Plan B If LA Lakers Can't Lure Superstar Free Agents During Next 2 Offseasons

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Plan B If LA Lakers Can't Lure Superstar Free Agents During Next 2 Offseasons
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With both Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant officially done for the year, LA Lakers fans can finally turn their full gaze toward the future. 

When the 2014 NBA offseason mercifully rolls around, the Lakers will have oodles of money to spend once more. They'll have even more in 2015.

It's widely assumed that they'll take their cash pile, find their new superstar(s) and return to glory as quickly as they fell from it. All will be right in the NBA hierarchy once again.

But what if it doesn't go down like that? What if the Lakers have a much harder time inking the guys they want?

What's Plan B?

I promise that this isn't an exercise in raining on the hopes and dreams of LA fans. This isn't to suggest that one of the NBA's premier franchises is going to find permanent residence in the land of doom and gloom. Far from it, actually.

Historically difficult 2013-14 season notwithstanding, this organization still has the assets, track record and brain power to build a winner in more ways than just one. If the best-laid plans of Lakers management (and fans) don't come to the most perfect fruition, there are still ways for this to all work out. 

LM Otero/Associated Press

Yes, Jimmy Buss is still part of the organization in this scenario.

Full disclosure: I'm not a Lakers lifer, nor do I play one on TV. However, roster building and transactions analysis have been my "thing" since I started covering the NBA more than a decade ago. What's more, I'm surrounded by some incredibly talented writers and editors here at Bleacher Report who also happen to be rabid Lakers fans and/or avid observers. 

Thus, you'll also hear from objective outsiders like NBA Transactions Lead Writer D.J. Foster and NBA Draft Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman, along with hardcore Lakers guys like Assistant NBA Editor Ethan Norof and NBA Lead Writer Josh Martin. Plus, Bleacher Report's most-decorated LA voice, long-time beat writer Kevin Ding and quite a few other qualified folks.

So, let's take off the rose-colored glasses and/or the mourning clothes, roll up our sleeves and see how even the worst-case scenario can turn out just fine, provided the purple-and-gold backup plan is a sound one.

 

Worry Not: Why the Stars May Sign

Setting a Plan B means you must have Plan A, and the Lakers have been operating with an audacious one by all accounts.  

Ever since Dwight Howard bolted town in 2013, it's been obvious that LA was about to enter one of its deepest and darkest basketball transitions in franchise history.

Mike D'Antoni, once thought to be the perfect cavalry commander for a run-and-gun cadre of All-Stars, now finds himself stocking the collapsing trenches with pop guns, smoke and mirrors. And he's been running out of bodies as quickly as they fill the line.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

But that's actually the grand plan nowadays, hard as it is on "Magic Mike." As soon as Howard left, general manager Mitch Kupchak began setting the roster up for the next step, stockpiling expiring contracts to coincide with Pau Gasol's.

It's all mostly low-risk, possible upside guys too. If they play well, they may have a (slightly longer) future with LA, especially if they can establish some trade value in the coming year or two.

Kupchak has said as much on numerous occasions, including just this February, as outlined by Mark Medina of InsideSoCal.com:

It’s reasonable to think that every now and then, or maybe once every 10 years, or maybe once every 15 years, you might have a bad year. OK?” said Kupchak, perhaps mindful of the Lakers’ 16 NBA titles. “And we are not having a good year. Our hope and desire is that next year will be a lot better than this year and we certainly have the tools to begin the process.

There’s only three ways to improve a team: through a trade, through a draft or through free agency. I’m not sure we believe that we have 10 years to do this through the draft. So, we’ve hoarded our cap space. We’ve tried to be diligent with it and how we’ve spent it and we do have a lot of flexibility going forward.

Sure, no one could have predicted that both Bryant and Nash would miss the vast majority of this year due to injury. But whether LA sniffed a low playoff seed or bottomed out was rather immaterial. It's always been about the next few offseasons anyway.

Nash's deal is done after next year, if he even makes it that far. It's rumored that the stretch provision is on the same training table that he can't get off of. 

