With the way things have been going for the Los Angeles Lakers this season, you have to wonder just how bad it could get—not just this season but beyond.
Kobe Bryant has long been the face of the franchise. In November, management decided to take a gamble, signing him to a two-year contract extension that would presumably end with his retirement at the end of the 2015-16 season.
While the idea of Bryant retiring as a Laker after his 20th season with the team holds obvious fanbase and marketing value, it does complicate the team’s budget going forward.
Adding to the team’s woes is the fact that Bryant returned for just six games before fracturing his left knee. Together with other key injuries and a roster primarily assembled from veteran minimum-salary contracts, the team has largely been foundering.
According to Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles, Bryant will have his knee reevaluated in early February and is determined to make it back this season, despite the team’s record:
The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting stronger. I can't allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next step. To do anything else becomes distracting if you allow yourself, if you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way.
Of course, the possibility of Bryant rejoining the team also impacts next season and beyond. The Lakers’ abysmally bad record holds one silver lining—the possibility of getting into the lottery for the NBA draft at the end of the season. The Lakers have a first-round pick this season. If Bryant is able to come back and will his team to a better record, their draft chances will begin to go south.
What you are about to read is fiction at this point. Still, it’s based on existing relationships and common history and a reality that could be eminently plausible.
Our imaginary story begins in a "day after tomorrow" setting, as injured players like Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, and yes, Bryant, make a somewhat successful return to action. As for legendary point guard Steve Nash, fate may not be as kind. He’ll likely not return, or if he does, he will not have a measurable impact.
The February trade deadline will pass without any meaningful moves by Lakers management. Although they try and find a taker for Pau Gasol’s expiring contract, they simply are unable to get meaningful value back in return. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak decide to play it conservatively—Gasol’s salary will come off the books at the end of the season, allowing them a meaningful run at a top player over the summer.
Meanwhile, Bryant plays himself back into shape and will have some throwback highlight-reel nights before the season ends. The team will have dug themselves too deep a ditch to climb out of, however, and the team will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 season. They’ll still have the best draft position in years but not in the top five.
Meanwhile, the Black Mamba is not content to sit back and wait for Buss to get it right. He begins making a series of friendly and completely unofficial phone calls to a certain friend in New York City.
In our imaginary story, the Lakers enter the 2014 NBA draft at No. 9. It’s their best position since choosing James Worthy as the No. 1 overall selection back in 1982. Since then, their previous best picks have been Eddie Jones at No. 10 in 1984 and Andrew Bynum at No. 10 in 2005.
After a frustrating season, Lakers fans finally have something to look forward to. Management, meanwhile, is also feeling pretty good. Bryant’s back and healthy, they’ve got some cash to spend with Gasol leaving, and they have a terrific opportunity in the draft.
There’s always a downside of course—a good draft pick means paying a higher salary plus the player’s additional cap hold. This may make it difficult, although not impossible, to sign their No. 1 target—Carmelo Anthony.
Heading into the draft, the Lakers have just four players signed for the upcoming season—Bryant, Nash, Nick Young and Robert Sacre, along with options on rookie Ryan Kelly and point guard Kendall Marshall. They have needs at every position and will be looking for the best player still available when it gets to No. 9.
Draft night finally arrives, the first one not presided over by David Stern in 30 years. The Lakers would dearly love a player of the caliber of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid. Of course, that’s not going to happen. Those guys go in the top three, as expected.
Good fortune does shine down, however, when Dante Exum falls all the way to No. 9. The explosive point guard from Australia decides to forgo college and enter the draft. Questions about his NBA readiness cause a few teams to pass, and suddenly, the Lakers are handed a golden opportunity.
Jared Zwerling of Bleacher Report writes about the prospects for Exum, referencing a certain team and its star player:
A big reason why the NBA piques Exum’s interest is because it's a point guard-friendly league. His dream teams are the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, as he's friends with Victor Oladipo—they met at Indiana during Exum's recruiting visit—and Kobe Bryant is one of his two favorite players (the other is Derrick Rose).
And just like that, the Lakers are back in business. In Exum, they have their point guard of the future and even better, a guy who will be absolutely thrilled to play alongside his idol, the Black Mamba.
The future is starting to look a little brighter for the Purple and Gold. The big question, of course, is whether Exum will be able to produce right away.
