The situation appears dire at the moment for the Los Angeles Lakers, but with some wheeling and dealing, the franchise could potentially contend for a title by the time 2016 rolls around.
The Purple and Gold currently reside at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, and one struggles to project what the roster will look like in the next few seasons. The Lakers have roughly $26 million in projected cap space this summer provided they renounce all of their free agents.
With flawless execution and perhaps a bit of luck, Los Angeles could secure a couple of top players. Granted, this is not a blueprint, but rather the best-case scenario of what the Lakers could pull off.
In the Name of Love
The Lakers will have to pull out all the stops necessary to get Kevin Love in a Lakers uniform when he eventually becomes a free agent.
Love felt underappreciated because the organization refused to give him a five-year deal. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports has the details:
Love doesn't want to sound 'bitter over it,' he says, because he understands that no one wants to hear him unhappy over a four-year, $62 million contract. In so many ways, the contract is beyond his wildest dreams. Yet the five-year, $80 million maximum designation the franchise could have given him represented the commitment he wanted to make to Minnesota, the way with which a first-team All-NBA player and Olympian should stand shoulder to shoulder with a city, an organization.
Love's disdain for the Timberwolves' office appears to be pushing him toward the Lakers, according to ESPN Insider Chris Broussard (subscription required): "As for the Kevin Love-to-New York rumors, most executives believe Love is destined for the Lakers when he becomes a free agent in 2015. 'That's a 100 percent certainty,' one GM told me."
An Eastern Conference executive corroborated Broussard's findings and shared this nugget with CBS Sports' Ken Berger: "No one thinks he's staying. Everyone knows he wants to go to the Lakers."
Love's interest in joining the Lake Show is great news for the franchise, and it's incumbent upon general manager Mitch Kupchak to orchestrate things in a manner that allows the three-time All-Star to sign with L.A. in the 2015 summer.
This entails that Kupchak must re-sign some of his players currently under contract to one-year deals (or for two seasons with a team option for the second season) and potentially bring in a few new faces under the same financial terms.
Under this scenario, Pau Gasol and Nick Young are candidates to return next season, provided that Kupchak agrees to overpay them to remain with the team. Gasol could sign for something resembling $15 million, while Young would get about $7 million.
Granted, it seems unlikely that both would agree to such deals with little guarantee that the franchise would bring them back for future seasons. Also, Gasol has expressed some frustrations with Mike D'Antoni, per Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, and his name has popped up in trade discussions fairly frequently.
It stands to reason Gasol will not be back.
Thus, the move here is probably to sign Young for two years and bring back Xavier Henry at $3 million per year until 2015-16. The Lakers can then add players like Elton Brand and Michael Beasley at the modest sum of $5 million each to play alongside Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash for a season.
The wild card in this projection is the NBA draft. In the event the Lakers get a top-five pick, they will have the opportunity to select one of the best players in a draft that ESPN.com's Chad Ford (Insider subscription required) has deemed to be the deepest in league history.
The Lakers could conceivably add Kansas' Joel Embiid, who projects to be the next Tim Duncan or Hakeem Olajuwon, according to NBADraft.net's scouting report. Embiid will undoubtedly need time to develop, but L.A. would take things slow with him to ensure he is not faced with far too much pressure to win early.
Kupchak could then add minimum-salary players to fill out the roster and keep the team interesting.
The Lakers would not be competing for a title, but they would be in a transition period that requires them to maintain flexibility with their cap structure. The goal is to make sure Los Angeles can sign Love in the 2015 summer and ensure his contract is the only one on the books past the 2016 offseason (other than salaries from lottery picks).
Obviously, the front office will have to sign a few more stopgap players to place around Love, but the Lakers will still be a relatively decent squad with the pieces on board.
Although health might be a concern, the trio of Love, Bryant and Nash has the potential to be a fun run-and-gun team, which suggests that D'Antoni will still be the head coach. Injuries will ultimately decide whether the Lakers make the postseason during the 2015-16 campaign.
Given the ages of Bryant (35) and Nash (40), it's probably fair to prognosticate that both players will be in and out of the lineup in their final seasons in the league, which will lead to Los Angeles missing the playoffs for the first and last time in the "Love era" (trust me, that nomenclature for this period will not last).
Bryant and Nash will ride into the sunset with the league celebrating their departures, and fans will impatiently wait for the start of 2016 free agency. Love's contract will be in the range of $17 million, and given that his salary will be the only one on the books, the Lakers will have just about $44 million in cap room.
Championship Contention Awaits
With Kevin Love under contract for another three seasons, coupled with one of the top selections in the 2014 draft (Joel Embiid as noted previously), the Lakers could successfully seduce LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the 2016 offseason, thus turning them into title contenders.
