For faithful fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, this season has been like a slap to the face.
Lakers nation isn’t accustomed to being out of title contention—fighting just to stay out of the Western Conference cellar is a whole new nightmare altogether.
That’s the position the Lakers find themselves in now.
At 19-36, L.A. is just one win clear of dead last in the conference. They are on pace for only 28 wins, which would be the lowest total since the franchise's final year in Minneapolis over 50 years ago. And they just snapped an unfathomable eight-game home losing streak.
It was inevitable that the short-term, win-now strategy that the front office has employed for the past few seasons would eventually catch up to them.
After all, you can’t swap spare parts and a bag of magic beans for an in-his-prime Pau Gasol every year.
The Steve Nash trade completely backfired. So did the idea of Dwight Howard being the bridge to the future. Metta World Peace and Mike Brown are being paid eight figures to ply their respective trades elsewhere.
Now Kobe Bryant is battling serious injury issues as he enters the twilight of his career and Gasol is heading into free agency this summer after somehow not being traded for the 14th consecutive rumor cycle.
Call it the end of an era.
Meaning it’s time for the Lakers to bust out the R-word that makes all NBA fan bases groan.
Yes, it’s finally time for the organization to start fresh, beginning with a change in mentality.
This season has been a humbling experience, and the franchise should work from that framework of humility when building the next great Lakers team.
The Lakers aren’t entitled to superstar players. Hopefully Mitch Kupchak and the brain trust understand that already, but the fans need to grasp that idea as well.
Not since Shaquille O’Neal have the Lakers signed a top-of-the-line free agent in his prime. That was almost 18 years ago.
Los Angeles will always be an attractive market because of its size, weather, opportunities and lifestyle. But what today’s NBA superstars are looking for first and foremost is a chance to link up with a talented roster and instantly compete for championships,
That’s why LeBron James has never shown any real interest in coming to the Lakers.
Even Kevin Love said recently in an interview with Steve Marsh of GQ magazine that it’s not so far-fetched he would shun L.A. to stay in Minnesota because the Timberwolves "have the better team, the better foundation."
Think about that for a second. Love is suggesting that he would prefer to stay in a small, frozen market on a team with the longest active playoff drought in the league over coming to the Lakers because the T’Wolves have a more talented roster.
This is the modern day NBA landscape. The Lakers can’t bank on the “We’ll just sign Superstar X” plan. All the signs point against that.
And the CBA’s new harsh luxury tax penalties discourage even the wealthiest teams (unless they are owned by a Russian multi-gazillionaire without a conscience) from simply outspending everyone to acquire talent.
This truly is an opportunity for a fresh start and May’s draft lottery represents L.A.’s first chance to begin the rebuilding process.
Armed with one of the top picks (which they will have should their current standing hold) in a deep draft, the Lakers can attain the NBA’s most coveted asset—a potential star on a rookie-scale contract.
Therein lies the true bridge to the Lakers’ future.
After that it’s about wisely using the cap space that the front office has worked so hard to free up (i.e. don’t torpedo the next half-decade by maxing out Carmelo Anthony) and making shrewd moves to incrementally improve the team.
Then maybe Love or one of those other megastars hitting the open market in their prime will make L.A. their destination of choice.
And just like that the Lakers can go back to being the perennial contenders they always have been.