However, there's a growing belief that LA may keep Nash and his $9.7 million contract through next year, setting its sights on multiple big fish in 2015 rather than just one this offseason. Bleacher Report's own Kevin Ding thinks as much:

Sure, all the Lakers' plans were a bit complicated by opening the bank back up to Bryant in a much-maligned legacy deal. But Kobe is the Lakers brand right now, he should be able to give them some basketball yet, and the pact runs only two more years. 

Heck, even Howard, who supposedly "wrecked everything" by fleeing to Houston, took his max contract with him. He saved the Lakers a lot of luxury tax dollars and helped clear the books in the long run even if he momentarily dashed so many presumed championship dreams in the process.

When this offseason rolls around, the Lakers are one of the only NBA teams that can offer a max contract straight up. Though you'll find different interpretations of this, such as at Spotrac.com, let's assume the salary cap is going to be $62 million, as originally projected by ESPN's Larry Coon this summer.

Maximum contracts can vary depending on a player's NBA tenure—there's a wealth of max-contract knowledge to be had from Larry Coon's FAQ if you have the time—but let's use Carmelo Anthony as the baseline here.

He made roughly $21.4 million with the New York Knicks this year, and though he's entitled to a lesser raise if he leaves New York, let's pick an easy number and say he would sign a max deal elsewhere for an even $22 million.

The numbers always get funky when you have to account for cap holds from released or traded players, leave space for incoming rookie contracts, etc. However, this is about setting ballparks versus haggling over shekels.

So, working off that projected number from Coon and using the contracts listed at Shamsports.com, here are the teams that will have enough space for a 2014 max contract or pretty close to it if wrangling the books: 

Team Approx. Cap Space (millions) Mitigating Circumstances Max Room?
Mavericks $31.7 Will re-sign Dirk Nowitzki Not after Dirk
Jazz $30.6 Re-signing Gordon Hayward? Possibly
76ers $28.4 Lots of non-guaranteed deals and buyouts Yes, and could have even more
Suns $28.1 Likely re-signing Eric Bledsoe Not after Bledsoe
Lakers $25.7 Could be more if Nash, Nick Young, etc. don't return. Yes, and could have a little more
Bobcats $20.4 Could always swing trades, but they're out of range. Not likely
Bulls* $18.6 *Must amnesty Carlos Boozer. No, not unless they go further. See the craziness here.

Note: Not all ShamSports' team pages have been updated after the NBA trade deadline. So, for example, I had to manually account for the Philadelphia 76ers' acquired and bought-out players. Take the numbers above as very safe but still rough estimates only, please. You can play the same game in 2015, though it's much harder to project the increasing roster variables that far into the future. But it's largely the same picture. 

Look at that list. Of the teams that likely have enough cap space to offer a max deal, is there a single one that can offer a better pitch than the Lakers to a superstar? Sure, there might be a few momentarily nicer basketball situations, but those can change quickly. NBA markets don't.

Money talks. And so do palm trees, perfect weather, business opportunities, franchise legacy and all the "perks" that come from playing for the Lakers.

We can recite the 16 championships and 25 Hall of Famers and all that, but here's how that's sold even more effectively: The Lakers have won 31 percent of their championships during the past 15 years.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

And that was all under Kupchak's watch—although Jerry West was calling the shots prior to 2000, so let's also give him lots of credit for the Shaq/Kobe 2000-2002 three-peat, at least.

NBA Lead Writer Josh Martin is a believer in "Super Mitch":

It's no accident that Daryl Morey, when queried about the top negotiators in the NBA at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, immediately thought of Mitch Kupchak. The guy has long shown a keen understanding of what to do and how to operate within the often delicate equilibrium between organizational objectives and on-court realities.

When the Kobe-Shaq feud reached its logical conclusion, Kupchak pulled the trigger on one of the most harrowing trades in franchise history...When those pieces matured alongside Kobe Bryant, Kupchak cashed another stack of chips for Pau Gasol...When it became clear that Dr. Jerry Buss' time was short, Kupchak miraculously swung two blockbuster trades (for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard) that, at the time, seemed not only like strokes of pure genius but also like moves that would yield and instant contender.

And when those moves faltered, Kupchak moved on and chose value (and dignity) over dumping the contracts of Gasol and Jordan Hill, among others, for nothing more than salary savings in return.

