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LA Lakers Front Office Whiffs at NBA Trade Deadline, but Bigger Tests Await

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LA Lakers Front Office Whiffs at NBA Trade Deadline, but Bigger Tests Await
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The future course of the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t shaped at the NBA trade deadline Thursday.

It won’t be dictated by May 20, the next landmark date as far as L.A. is concerned: the draft lottery. The actual June 26 draft, as uncommonly important as this one could be for the Lakers, isn’t make-or-break, either.

There are no two ways about it: Which free agents the team selects in the next three summers, and which free agents select L.A., will set the entire table.

Everything else is a newer salt shaker here, a cleaner napkin there, maybe a place for Jim Buss to hang his baseball cap in the corner.

The trade deadline was a failure of very small proportions for the Lakers. They were unable to move closer to securing some of those small, better pieces via future draft picks in exchange for outgoing veterans Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman.

General manager Mitch Kupchak could not sell his counterparts, few of whom were buyers, on deals that would give Los Angeles better than just financial savings the rest of this season. Kupchak said the available offers consisted of “no basketball components...The expression would be 'a salary dump.'"

Kupchak flatly said: “The organization is not motivated by saving ‘X’ amount of dollars.” There has been a lot of misplaced concern about the Lakers needing to get out of the luxury tax this season to avoid future repeat tax penalties, but their payroll structure makes it almost impossible for them to be in the tax again the next few seasons. So that isn’t a problem.

What really matters is what Kupchak said when I asked him about deciding whether to set that table with the salary-cap space this offseason versus next offseason.

“The one thing you don’t want to do is make a bad decision with your money,” Kupchak said. “We do have a lot of money, and what we don’t want to do is make commitments to players for long periods of time that may just put your team in the middle of the pack. So you’ve used up your flexibility and at the end of the year, you’re 41-41 or you get 46 wins or 43…you know what I mean?

“Then you’re middle of the pack. You’re not giving the people of Los Angeles what they expect. We’re not bringing to the table what we expect to bring to the table. So that’s what you don’t want to do. You want to use your money wisely and get players who can help you win at a high level.”

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That is hardly an expression of confidence and aggressiveness that a championship cornerstone awaits the Lakers in free agency this offseason, no matter how much Kobe Bryant wants the team to fix this sooner rather than later.

“What we have coming up this offseason with the cap space and what we have ahead of ourselves seems to be right in the Lakers' wheelhouse in terms of turning things around pretty quickly,” Bryant said at All-Star Weekend.

“We have had summers like this (and) they have never really faltered. They have normally made really sound and excellent decisions that put us right back in contention. So I think this offseason is right in their wheelhouse.”

So Bryant might be a little disappointed this summer. He was already “not cool…AT ALL,” according to his Twitter post, with Steve Blake being sent out for two middling prospects Wednesday night.

But one of the few things Kupchak says is a certainty is Bryant still being able to do his job (which isn’t being the GM). Said Kupchak: “There’s really no reason why anyone should speculate as to whether Kobe can get back next year at a high level.”

Bryant wants next season to mean something more than him playing well, though. And the question is whether Kupchak can possibly make next season that great for the team.

Whereas some people might draw a line between winning and losing teams at that 41-41 mark, Kupchak’s philosophy has always been to evaluate whether L.A. can get into that group of teams that has a chance to win the title.

You read between the lines of his quotes, and you should be able to grasp that he hopes to use this offseason to upgrade the Lakers’ talent, not get back into that elite group of contenders right away.

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Kupchak referred to using the next “six or 12 or 18 months” to do what they want: “The organization has chosen to follow Dr. (Jerry) Buss’ legacy, which is to win championships.” Kupchak also directly stated: “It may take more than one year to build, I don’t know.”

“Our hope and our desire is that next year will be a lot better than this year,” Kupchak said. “We certainly have the tools to begin that process.”

Beginning is far from completing.

Pulling a sign-and-trade deal with Gasol in the offseason to send him to a capped-out team could still net meaningful assets. Maybe Kevin Love sells the Minnesota Timberwolves by draft night that they’re somehow better off trading him to get a kid they covet with the Lakers’ first-round pick. Yet Kupchak clearly is saying he cannot rush the crux of the process, especially with big question marks in 2014 free agency.

As much as everyone around the Lakers wants to accelerate the rebuild, which is one reason the trade deadline amid all this losing morphed into some epic opportunity for activity—change something, anything!—Kupchak understands the best chance to do this right is in 2015 free agency.

 

Follow lead Lakers writer Kevin Ding on Twitter.

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