Durant's contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder expires at the conclusion of the 2015-16 campaign, at which point he becomes a free agent who can sign with any team. It's difficult to state with certainty whether he will be the league's best player at this point, but he will be in the prime of his career.
In other words, arguably the greatest perimeter scorer not named Michael Jordan will be at the peak of his powers. The idea of signing with the most glamorous franchise in basketball, as well as joining Love, makes signing with the Lakers an incredibly attractive proposition.
Add James to the equation, and it becomes perhaps the greatest power shift in NBA annals.
James has an early-termination clause in his contract that allows him to hit the open market this summer. However, if he were to win a title once again in June, he might be tempted to play out the entirety of his contract until 2016 provided that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh follow suit (their contracts were constructed in the exact same fashion as James').
When pressed by Steve Smith on the topic of possibly seeing himself on a team other than the Miami Heat in an interview on NBA TV, James responded (transcript courtesy of The Associated Press, via ESPN.com):
At this point, I can't. We don't know what can happen from now to July, so what I've been able to do this whole season to this point is just worry about what's at hand, and that's winning another championship. And hopefully at the end of this year I can put myself in a position where I can hold that Larry O'Brien Trophy up once again. And then I will assess what I have to do with my future after that.
The Miami Heat have captured back-to-back titles, thus it's not exactly a stretch to consider the possibility of them winning the title again this year. Another ring provides an incentive to keep the status quo going for a couple seasons more.
Come 2016, James will be looking for perhaps his final contract, and Wade will probably no longer resemble the player who helped the franchise capture three titles.
Wade might only be available on every third or fourth night during the regular season because of chronic knee issues, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, or he could simply opt to retire. Given his occasional absences this season, this projection seems fairly accurate.
Getting back to James, it's worth noting he can also opt out of his current deal at the end of 2014-15, but the prospect of teaming up with Love and Durant might keep him in Miami until 2016.
The four-time league MVP has already proven he is willing to relocate for the opportunity to play next to elite talent, as evidenced by his move to South Beach.
With possibly three of the top 15 players on the Lakers, conventional wisdom suggests the team will be right in the thick of the title race.
The most interesting aspect of these series of moves: As long as the Lakers keep their books clean, they should be able to sign all three players without any of them taking a pay cut.
It gets a bit tricky when we include the lottery pick, though. The draft choice in this case is Embiid, and his salary would likely be in the range of $3 to $5 million per year. With him on board, it complicates things just a tad.
Love will have joined the Lakers a year prior to James and Durant, which probably means he signs for the maximum, with a starting salary in the range of $17 million.
In turn, when James and Durant get set to join the Purple and Gold, both will have to take an annual reduction in salary worth approximately $1.5 million. That allows L.A. to fit all three players on the team along with the player drafted in 2014.
After the salary decrease, James will have a starting salary of roughly $21 million, and Durant's first year in L.A. will be worth just about $20 million. Between Embiid, Love, James and Durant, the Lakers would eat up their entire cap space and hit the artificial ceiling of $62 million (amount is not official given that it was determined during the July moratorium, per CBA FAQ).
The Lakers will have to pay the 2015 and 2016 draft choices as well, but if they are marginal players, the Lakers might simply decide to trade them away to make room for Durant and James.
Return of the Glory Days
The Los Angeles Lakers' glory days are targeted for the start of the 2016-17 season. The franchise will have to display an incredible amount of patience, but it will ultimately be worth it.
Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will get their opportunities to finish their careers in Lakerland, but not before wooing Kevin Love.
Love will be the big domino that sets things in motion and lures Kevin Durant and LeBron James to Los Angeles. The 2014 draft pick will most likely help on this front as well. However, in the event he is a bust, the Lakers will still be a great option for James and Durant.
L.A. will become perhaps one of the most hybrid teams the league has ever seen. Love will vacillate between power forward and center, while Durant and James will play at both forward spots.
In more traditional lineups, James will play 2-guard because of his ball-handling skills and point guard instincts. It will allow Durant to flourish at his natural position of small forward without negatively affecting James.
James has the talent to play four positions, thus he would figure out where he fits on a nightly basis depending on the matchups, while Durant would simply exploit whatever defender comes his way.
The two will get the opportunity to collect rings by virtue of their terrific skills. It's worth repeating: This might not necessarily be how things shake out, but Los Angeles is the place where big dreams come true.
James and Durant are the premier players of the league, and championships will follow them. Now imagine them together with the Lakers. This entire concoction might sound like a reach, but the same was said about King James going to Miami in 2010...
Salary info courtesy of Sham Sports.