The point is, Kupchak is an opportunist, as any GM worth his salt should be. When he sees opportunities to improve the picture, short term or long, he takes them, within reason. Sometimes, he creates those opportunities himself by moving shrewdly. Other times, he doesn't force the issue, understanding that he doesn't have to because, well, he's with the Lakers.

I could've sworn Kenny Rogers sang a song about Mitch once.

Sure, ownership has been passed down from Dr. Jerry Buss to Jimmy and Jeanie, but they also both played front-office parts during those previous runs. This is not a franchise that's resting on its laurels from decades ago.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Past production doesn't guarantee future success, but real-deal Lakers' production isn't all that far in the past. They're still working out the transitional hurdles upstairs, but it's not like Jim Dolan is traipsing around up there, either.

The Lakers can sit down with any prospective free agent during the next couple of seasons, no matter how large the name, and pitch them on:

  • We have a (likely) top-five NBA draft pick joining us. It's one of the deepest drafts ever and is top-heavy to boot. This kid is going to be a stud, but he'll be following your lead.
  • We have basically the same management core in place that has recently won five championships. 
  • Sure, you'll have to coexist with Kobe Bryant for two years, and you might even have to verbally accept that you're his wingman, even if you're actually the better player. But he wants to win, and so do you. Prove yourself on the court, and you might end up being co-equal, or even "the man", a lot quicker than you think.
  • In two years, this is your team without question. Win as a Laker, and you're an NBA winner for life.
  • We have more money in play here than just your contract. You're going to have help.
  • We're the Lakers. We know stars and how to treat them right. Everything we do is meant to make you happy and build a winner. We don't mess around with being purposely or accidentally mediocre around here. It's never part of the plan.
  • Did we mention we play in LA, and have you looked at the table overflowing with money in front of you?

Plan A looks pretty fail-safe, right?

 

Worry a Little: Why the Stars May Pass

This is the part Lakers fans don't like to think about. Bring up the fact that Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and/or LeBron James might not wind up in LA? You might get called a "Lakers hater", or you might just be called out for being ridiculously pessimistic.

It's impossible that someone would pass up all the Lakers have to offer, right?

Well, it was "impossible" that Howard wouldn't re-sign. It was impossible that Howard, Bryant, Nash and Gasol wouldn't win 10 straight championships together, much less one. It was impossible that Kobe couldn't come back from injury and immediately be Kobe.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Lakers fans who have been paying attention know full well: Sometimes these things don't work out the way they were supposed to. 

Are the Lakers in danger of traveling the Dallas Mavericks' pathwho knowingly let most of their championship core walk in 2011 and have struck out on big targets while patching one-year rosters together since?

NBA Assistant Editor Ethan Norof doesn't think so:

The Lakers' history of luring free agents is far better than Cuban's, or via trades. There's a blueprint, a history of success, whereas the Mavs really don't have that. Calderon, Ellis, etc. are complementary talent to Dirk, but both on four-year deals? I'd rather be a crappy team putting myself in better position for the future than a perennial first round out. I also think Mavs took this route that they did this year because of such negative PR last season (and now they have) a healthy Dirk...with an injured Kobe, it's a little different.

Ditto NBA Transactions Lead Writer D.J. Foster:

I think LA's rebuild will ultimately be more successful, but the Mavs will be the better team in the immediate short term. In terms of free-agent destinations, I think it's about dead even. Both have their advantages (LA with its destination perks and Dallas with its tax breaks), but I expect the Lakers to pull back ahead in that race soon once they land a star in the draft/FA/trade.

But...Kobe is not the most amicable NBA foreman to work under. The lights in LA shine brighter than the noonday sun there, and that can burn you if you're not ready, willing and prepared.

Other teams have money next year too, and while the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns might not have full-max dollars to offer, they're awfully close. They can move some numbers around to integrate another star, and no one in their right mind will claim the Lakers are closer to winning today than those two franchises.

Not every star wants to be a sidekick. Not every star wants to wait to be the man. Not every star wants to wait for a team to be built over the course of another year or two. Not every star wants to leave the home he already has.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

LeBron will test the market either this year or next. He'd be dumb not to (and he's not dumb). 

