 1979, with a pick plucked from the New Orleans Jazz as compensation for the loss of Gail Goodrich, and James Worthy in 1982, with a selection swiped from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a swap involving Butch Lee and Don Ford.
Fast forward toward today, and you'll find the Lakers parlaying their assets into a pair of building blocks (i.e. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol) with whom the franchise would go on to win titles in 2009 and 2010.
Tried-and-True Team-Building Tactics
You could say, then, that the Lakers have missed the playoffs just five times in their entire existence not because of what they've pulled off through the more modern machinations of free agency, but rather because of the luck/opportunity that they've maximized through the "old school" team-building means of draft picks and trades.
One need only look at the end of the Lakers' bench to find a guy who personifies this strategy: Kobe Bryant. L.A. swooped him up in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who owned the 13th pick in 1996.
Kobe's career has coincided with the Lakers' extended run of prosperity over the last decade-and-a-half or so. They've gone out of their way to appease Bryant on several occasions (see: the Shaq trade of 2004, the Gasol trade of 2008), if only to convince him that L.A. is the place to be.
This, as it turns out, is what's separated the Lakers from the competition. Aside from whatever combination of good fortune and front-office savvy someone might ascribe to them, the Lakers have thrived on their ability to retain the myriad superstars they've either groomed from the beginning or brought in via trade.
That track record had been practically without blemish until this past summer, when Dwight Howard, who'd forced his way to L.A. in August of 2012, turned down a longer, more lucrative offer with the Lakers to join the Houston Rockets. In doing so, Howard not only broke the spell of Lakers staying Lakers, but also brought to the fore a more widely applicable rule for attracting free agents.
Have young talent already in place.
Priming the Pump
As much as Dwight might've bristled at the thought of playing for Mike D'Antoni and waiting his turn behind Kobe to be the face of the franchise, his decision probably had just as much (if not more) to do with the lack of youth among L.A.'s talent base. Bryant, Nash and Gasol were already well into their 30s, with Nash creeping toward 40. The combined age, injury histories and wear-and-tear on those three didn't exactly paint a picture of a long-term championship contender for Howard.
As opposed to the Rockets, who were the NBA's youngest team last season, with 20-somethings like James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin leading them into the playoffs.
If the Lakers want to be the team of record for stars seeking new homes, they'll need much more than the glimpses into their glorious past that Kobe Bryant and championship banners can provide. Rather, they'll need a serious shot in the arm for the future, someone with whom established names would gladly spend their prime years in pursuit of glory.
Luckily for the Lakers, they'll probably have the chance to add just such a someone this summer. If L.A.'s unwitting slide into the cellar of the Western Conference continues, the team should find itself in possession of a high-value lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft, which even Mitch Kupchak says "has the potential to be a heck of a draft from one through 10," via Lakers reporter Mike Trudell.
At the moment, the Lakers can only hope that whichever pick they wind up with will give way to an All-Star-caliber prospect, one who could lure other members of the league's elite to L.A. to put the Purple and Gold back on top.
Because, as the Lakers are quickly learning, leaning on expensive iconography can only get you so far in today's NBA. What any team taking the free-agency route needs is live bait to attract the biggest fish in basketball.
The Lakers can still cast their lines into the free-agent pool without that kind of bait, without a gifted youngster with superstar upside, if they so choose, but they should expect to reel in more garbage-worthy campaigns before things turn around if that is, indeed, how they decide to go about the rebuilding process.
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