The Los Angeles Lakers need something to feel good about.
During a season nearly devoid of watching Kobe Bryant, who did at least sign an extension that will keep him around for two more years, not much has gone right. Mike D'Antoni has milked positive contributions from a number of role players, but the overall product is still pretty bad.
The Lakers have fallen nearly all the way to the bottom of the Western Conference, and fans of the historically excellent franchise can't be used to such futility. So let's make them forget about it.
With cap space overflowing from the ledgers during each of the next two offseasons, L.A. has a chance to land a premier player in free agency. There will be a new star in Hollywood, one who can help usher the team into the post-Mamba portion of its history.
But who do the Lakers want? Who are the best choices to do the leading?
There are plenty of players available in 2014 and 2015 (we're not going down the rabbit hole and looking at players who will be available beyond that), but only a few are big enough stars to become a leader of the Purple and Gold.
Age matters. Skill matters. Being established matters.
The Lakers aren't going to go for anything less than the best of the best, after all.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are accurate as of Feb. 1 and come from Basketball-Reference.com.
We can't overlook the Lakers' potential to pick up a future star in the 2014 NBA draft. If there were ever a selection process that could produce multiple superstars, it would be this one.
The 2014 class is simply overflowing with potential for greatness.
Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid and Dante Exum seem to be the clear-cut top-five picks, but there are plenty of other players who could become big deals at the professional level. Don't overlook the potential of guys like Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Tyler Ennis, Gary Harris and so many more.
Hell, it's possible to pull a future All-Star out of the mid-first round in this class.
And right now, it looks as though the Lakers will have the pick of the litter. Only five teams—the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings—have worse records, but L.A. is on the way down.
Especially as they'll be without Pau Gasol for at least the next week as he recovers from a strained groin, the Lakers are headed in the wrong direction. They're losing games and not gaining any talent, and not even the eventual return of Kobe Bryant will keep them from earning some excellent lottery odds.
Plus, wouldn't it be hilarious if the Lakers bucked the odds and ended up with the No. 1 pick, just so that Adam Silver's tenure as NBA commissioner would begin firmly embroiled in ridiculous conspiracy theories?
Regardless, the Lakers will have the ability to land a star in the 2014 draft. They might not be used to building a team through draft picks, but change is nice every once in a while.
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, 17.4 PER
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted in 2015
Can you even imagine Marc Gasol on the Los Angeles Lakers?
Well, you should be able to. He did begin his career there, after all. It might be hard to remember now, but Gasol was the No. 48 pick of the 2007 NBA draft and was technically a Laker before he and a few other players were traded for his older brother.
This Gasol never actually suited up for the Lake Show, but he was still a part of the organization.
Now he could be again, assuming he doesn't re-sign with the Memphis Grizzlies. The 29-year-old center is going to be an unrestricted free agent following the 2014-15 season, and there's a solid chance he could be looking for a change of scenery.
What if the Grizzlies fail to make the playoffs in the difficult Western Conference? What if Gasol isn't even within sniffing distance of a title before he's able to hit the open market? What if he wants to play in a bigger market?
If he does decide to go elsewhere, there aren't many better locations than L.A. He's one of those easy-to-build-around players because of his versatility on each end of the court, and he could become the centerpiece of a legendary franchise.
Additionally, he could play with his brother. Pau has already indicated a desire to join forces with his sibling, after all.
"It’s appealing,” Pau told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper about a potential return to the Grizz. “One of the best centers in the NBA, one of the best interior players, is my brother. There’s a lot of attractive factors there. But who knows if that’s even a possibility or if that will ever happen."
Well, what if it happened the other way around? What if Marc joined Pau in Hollywood?
Stranger things have happened.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 23.3 PER
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted in 2015
At the moment, it seems highly unlikely that LaMarcus Aldridge will choose to leave the Portland Trail Blazers.
Even though he's had trade rumors swirling around him for what seems like decades—prior to the Rip City breakout, of course—Aldridge is now the centerpiece of a truly dominant squad capable of emerging from the Western Conference mess. Why would he leave that behind?
Well, he might because it could all come apart in 2015. Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez are also free agents of the unrestricted variety after the 2014-15 season comes to a close, and the team won't be the same if either of them parts ways with the Blazers.
Plus, the Lakers could come a'calling. And if they do so, it'll be awfully hard for Aldridge to say no.