He can go anywhere he wants. But Miami offers most of the same perks that LA can pitch, and he's a ringed king in South Beach, not a co-regent. He's also already the greatest player in franchise history (sorry, Dwyane Wade), just as he is in Cleveland Cavaliers lore.

Would he move on to LA, just to be another face in its historic crowd?

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook don't hit the free agency road for a long while, and the former especially seems comfortable playing in a smaller market. They also genuinely seem to like playing with each other and are already on a serious contender that is ridiculously young anyways. The best is yet to come for them.

Kevin Love seems rather likely to be available, especially to the Lakers. And he would have a lot of reasons to hear LA's offer, but that's if he even gets that far. He's not a free agent until 2015.

If he really wants out of Minnesotaand so far he's done nothing but say the right thingsyou can bet that the Timberwolves will seriously try to move him next year before he can defect on his own.

It's highly unlikely the Lakers will have the assets to pry him away via trade, especially considering that teams like the Boston Celtics or Chicago Bulls can offer far more attractive packages to swap. They also can offer Love the market, prestige and blueprints that the Lakers are offering.

David Sherman/Getty Images

If he winds up in a place like that, don't assume he won't re-sign simply because another situation might be around the bend. Unlike Howard, Love has never been erratic in that regard. He'll re-up in a new destination if the situation is right, even if it's not LA.

Carmelo Anthony is the most likely superstar to actually be had, but he's operating on an "over 30" ticking clock now and may not want to take part in another big-market rebuild (or whatever it is the New York Knicks are doing over there).

He also may not want to play for Mike D'Antoni againthough don't be surprised if "MDA" immediately got fired if 'Melo was to come aboard.

He wants to play for a winner. That may mean Anthony is at the point where taking less money to sign with the Bulls or Suns just makes more basketball sense than it does cents.

After all, he'll have to take a major pay cut to leave New York either way. So why would he take a lesser dip to play with an in-flux Lakers team when he could leave a bit more money on the table in exchange for a ready-made contender?

It's not impossible that 'Melo winds up in LA, but it's not the end of the world if he doesn't, either. An aging, ball-dominant Carmelo Anthony, plus an aged, ball-dominant Kobe might not be the championship recipe the Lakers really want to cook with. As detailed previously, 'Melo may no longer be in the plans anyways. 

Kupchak has also alluded to as much, again via Mark Medina and InsideSoCal.com:

I don’t think that we’ll use our cap money to patch together a team for next year. It may take more than one year to build, I don’t know. But just because we have a lot of money this summer, doesn’t mean we’ll spend it all. We’ll spend it wisely and if we can’t, then we’ll do the best we can this summer and then we’ll look maybe to the next summer. We don’t know how that’s going to play out right now.

Although the Lakers drafted Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and a host of near-star role players throughout the years, they largely lure their stars from afar; that's what they do.

But how many have they snagged through free agency? Shaquille O'Neal. That's it. (Sorry, geriatric versions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton don't count.)

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Pau Gasol, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, etc. all came via trade. Even Kobe Bryant and James Worthy technically arrived via draft-pick right swaps, while Magic Johnson was an acquired compensation pick. And the Lakers don't have the goods to trade for a superstar anytime soon.

Could any of the big-name guys wind up in a Lakers uniform during the next one to three years? Sure. But every single one is a long shot when you really look at their situations. The odds are far greater that they don't than they do.

 

Hope Is Not Lost: The 2014 NBA Draft

Thus, Plan B has to be a very real thing. The payoff for doing it right could be just as real, and the 2014 NBA draft acts as the constant. The Lakers need to get this pick right whether they land the big free agents or not.

Though some, such as former Lakers front office guru Jerry West have begun to question the hype versus reality of this upcoming draft, it still offers a staggering quantity and quality of options.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers are basically operating with a clean roster slate. They could conceivably just take the best player at any position, although drafting a stud shooting guard while Kobe is still on the team could get a bit awkward and redundant. Still, one of them could always become a small forward if talent outweighs all other concerns.

