The winds of change are blowing across the Los Angeles Lakers’ landscape at the worst possible time.
Kobe Bryant, the face of the franchise for so many years, is heading into the final two years of his contract. And instead of going out in a blaze of glory, he’ll simply be a reminder of former greatness as the Lakers begin a painful rebuild.
Bryant returned from Achilles tendon surgery in December but played just six games before fracturing his knee. It’s looking like his 2013-14 season is over.
A quarter of a century ago, another Laker great went through a farewell tour in grander style. In his final two seasons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went to the NBA Finals twice, adding one ring for a total of six over his 20-year career. It was the last vestiges of the Showtime era, and Lakers ownership and management had the good sense to hold it all together, squeezing out the last drops of a dynasty.
Bryant won’t be given the same kind of send-off, it appears. It seems curious in this age of all-access media. The Lakers put together an historic $3.6 billion TV deal with Time Warner Cable last year that seems tailor-made for promoting the superstar’s end game.
Instead, TWC's Lakers programming will most likely feature other former Laker greats, shaking their heads ruefully as Bryant competes fiercely with whatever he has left in his tank, surrounded by an unfamiliar and largely subpar roster.
Apart from Bryant, the last holdovers from the Lakers’ most recent championship era are two free agents—Pau Gasol, who will most likely move on at the end of this season, and Jordan Farmar, who might be more amenable to re-signing.
When it comes to players under contract for next season, there aren’t many—just the chronically injured Steve Nash and a few minimum-salary role players.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni also has another year left on his contract. He is an innovator when it comes to the current small-ball vogue and has empowered some unlikely young prospects this season. Who would have guessed Kendall Marshall would be averaging 9.4 assists per game? Would anybody have foreseen Kent Bazemore becoming an overnight starter in this league?
But, there is a bigger picture with D’Antoni, and that’s the end game. The furthest he’s ever gotten as a head coach is the Western Conference Finals—losing both times, in 2005 and 2006. And while his brand of basketball may do wonders for the team’s minimum-salary wild cards, it is not favored by the Mamba.
Per Steve Aschburner of the Hang Time Blog, here’s Bryant on the current trend in basketball: “It’s more of a finesse game. It’s more small ball. Which, personally, I don’t really care much for.”
Still, there are the moments in a stormy season when it all comes together. On Monday night, a ragtag, injury-depleted roster visited Moda Center, beating the Portland Trail Blazers in a high-energy effort that went down to the wire, 107-106.
The back-to-back win followed Friday’s victory against the Sacramento Kings and served to remind that the game of basketball is still played on the court, and no matter what you think or feel about management or missed opportunities, there are still those instances where nothing matters but a delirious win, frozen in time.
And after all, the Lakers can still reload after the season ends and improve on a roster that, if nothing else, has shown an athleticism and an ability to score the ball at will, correct?
With an abysmal record of 21-39, the team is heading straight toward the best draft pick in a generation. And then comes free agency, which could mean a run at a max-contract-type player this summer or next.
It’s not quite that simple—a high draft pick brings certain financial realities. As Ben Rosales of Silver Screen and Roll writes:
That draft pick, however, as critical as it is to the Lakers' future fortunes, introduces some complications into this plan, particularly since the Lakers are likely trying to maintain maximum cap flexibility for the summer of 2015, when there is a juicier crop of big free agents that might be willing to don the purple and gold.
Why would the draft change the ability to land a top free agent? It’s simple math—the higher the pick, the higher the rookie scale. Also, top draft picks typically earn 120 percent of scale. The range between the No. 5 and No. 1 picks this year will be from $3,615,000 to $5,510,640, per RealGM.com.
Let’s assume that the Lakers make their qualifying offers to Bazemore and Ryan Kelly, while Nick Young somehow agrees to accept his player option of only $1,227,985, per Spotrac. Depending on the draft pick, that would leave management with roughly $17-19 million left to spend on free agency.
That’s not enough to sign a max-contract player. Plus, the Lakers still have to fill out the rest of the roster—their own free agents include Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol.
In other words, in order to free up the above-mentioned cap space, management would have to renounce the rights to a bunch of guys who have provided the bulk of the scoring this season.
And then we come back to the Lakers’ reigning superstar—the guy who’s heading into his final chapter.
Per Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, Bryant is hopeful that the team will fix this sooner rather than later: "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."
The Lakers haven’t always made really sound and excellent decisions, of course. In November 2012, management signed D’Antoni instead of bringing back Phil Jackson.
Instead of hiring 11 rings, they chose the guy who’s never even sniffed one.
Would Jackson’s presence have solved the roster problems? No, although it would have provided a framework in which players can succeed on a scale more meaningful than simply increasing their individual stats.
Bryant’s the ultimate warrior, of course. He’ll be looking for revenge next season, no matter who’s coaching or who’s playing by his side.
The plain truth, however, is that Bryant can’t go it alone. And if management can’t sign impact players on a budget, it’ll look toward the summer of 2015, hoping to have a larger war chest.
In this scenario, the Lakers draft the best player available this June, regardless of position. Then, in order to preserve cap room, they would once again fill out the roster with one-year deals. At the end of the season, Nash’s three-year contract would come to an end, as would D’Antoni’s. The only commitments left would be that of Bryant, who turns 36 in August, and the 2014 draft pick.
Thus, the Lakers could begin a brand new era with a relatively clean slate, except for Kobe—entering his 20th NBA season as the sole remaining player with a connection to the banners hanging overhead.
It may be a path forward for the organization, but it sure is lousy timing. Winning a championship in the first year of a total rebuild is the rarest of miracles, and Bryant, one of the true giants of the game, deserves more than a wing and a prayer.
Did you ever think it would end this way?