He may be moving out of his prime two offseasons from now, but Aldridge's game isn't predicated on his impressive athleticism. It helps, but he's got quite the finesse game, which should allow him to pull a Dirk Nowitzki and continue playing at a high level into his late 30s.
Imagine if he expanded that range and started hitting triples. He'd be even more dominant than he already is, and he's currently the best power forward in basketball (apologies to Kevin Love).
Team: New York Knicks
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 27.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 25.0 PER
Free-Agency Status: Early-Termination Option in 2014
Can you win a title by building around Carmelo Anthony?
Even though it's never happened, I still vote yes. And the reason is the developing game he's showing, one that actually allows him to create pictures like the one you can see up above. 'Melo has become more than just a scorer, even if it's an outing like his 62-point night that will always draw the biggest headlines.
Anthony is playing defense this year. He's passing the ball, even if his assist numbers are down because his teammates were scarily unable to connect on open looks during the early portion of the 2013-14 campaign.
And look at those rebounding figures. When did he learn how to do that?
Anthony has become more than just a scorer, although he's pretty darn good at putting the ball in the basket, and that remains his No. 1 skill.
You've heard the rumors. 'Melo to Los Angeles has been talked about for a while now, and it remains possible that he could get frustrated by the upsetting nature of the Knicks' season.
He might have trouble coexisting with Kobe Bryant, but it's hard to find a better scoring replacement for when the Mamba leaves the NBA behind.
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 27.0 PER
Free-Agency Status: Player Option in 2015
Sometimes it's hard to fully grasp that Kevin Love is only 25 years old.
The All-Star power forward is already the best rebounder in basketball—though he no longer has a stranglehold on that title—and it's not like he's bad at scoring. His efficiency could use some work, but that shooting stroke is excellent, and Love never hesitates to take the big shots.
That's not where the laudatory aspects stop either.
Love is one of the best passing bigs in the Association, and he's a true master of the outlet pass. In fact, you could make a convincing case that he, Wes Unseld and Bill Walton form the Mt. Rushmore for that underrated aspect of the game.
But he just can't win games with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Love has never played past the regular season.
Is that his fault? I'd argue no, because there's no power forward who could replace him and carry a limited 'Wolves roster into the postseason.
However, that reputation should be weighing on him, and it'll play a major part in him choosing to end his time in Minnesota prematurely. In fact, it may as well be guaranteed, if ESPN's Chris Broussard can be believed (subscription required).
"That's a 100 percent certainty," an anonymous general manager reportedly told Broussard about Love's chances of becoming a Laker.
B/R's Zach Buckley questions the definitiveness of that number, though:
What if the Minnesota Timberwolves make a prolonged playoff run between now and then? Or Minnesota becomes convinced Love is leaving and ships him out to a team that has a championship ceiling? What happens if Kobe Bryant clearly isn't the same player (assuming, of course, he's still playing at that point) and the Lakers don't have any other attractive pieces to sell?
I'm in Camp Buckley.
Calling it at 80 percent would be fine. But the vaunted 100 percent should be saved for less questionable decisions, especially when they're not possible for another two years. A lot can change between now and then.
Team: Miami Heat
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 28.7 PER
Free-Agency Status: Early-Termination Option in 2014
Did you expect anything else?
There's no telling whether LeBron James will or won't choose to use his early-termination option at the conclusion of the 2013-14 campaign. Not yet, at least.
King James could steer the Miami Heat to a three-peat and stay out of loyalty. He could win a championship and decide that he had more potential to continue growing his ring collection elsewhere, then jump ship into the free-agent pool.
At the same time, LeBron and the Heat could fall to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. And if that happens, there's still no telling what happens. He could try to redeem himself or seek greener pastures.
Your guess is as good as mine, and even if he did decide to leave South Beach, there's no guarantee he'd grace Los Angeles with his presence. Other teams would covet his services too.
But none of that is relevant to his spot at No. 1 in the rankings.
LeBron is still the top player in the world to build around, even though he's now 29 years old. Kevin Durant won't be a free agent until 2016, so he's not even eligible to challenge James, and none of the other players featured in this article come close.
Mitch Kupchak might be salivating over the prospect of landing Love or 'Melo. But you'd need a bucket to collect all the drool when he thinks about LeBron in a purple-and-gold uniform.