Regardless of where the prospect plays, however, the Lakers hope he'll be a legitimate star sooner rather than later, not just a solid career-long role player. He must be able to coexist with Kobe in a pupil-mentor atmosphere, and he must not wilt under the LA spotlights.  

I polled some of our best and brightest about who might fit the bill:

NBA Draft Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman:

Assuming the Lakers are looking to get back into picture as quickly as possible, the answer is Jabari Parker. He's got the NBA-ready body with the NBA-ready game, yet he also offers that All-Star upside down the road. With the versatility to play on the perimeter as a wing or in the post as a 4, there's no reason he can't cleanly slide right into a lineup with Kobe Bryant. 

NBA Transactions Lead Writer D.J. Foster:

Dante Exum. Especially if D'Antoni stays on next year. The Lakers need someone who will establish value immediately (for recruitment purposes), and guards in that system can do just that. I think he'd have the best chance to succeed right away.

NBA Assistant Editor Ethan Norof:

Perfect? I mean, perfect? Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum. Nobody is perfect, but they all fill a very real and serious need. Gun to my head right now? I'd take Parker.

NBA National Lead Writer Josh Martin:

The Lakers would do well to do what any franchise with a plum draft pick should: Take the best player available. Whether that's an enticing project like Joel Embiid or Dante Exum, a raw talent like Andrew Wiggins, a more polished product like Jabari Parker or a positional prototype like Julius Randle, the Lakers need only concern themselves with evaluating every prospect from head to toe and filling out their draft board as they see fit.

Case closed, and we already knew the verdict: There are a lot of very good possibilities here, and that bodes well for the Lakers' odds of finding a very usable piece.

Still, the NBA draft, regardless of class, is always a complete crapshoot. There's no way to ensure that "Rookie X" is going to help the franchise's star(s), much less actually be the next one. However, maybe he doesn't have to be a star to play an important role.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

It's oversimplified and more than a little bit arbitrary, but let's look at this as logically as we can:

  • It's the deepest, most potential-laden draft class in at least the past decade. It's safe to say there's about a 25 percent chance that a top-five pick becomes a certifiable star. That number may not seem all that high, but the odds are far better this time around than say, last year, when it was probably about 5-10 percent at most.
  • The most likely scenario is always that this player becomes a career starter, maybe an occasional All-Star and near-star type, or anything in between. That's a good 50 percent chance this high in the draft. Is that a disappointment? Yes, but also no, because this type of player immediately becomes a tradeable asset, especially while he's still young and possesses that unknown "upside" factor. The Lakers need guys like this to gain roster flexibility for future trades.
  • That still leaves the 25 percent chance that this player flames out and is a complete bust, for whatever reasons. It happens. He could also turn out to be a rotation player at best, even if his career is long enough to be respectable. Think of what's going to happen to Anthony Bennett or what occurred with Joe Smith, etc. It's scary to ponder, but you should be losing a lot less sleep about that scenario in this lottery versus most other years.

So, the Lakers' chances are very good that they're going to walk out of this draft and be pleased in the short and long term.

Maybe this kid eventually becomes the next Kobe, leading the franchise for a decade-plus. Maybe he's actually the next Pau Gasol, a more-than-able star sidekick to whoever takes the mantle going forward. Or, maybe he's just the means to a different end, as an asset that can be flipped on potential for a known commodity. 

The odds of those good and usable things happening are far, far greater than this being a blown pick.

 

Hope Is Not Lost: NBA Free Agency

When was the last time that the LA Lakers were young and talented? It's been so long that you really had to think about it, right?

You can make the case for the early Kobe-Shaq-Derek Fisher days of the late 1990s, though those teams were completely ballasted with savvy, veteran role players. While the casts changed, that foundation set the franchise up for the next 15-odd years and five championships.

That's where the Lakers must go again. The NBA draft is always about the future, but their free-agency plans during the next couple of years must be too. 

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

It's not time to overpay for today's production and then come to find out that age already ensures a declining return on those dollars. Basically, it's not time for the Lakers to sign an Amar'e Stoudemire-type to a max contract like the NY Knicks did in 2010.

The Lakers don't need to win a championship during the next two years so much as they need to begin competing for one while also being equipped to continue doing so for the next decade.