After selecting Exum, the Lakers have slightly over $21 million left to field an entire roster. Some of their own free agents are still available, but if they sign them, they’ll be eating into available salary and cap room. There’s one prize jewel looming out there that Bryant wants, that management wants and that a win-starved Lakers fanbase wants.
Yes, Carmelo Anthony is available. He wasn’t traded during the 2013-14 season, and he has in fact, made good on the desire expressed to Rafi Kohan of the New York Observer in October 2013:
I want to be a free agent. I think everybody in the NBA dreams to be a free agent at least one time in their career. It’s like you have an evaluation period, you know. It’s like if I’m in the gym and I have all the coaches, all the owners, all the GMs come into the gym and just evaluate everything I do. So yes, I want that experience.
Now, with free agency officially underway, one of the most intriguing, explosive—and sometimes frustrating—superstars in the NBA is taking meetings.
The Lakers pull out all the stops, but it is Bryant whom Anthony confides in during lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Newport Beach. Yes, he’d love to play with him, but he’s concerned about a couple things.
First, there’s the small matter of a coach. Mike D’Antoni and Melo weren’t a perfect fit in New York, not by a long shot. Melo reminds Bryant that D’Antoni’s system hasn’t brought the Lakers a lot of wins and doesn’t favor their style of basketball. Second, there’s hardly anybody else on the roster!
Bryant settles his mercurial friend down; it’ll be alright—they’ll run the team their own way, from the floor. What’s D’Antoni going to do, bench them both?
Plus, they just drafted an amazing point guard in Exum, a kid they can shape and mold. Maybe he can’t play without the ball yet but he’ll learn. They’ll kick his ass in practice until he does. As for other players, they’ll do some recruiting calls on their own. Who won’t want to play with them?
Melo’s thinking about all this when Bryant plays his trump card—if things don’t work out with D’Antoni, there’s always P-Jax—Phil Jackson. The man who won 11 rings as a coach still wants another. Anthony stokes his chin and smiles.
Anthony signs on the dotted line for just slightly less than he could make somewhere else, but $21 million is still a lot of clams. The Lakers, however, are now out of money.
Management thinks long and hard about waiving Steve Nash. They could use the stretch provision on the money still owed and have a bit of wiggle room in which to bring back some of their own key free agents. On the other hand, he’s starting to get healthy again and could be a perfect mentor for young Exum. They decide to hang onto Nash.
The rest of the free-agency period doesn’t go so well. The first Laker to leave is Gasol who signs what will most likely be his last significant contract: $28.5 million over three years with the Boston Celtics. The next to go is Jordan Hill, followed by Chris Kaman. The Lakers are suddenly without a starting center or power forward.
Bryant tries to persuade Farmar to stay for another season. The Los Angeles native considers the possibilities. He also considers a post-draft press conference in which management praised Exum as their point guard of the future. Farmar decides to leave and is followed by Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks.
The Lakers have an option on point guard Kendall Marshall however, for $915,243. Marshall was one of the team’s few bright spots during their disastrous 2013-14 season. Per Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, this inexpensive gem is willing to work on his game:
"They say you can't shoot. They say you're too slow. They say you can't defend. So I know those are things I need to be better at."
Management is also able to convince Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry to return for another season. They have each surpassed expectations since arriving in Los Angeles and are showing why they were so highly regarded just a few seasons earlier in the draft. Johnson was the No. 4 overall pick in 2010 and Henry was the No. 12 pick the same year.
Still, the Lakers don't have nearly enough bodies to surround Bryant with, as he heads into his 19th NBA season.
The Lakers enter training camp needing some additional roster help, especially at the center and power forward positions. They currently have a 10-man roster and can sign a maximum of five more players using the league’s bread and butter in the era of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement—the veteran minimum-salary exception.
Kwame Brown, a former No. 1 overall pick as well as a former Laker, is signed to a nonguaranteed contract shortly before training camp begins. The Lakers also pick up Shawne Williams who had been waived the previous season for financial reasons. According to Ramona Shelburne for ESPN Los Angeles, D’Antoni had this to say when one of his favorite players was shown to the door:
It’s hard for everybody. You do get attached to guys you enjoy walking down an alley with. He will fight for you in a heartbeat and he was a voice in the locker room for us. I could trust him basketball-wise, anything I told him. He did the best he could do.
