There is strength in losing for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Dwelling near the bottom of the Western Conference cuts to the core of a team and fanbase accustomed to routinely adding new banners to their already-heavily decorated rafters. It further injures the already-wounded Kobe Bryant, who approaches every loss like most would a post-apocolyptic wasteland.
Neither Bryant nor the Lakers are used to this. Their fans certainly aren't used to this. During the 2004-05 campaign—the last time Los Angeles failed to clinch a playoff berth—the Lakers were at least semi-competitive, grinding out 34 wins while headed by a younger Bryant averaging more than 40 minutes a night.
These Lakers, who are already out of playoff contention, are terrible. There's no other word for it. They're barely recognizable and pale in comparison to those 2004-05 Lakers. At least those Lakers had an identity.
At least those Lakers had Bryant. He's the face; he's the franchise.
Life without him has been unbearable. Brandless basketball has spurred mounting losses, and mounting losses have stripped the Lakers of their appeal. Nationally televised games have been dropped, protracted losing streaks have become standard and lifeless efforts are the norm.
It begs the question: Is what we're seeing now a glimpse into Los Angeles' future without Bryant?
Temporary Suffering for Definitive Change
Think those games would have been dropped if Bryant was healthy? Think the Lakers would still be a nondescript basketball team with him? Think players would be openly admitting they have nothing to play for?
Los Angeles' futility isn't a secret; it's a well-known fact by now. The Lakers are 15 games under .500 and pacing themselves toward 28 or 29 victories. And it's been scary. Their regression has been harrowing.
Talk of tanking has dominated headlines. ESPN's Marc Stein reports the Lakers could potentially ship Gasol to the Phoenix Suns for a package built around Emeka Okafor. Emeka. Okafor. Even if a first-rounder is included, that's not the Lakers. They never would have sold whatever wins they had left, however many, for an extra draft pick and some financial relief. Everything we're seeing from them is out of character.
Or is this their new character, what we can expect to see from them when Bryant's absence isn't due to injury, but retirement?
My advice: chill.
This is happening. The Lakers are awful, ranking in the bottom 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. It's bad. Real bad.
But it's going to get better. Maybe not next season, but soon.
What's happening to the Lakers now, well, happens. Powerhouses stumble. Goliaths fall. Backslides are inevitable, especially this side of the collective bargaining agreement, when every team is forced to be financially prudent and miracle moves are spectral utopias.
The Lakers wouldn't be much better off with Bryant. Healthy as can be, he wouldn't be enough to stop the bleeding completely. Los Angeles has won a third of games he's been in the lineup for, measuring up almost perfectly to their 16-31 record.
With time, maybe Bryant wins the Lakers an extra game or two (or three). For the most part, he changes nothing about this season. Attributing their demise to his injuries, to the absence of a 35-year-old who exceeded his physical limits less than one year ago is inane. It's a copout. An attempt to deny that this season is necessary.
Los Angeles needs this. The team and its fans need to endure. Transition periods weren't necessary when the Lakers were building around Bryant. The Lakers already had their superstar, and it's always easier and quicker to rebuild when the most indispensable component of any championship team—a superstar—is already in place.
This time, the Lakers aren't rebuilding around Bryant. Not really. Though he's paid like a top dog, and remains the heart and soul of the Laker way, he isn't the future. Dwight Howard was supposed to be the future. Now the Lakers will shift their attention to someone else.
Who exactly? We don't know. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were the original targets, but circumstances and potential fit have forced the Lakers to explore other options. And they have options. And they're on the prowl for more options.
Including Bryant's league-leading $23.5 million salary next season, the Lakers can still have or easily create the means to offer a max contract, per ShamSports. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding writes, they're placing an emphasis on that financial flexibility:
Same as they did in preparation for 2007 free agency on the chance that James wouldn’t be staying in Cleveland, the Lakers have structured their payroll to be ready whenever James is next a free agent. They’re ready if he opts out this summer (though it’s unimaginable he would leave if Miami won again and also unimaginable he would leave and evoke memories of Cleveland by deserting Miami if the Heat lost), if he opts out next summer (possibly) or when his contract expires in 2016 (valid).
But this is not all about LeBron; this is about free agency, which has always been the Lakers’ plan because they rightly believe—Dwight Howard’s provincial view notwithstanding—that they are an attractive destination with a very warm and large spotlight.
Between now and the end of Bryant's contract, the Lakers can turn their attention to acquire a second star, like James, Anthony or Kevin Love (in 2015). Love is the most intriguing option because rumors of his interest in the Lakers just won't die.
"That's a 100 percent certainty,'' one general manager told ESPN's Chris Broussard (subscription required) of Love joining the Lakers in 2015.
Like I said, the Lakers have options. And it's because of these options they're as bad as they are.
Sacrificing Now for Later
General manager Mitch Kupchak could have taken on long-term salaries in an effort to be better this season. He could have done the same thing at any point this year, hoping to turn Gasol into an impact player on a lengthy deal.
But he didn't, because that's not the plan. The plan is to acquire one more star before Bryant retires and hopefully make one last run at a title. After that, in 2016 when Bryant's contract expires and he (probably) retires, the plan will be to get another star.
Kevin Durant will be available in 2016. Despite the Brooklyn Nets' plan to pursue him, and John Wall's blatant violation of NBA tampering policies preemptive attempt to do the same, the Lakers remain a desirable landing spot. That won't change. With or without Bryant. Ever. Just as the Lakers will never change.
Focus will continue to be on acquiring superstars and winning championships. Dr. Jerry Buss set a (purple-and-)gold standard the Lakers will continue to follow.
When they get that next superstar or two (or three), it will be business as usual. Rebuilding periods won't exist. They'll retool and restructure, but never overhaul the roster or chaperone losing the way they are now. Not as long as they have that one superstar.
Periods like this, though, are sometimes necessary. When the core is enfeebled and victimized by age, losing and disappointment for sake of progress is unavoidable. The Lakers have reached that point.
Ironically, they've reached it with Bryant on the sidelines, making it easy to associate their current vapidity and failure with his absence and therefore making it just as easy to raze their bigger picture. But that's not what this season is.
"It's not looking and feeling good right now, but you've got to play through it and do your very best," Gasol said, via Shelburne.
Players have to endure. Bryant, the Lakers and their fans must suffer now. In certain situations, rock bottom has to happen, and this is one of those times.
This season was inevitable. Inescapable. It was bound to happen. And while some say it's unknown what the Lakers are playing for anymore, it's actually abundantly clear: Nothing right now, for want of everything with and without Bryant later.