Thus, Carmelo Anthony has to be out of this picture. Ditto for Luol Deng (28), Dirk Nowitzki (35), Chris Bosh (29), Zach Randolph (32), Paul Millsap (29), Rajon Rondo (28), Al Jefferson (29), Monta Ellis (28), David West (33), Carlos Boozer (32), Marc Gasol (29), Tyson Chandler (31), Arron Afflalo (28), LaMarcus Aldridge (28), Manu Ginobili (37) and Tony Parker (31) during the next two years. 

LeBron will be heading to his 30s soon enough too, though one is much less worried about truly transcendent talent plummeting too quickly. Still, any max contract for the King comes with an approximately five-year shelf life of bankable superstardom. 

Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are all young enough that they could offer a decade of that quality instead. But as stated before, they, like LeBron, are awfully long shots to be available. If the heavens open up and any of them arrive in Los Angeles, that's great.

But that's the age group the Lakers have to be looking at even if those superstars don't land. In fact, let's go a step further. The Lakers must target the guys in their mid-20s who are (preferably) coming off their rookie deals. They aren't quite superstars yet have shown the requisite flashes. 

As of right now, here are the big-name free agents over the next two seasons who qualify for the age and talent criteria discussed above, along with their current yearly salaries and (very approximate) projected yearly salaries when their new deals are signed.

Name Age Current Home Free-Agency Year Status Current $ (millions) Projected $ (millions)
Avery Bradley 23 Boston 2014-Restricted $2.5 $6.5
Patrick Beverley 25 Houston 2015-Restricted $0.8 $6.5
Derrick Williams 22 Sacramento 2015-Unrestricted $5.0 $6.5
Jeremy Lin 25 Houston 2015-Unrestricted $8.3 $7.0
Reggie Jackson  23 Oklahoma City 2015-Restricted $1.3 $7.0
Marcus Morris 24 Phoenix 2015-Restricted $2.1 $7.0
Danny Green 26 San Antonio 2015-Unrestricted $3.8  $7.0 
Alec Burks 22 Utah 2015-Restricted $2.2 $7.0
Evan Turner 25 Indiana 2014-Restricted $6.7 $7.5
Ed Davis 24 Memphis 2014-Unrestricted $3.1 $7.5
Jeff Green 27 Boston 2015-Unrestricted $9.2 $8.0
Kenneth Faried 24 Denver 2015-Restricted $1.4 $8.0
Iman Shumpert 23 New York 2015-Restricted $1.7 $8.0
Markieff Morris 24 Phoenix 2015-Restricted $2.0 $8.0
Tobias Harris 21 Orlando 2015-Restricted $1.5 $8.0
Isaiah Thomas 25 Sacramento 2014-Restricted $0.9 $8.5
Kyle Lowry 27 Toronto 2014-Unrestricted $6.2 $8.5
Jimmy Butler 24 Chicago 2015-Restricted $1.1 $8.5
Omer Asik 27 Houston 2015-Unrestricted $8.3 $9.0
Ricky Rubio 23 Minnesota 2015-Restricted $3.6 $9.0
Robin Lopez 25 Portland  2015-Unrestricted $5.9  $9.0 
Wesley Matthews 27 Portland 2015-Unrestricted $6.9  $9.0 
Chandler Parsons 25 Houston 2014-Restricted $0.9 $9.5
Gordon Hayward 23 Utah 2014-Restricted $3.5 $9.5
Klay Thompson 24 Golden State 2015-Restricted $2.3 $10.0
Goran Dragic 27 Phoenix 2015-Unrestricted $7.5 $10.0 
Kemba Walker 23 Charlotte 2015-Restricted $2.6 $11.0
Greg Monroe 23 Detroit 2014-Restricted $4.1 $12.0
Nikola Vucevic 23 Orlando 2015-Restricted $1.8 $12.0
Enes Kanter 21 Utah 2015-Restricted $4.5 $12.0
Lance Stephenson 23 Indiana 2014-Restricted $1.0 $13.0
Eric Bledsoe 24 Phoenix 2014-Restricted $2.6 $13.0
DeAndre Jordan 25 LA Clippers 2015-Unrestricted $11.0 $13.0
Kawhi Leonard 22 San Antonio 2015-Restricted $1.9  $13.0 
Rudy Gay 27 Sacramento 2014-Unrestricted $17.9 $14.0
Kyrie Irving 21 Cleveland 2015-Restricted $5.6 $14.2
Brook Lopez 25 Brooklyn 2015-Unrestricted $14.6 $15.5
Roy Hibbert 27 Indiana 2015-Unrestricted $14.2 $15.5

Are you salivating yet? 