The Lakers round out a 14-man roster with Sasha Vujacic, a former Laker guard with two championship rings who hasn’t played in the NBA recently, and Devin Ebanks, a former swingman for the Lakers who never really lived up to expectations.
The 2014-15 season starts out with promise. Steve Nash is finally ready to go after playing sparingly in the previous two seasons. Bryant is back at full strength, and Anthony is loving Staples Center. Exum is coming off the bench and learning the ways of a rookie in the NBA. The team is in third place in the Western Conference standings during the early part of December, but fissures soon appear.
Brown is the starting center for the first time in eons and simply can’t get up and down the floor fast enough for D’Antoni. He’s replaced by Sacre in the starting lineup and then by Kelly, a stretch 4 who has no business manning the low post.
The Steve Nash resurgence starts to falter—he’s 40 years old, nearing 41 and simply doesn’t have the legs anymore. It’s heartbreaking to watch. Marshall and Exum begin sharing starting duties, according to D’Antoni’s whim, and the losses are beginning to mount.
Meanwhile, Vujacic, known as “the Machine” during his former glory days, is unhappy about his role as the fourth shooting guard in the rotation. D’Antoni experiments with a starting lineup that consists of Vujacic at the point, Bryant at shooting guard, Young at small forward, Melo as the power forward and Kelly at center. On-court quarrels ensue.
During postgame media sessions, Anthony begins expressing helpful opinions about various systems of basketball and the number of touches he’s used to getting but suddenly isn’t. Bryant talks about the process of adjustments until he stops talking about them and starts dropping f-bombs.
In January, D’Antoni is fired and assistant coach Kurt Rambis is hired as the interim head coach. The team rallies behind Rambis for a handful of games. The renewed energy too often short-circuits, however. The Lakers are very good one night and horrible the next. Rambis keeps trying to hammer home the necessity of team defense, but the team’s too busy jacking up shots to listen.
Management explores various trade scenarios as the February deadline approaches. Their most attractive and undervalued asset, however, is Nick “Swaggy P” Young who happens to be the team’s third-highest scorer behind Anthony and Bryant. The Lakers decide to keep him, and the team puts together a solid run toward the end of the regular season.
Bryant is playing brilliantly by this point. He is also playing long, hard minutes, prompting questions about the possibility of injury. The Lakers sneak into the eighth and last playoff berth. It is an all-too familiar story.
The Lakers are swept in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs by the Golden State Warriors who go on to win their first NBA Championship in 40 years, beating the Indiana Pacers.
After trading away their first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns (top-five protected) and their second-round pick to the Orlando Magic (protected 31-40), the Lakers find themselves falling through the cracks of the byzantine draft system—they wind up without a selection this year.
The Lakers also have little money to spend, apart from that which was freed up when Nash’s contract finally, mercifully, expired. That money, however, goes to sign Young to a modest mid-level contract extension. The team finds itself back in the familiar fallback position of minimum-salary offers. Henry and Johnson move on to greener pastures.
Now entering his sophomore season, the Lakers point guard of the future is ready to bust a move. Exum blows everyone away during the Las Vegas Summer League.
Toward the end of the summer, there's a surprise signing as Lamar Odom agrees to an unguaranteed minimum-salary contract. The onetime Lakers star hasn’t played professional basketball in since the 2012-13 season with the Los Angeles Clippers.
For Odom, it is a homecoming of sorts. The former NBA Sixth Man of the Year had been offered by the Lakers as a key part of a trade for Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets back in 2012. The trade had been voided by David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA at the time. According to Mark Medina at the Los Angeles Times, Odom had reacted in disbelief to the botched trade:
Man, I’m just in total disbelief about all of this. They don’t want my services, for whatever reason. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I was proud to be a Laker, so I’ll try to help them in the process as much as possible.
A disillusioned Odom was subsequently dealt to the Dallas Mavericks where he bottomed out and was allowed out of his contract. Most recently, he had dealt with personal issues and had tried to work his way back into the league, finally culminating in this latest, unexpected turn of events.
Odom is finally back with the Lakers, back where he won two NBA championship rings. Can lighting strike twice?
Management also signs former Laker Darius Morris at the point plus one more blast from the past—center Andrew Bynum, The former champion has been out of commission with chronic knee issues for quite some time. That he would now be seen as a minor footnote is a cruel bit of irony—Bynum was once viewed as an emerging superstar.
Rumors begin to build as Derek Fisher, now retired, starts hanging out at the El Segundo team gym with the guys. Two weeks before training camp is set to begin, another rumor begins to circulate and quickly goes viral—Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are supposedly talking to Phil Jackson again.
Suddenly, all the notions of used-up players and an organization without purpose are dismissed. Articles and live reports about one last grand tour with Phil and Kobe are all the rage.
And then, just as suddenly, the story is over. While there’s no official comment, sources close to the team claim that Buss wouldn’t pay Jackson his usual salary. All chances for another ring for the legendary coach just sailed out the window.
To quote one of Jackson’s favorite sayings by Amartya Sen:
“Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms.”
Jackson himself shrugs off this latest bit of reality as a trifle. Rambis, however, is so angered at how things were handled that he resigns. The Lakers now name Mark Madsen, an assistant with the team, as the new head coach.
Training camp comes and goes with Bryant and Melo looking grim, and offering few quotable quotes to those who ask about their chances this season.
This is not how Bryant expected his last season in the NBA to go. It’s not how Anthony expected any of his seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers to go. The team fails to win a single preseason game and trudges into the regular season.
The new head coach rallies his troops, however. Madsen was part of an earlier championship era with the Lakers, one that included Bryant. He holds a closed-door meeting and talks about bringing back certain elements of the famed triangle system—even if Jackson and Rambis aren’t there to really explain how things work.
By late November, Odom is working himself back into game shape. Exum, however, still seems intent on scoring whenever he touches the ball, leading to scathing looks from Bryant and Anthony.
In December, the Lakers sign Fisher, age 41, with the idea of using him as a player and unofficial on-court coach. The team goes on a 10-game winning streak to close out the year and find themselves, somehow, in the middle of the standings in the Western Conference.
Bolstered by this most recent good fortune, management decides to waive backup point guard Darius Morris in order to avoid paying his league minimum salary for the balance of the season.
The Lakers' point-guard rotation now consists of Exum, Marshall and Fisher.
The New Year begins with one more surprise in a season that has been full of them. The Boston Celtics begin shopping Gasol whose productivity has been steadily waning over the last 18 months.
Bryant and other Lakers lifers begin making their feelings known to Kupchak. Bynum, who has recently been playing a solid 10 minutes per game, mentions his knees are really hurting a lot, and he, Gasol and Brown could function effectively as a three-headed center unit.
Management starts burning through cell batteries, sensing that the franchise might be headed for a PR disaster of epic proportions—this is supposed to be Bryant’s swan song, and next season’s season-ticket renewals are at an all-time low. When all is done, a deal is reached to bring Gasol back to the Lakers. It comes at a high cost, however—Young and a slew of future draft picks are shipped off to Boston.
Back in Los Angeles once again, the Spaniard shares his feelings with the media and promises to help Bryant finish out his final season with dignity, style and a winning effort.
Heading into the final months of the regular season, the Lakers resemble a page from the history books with Fisher, Bryant, Melo, Odom and Gasol starting. The bench players are an ever-shifting amalgamation. The Purple and Gold are clinging tenuously to the eighth and final playoff spot.
There are moments during the month of March when Lakers basketball is a thing of beauty—the starting lineup would have been nearly unbeatable once upon a time. Unfortunately, the moments don’t always transcend to full games.
The Western Conference has become younger, more athletic and simply too competitive. For Gasol, Fisher, Odom and other former Laker greats, the adage that "you can’t go home again" rings painfully true.
The losses begin to outnumber wins as the Lakers head into the month of April. The team collapses down the stretch in a hail of hero-ball moments that thrill momentarily but are ultimately unsuccessful. They miss the playoffs by two games.
In his final appearance as a Laker, Bryant puts on a show, matching his season high in points and diving into his bag of step-jabs, spin moves and fall-away jumpers. When it’s all over, he waves goodbye for the last time and limps off the floor.
The Staples crowd rises as one, applauding and chanting Bryant’s name as he disappears into the tunnel. His fellow Lakers clap as well and then follow numbly toward the lockers. An era is over, and Bryant never won the sixth ring he wanted so desperately.
His farewell tour wasn't supposed to end this way.