Are many of these guys going to get locked up before they hit free agency? Yes. Will many of the restricted free agents have any and all outside offers matched by their current team? Sure.

But a lot of them are still going to hit the open market.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Though one can probably pass on many of the 27-year-olds—the perception of their upside is all but gonethere are at least half a dozen names I didn't put on this list who will be oversights, especially those available in 2015. They'll come out of the woodwork during the next year or two as up-and-comers; it happens all the time. 

If K-Love, Durant and Westbrook won't take the Lakers' money, do you think there are more than a few names on this list who will, especially if LA is willing to overpay just a bit on future production? You better believe it.

Are all the guys above currently, or going to be, bona fide superstars? Not necessarily, and that's kind of the point. 

The Lakers have a lot of options, and they don't all have to be max-contract players. In fact, the real trick is finding the guys on the list above who will eventually grow into becoming max-production players but won't need that price tag right off the bat. 

Put between one and three of those names together, along with the stud 2014 NBA draft pick, and you have a more-than-solid core that can grow for a long time while also providing flexibility for trades. Then you flesh out the roster like everyone else does.

A championship team can be built from the list above.

 

Why Kobe Is Still Key

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

It always somehow comes back to Kobe, doesn't it? His importance on how the next few years play out is critical, and it's not just about whether or not he comes back to be a superstar on the court (though that would be helpful).

He is a businessman above all. He made that clear by not offering a hometown discount when re-upping his most recent contract.

But he's also a Laker through and through. He's been the face of the franchise for more than a decade, will still be the de facto physical and emotional leader of the team until he retires and commands a legion of rabid fans.

Yet, he's also seen as one of the potential deterrents to landing big-name free agents. His legacy and ego haven't allowed him to embrace a true co-ruler up to this point. His bristly demeanor has turned off just about every co-star not named Pau Gasol. And his contract is clogging the books, no matter whether you think he was worth the money or not. 

But, we've also seen a different side of Kobe in recent years. He's concerned about his legacy and perception once he leaves basketball, and he's undergone a serious transformation in the court of public opinion. It hasn't been accidental either.

Twitter has allowed him to connect with fans while also controlling what he shows of himself and how he does it.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Where once Kobe was seen as aloof, arrogant and basically unlikable (unless you were a Lakers fan), time and technology have softened the collective viewpoint of the Mamba. Now we're much more inclined to cite his career-long competitiveness and drive, to chuckle at his seemingly candid Twitter messages and to wish him absolute and sincere best-of-luck on his latest comeback.

Kobe wants to be liked now. It's possible he realized that pursuing and beating Michael Jordan's six championship rings is a long shot, while reaching that "Greatest of All Time" status is even further off. This is not to paint him as coldly calculating the effect of every tweet, but the goodwill tour is very real.

If he can return to superstar levels of production, the Lakers might be able to make some noise during these final two years. But even if that's not the case ,and he's just "hanging on" and perpetually trying to rehab and recoup lost ability, he can still be an integral part of some very good teams. He can solidify his hero status for all time on both a national and Lakers level.

But that's only if he embraces this final leg of the journey, no matter what it holds for him.

Kobe was given a golden parachute of a contract, and now it's time for him to play the role of company man for that money. And much of that work must come beyond the basketball court.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Whoever arrives via free agency and the draft, Kobe must embrace them. He doesn't have to hand over the crown just yet, but he must indicate that it's waiting to be transferred once he retires. And if the injuries persist and he's compromised as a player, he'd do well to just hand it over entirely, pledging his allegiance to the new monarch in town.

We'd much rather remember him as proving his desire to win by embracing whatever means necessary, not just as yet another washed-up superstar who only wanted his ego to win in the end.

Otherwise, many will assume that's what he was all along, and his legacy doesn't need that dark footnote. Hopefully he knows that.

Signing a Westbrook, Durant or Love would make the transfer process a bit more difficult and immediate, to be sure. Those guys are all accomplished enough that they'll tip their caps to the old Lakers lifer, but they won't be happy as his caddy when they know they can beat him on the links fair and square.

That's where nabbing some of the up-and-comers actually can play into all this rather nicely. Draft a Jabari Parker and then bring aboard an Isaiah Thomas, Greg Monroe and Chandler ParsonsI'm just throwing names out there, by the way, not indicating that those are the dream signings.

Not a single one will presume to expect the spotlight sooner than when Kobe releases it. But when he does, their development curves suggest they'll be ready enough either as a group or individually.

But Kobe still must be the mentor. He must recognize that the greatest value he can provide is no longer in the box score but in preparing the next Lakers greats for that next step. The keys to the kingdom come with many annals of great deeds and accomplishments, and that identity must be preserved. 

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

This is a two-year process, and next season is critical to showing what the "real Kobe" is going to look like. Will he continue to constantly remind the media and public that "this is my team until I'm gone"—even though we all get it already?

Will he still be trying to carry the team all by himself if/when he plays again? 

If he is only worried about returning to the court, producing numbers and not-so-subtly making it clear that he doesn't really need anyone's help, then he's going to drive away many of the real winners that LA wants to sign.

He's also going to drive up the free-agency prices overall for the Lakers. Those who do sign under those conditions might just be mercenaries who are chasing a buck rather than up-and-comers who want to embrace the opportunity to play with Kobe and carry on the franchise banner.

Or will we see a kinder, gentler Kobe who helps pick up the young guys in both word and deed?

 

***

The Lakers' future relies on nailing their 2014 draft pick and then practicing patience in free agency by paying for compounding future returns versus about-to-deflate immediate value. It's equally important that Kobe embraces change and displays great leadership by allowing help to arrive, admitting that he needs it and then fitting into whatever the new team looks like.

His role must become that of sage instead of superior. 

Luck is needed at all points of these plans, whether it's the long-shot, big-name Plan A or the completely workable Plan B.

Fortunately, the Lakers have put themselves in position to control their own fate. Good fortune will just be icing on the cake if it indeed occurs, and the Lakers have typically been favored by the NBA Fates well enough. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

So, don't set rose-colored blinders onto a narrow list of names, Lakers fans, but you don't need to despair, either. Better days are just around the corner if you can wait that long.  

But don't just take my word for it.

NBA National Lead Writer Josh Martin:

So long as there's cap space, there will be a pursuit of big-name free agents. There's a lot that could go right for them in the next few years, and some of it probably will...If they hit upon a young star this June, and Bryant is able to serve as a wily, veteran mentor of sorts, the Lakers will need "only" attract one more centerpiece who's either in the midst of his prime or well on his way to it to complete a core that should allow them to make the most of Kobe's twilight years now and transition smoothly into a new era thereafter.

NBA Assistant Editor Ethan Norof:

There's a history of success that suggests it will be bright, but the reality is we just don't know after these last couple of years. The banners (ringggggzzz) speak for themselves, and the franchise has a rich history of winning, but it takes talent to pay the bills, and the Lakers, for the first time in a while, know that they have Kobe to some extent and aren't sure really what they have elsewhere—and even with Kobe it's a mystery. So it's unknown to me, but based on history, I'd say odds are pretty good. The top-10 draft pick this season would be just the third in the last 20 years of the franchise.

NBA Transactions Lead Writer D.J. Foster:

I love the idea of a big-market team with deep pockets starting fresh, so I think the future is incredibly bright. This draft is obviously critical, but a young star, a big free agent or trade acquisition and a little Kupchak magic, and the Lakers are right back in business. I don't think there's a big need to panic. 

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

 

*Special thanks to all whose opinions appeared here, as well as NBA National Featured Columnist Adam Fromal for his invaluable input and collaboration on projected free-agent salaries.

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