Deep into a horrific season, the Los Angeles Lakers don’t have a singular rebuild plan in mind, but instead, are juggling several.
This isn’t unexpected—the vagaries of time, injury and chance cause most teams around the NBA to continually adjust expectations as well as solutions.
It’s part of an organization’s natural evolution—players have finite shelf lives, after all, and a team is the sum of many parts. This particular season, however, has thrown more than a few extra curves into the mix.
The last time the Lakers had the worst record in the Western Conference this late in the season was 1975.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) January 29, 2014
The most basic plan for the Lakers began with the premise that Kobe Bryant was on the mend from Achilles surgery and looking good for a return to action.
Given that other key players such as Pau Gasol and Steve Blake were in the final years or their contracts, management made the decision to fill the roster with an unusually large number of one-year deals—keying especially on undervalued younger players who had not lived up to prior expectations.
These prospects would be auditioning for the future, and would also be complementary to proven, veteran players—not only Bryant, but other future Hall of Famers, like Gasol and Steve Nash.
Of course, everyone knew the challenges faced by Nash who, like Bryant, was attempting to come back from injury. But, the presence of Blake along with the signing of Jordan Farmar, who won a couple rings with the Lakers early in his career, seemed to offer some stability at the point guard position.
On November 25, the Lakers took the next step, going all in on Bryant by signing him to a $48.5 million contract extension for what would presumably be his final two seasons. The superstar would become that rarest of commodities in the NBA—beginning and ending a 20-year career in the same uniform.
It wasn’t a bad plan. Bryant, the face of the franchise for so many years, would continue to be worth his weight in gold in ticket sales and marketing opportunities. The team wouldn’t be obvious championship contenders but would at least contend for the playoffs.
At the same time, the unusually large number of expiring contracts would allow management to go after a heavy-hitter free agent during the summer of 2014 or 2015. Thus, the Lakers would be strengthening their hand during Bryant’s swan song, and also, planning for the future.
That’s about the most a team can hope for during a transitional era—especially given the inherent uncertainties of free agency during any given year.
Mike Trudell of Lakers.com interviewed general manager Mitch Kupchak about the process of going after a star player. Kupchak spoke to the realities of speculation:
When we’re sitting in here with all the scouts having our meetings, it's so much fun to talk about, 'What if we got this guy or that guy,’ or ‘What if we paired up these two guys?’ It's the same thing the public does. It makes for great speculation, great talk radio, great online (interaction), social media. It's great. But there's the reality part of it that tells us there is a lot that we still don't know. June 30th at 9 p.m. is when we really know, and that’s when the mad rush begins.
The 2013-14 season began with some realistic hopes. There would be new additions like Nick Young; a tremendously athletic scorer, and Chris Kaman; a former All-Star veteran center. They had a second-round draft pick in Ryan Kelly who fit the mold of coach Mike D’Antoni’s spread-the-floor system, and were also taking one-year, minimum salary fliers on former draft busts like Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry.
Additionally, D’Antoni began training camp with a stirring endorsement of Gasol, telling Mike Trudell, “To me, he's the best center in the NBA.”
And so the season began, with hope and promise. But before long, the whole thing was disintegrating into an unstable mess.
Bryant came back and played just six games before fracturing the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee.
Nash appeared in only 10 games and is once again trying to will his 40-year-old body past debilitating back and nerve root damage—nobody knows for certain if he’ll ever play again.
Blake tore up his elbow, Henry suffered a bone bruise in his knee, Farmar tore his hamstring twice and Young fractured his knee. It was going to be that kind of season.
The Lakers were running out of guard options when they found Kendall Marshall, toiling for the Delaware 87ers. Marshall played just 48 games during his rookie campaign with the Phoenix Suns. Since signing with the Lakers, however, he has averaged 8.8 points and 9.5 assists per game. It was a move in the right direction.
Still, the losses continued to pile up, and D’Antoni’s style of small ball wasn’t finding favor with his core big men—Gasol, Kaman and Jordan Hill.
Based on @johnhollinger Player Efficiency Rating, top 3 Lakers this yr: Gasol 19.01/Hill 18.56/Kaman 17.65. The 3 players D'Antoni avoids.— Mark Willard (@Mark_T_Willard) February 14, 2014
As the February 20 trade deadline approached, it was becoming abundantly clear that playoff hopes were dying, and that the expiring contracts of Gasol, Kaman, Hill and Blake, might be put to some better use. The Lakers weren’t just looking for financial relief from the luxury tax, but also for decent draft picks or young prospects.
It was just one more piece of the ever-growing rebuild puzzle, but when the deadline passed, management had flipped only one contract—trading Blake to the Golden State Warriors for little-used guards Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks. Their turnaround in Los Angeles has been eye-opening—averaging 16.9 and 11.6 points, respectively, through seven games, compared to 2.3 and 1.9 points per game this season with the Warriors.
Kent Bazemore has set a new career high in points in each of his first three games as a Laker: 15 to 17 to 21 and counting tonight— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) February 26, 2014
With just 21 games left to go, the Lakers are in an odd state of flux. They have an arsenal of young promising guards, most of whom are not under contract for next season. D’Antoni seems bent on giving them as many minutes of playing time as possible—either for the sake of the ongoing audition process, or simply because that’s how he rolls.
After a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night, Gasol was asked about the ideal scenario in terms of small versus big lineups. Per Lakers Nation postgame footage, Gasol answered succinctly:
“Now, we’re staying small, pretty much all the time. There’s no ideal. The word ‘ideal’, it’s out of the question, in this moment.”
There’s another interesting wrinkle that’s been thrown into the Lakers’ rebuild plan, and that’s the sheer number of losses. Currently occupying last place in the Western Conference, Los Angeles seems to be headed for their best draft-lottery chance in a generation. That’s good, of course. A top pick could change their fortunes in a hurry.
The draft also has a corresponding effect on the team’s salary cap as they head into this summer’s free-agency period. Simply put, a No. 1 draft pick would cost them $5,510,640, based on the usual 120 percent of rookie scale.
According to a scenario posed by Ben Rosales of Silver Screen and Roll, the Lakers would now have just $16,968,830 to play with—far less than a max contract for an elite free agent.
There’s also the catch-22 of freeing up salary space through one-year deals. The Lakers would have to renounce the right to their own free agents before having available funds to go after other free agents. Guys who have been carving out solid roles, like Johnson, Henry, Farmar or Jodie Meeks, may want to stay with the Lakers. But without a contract, it’s only a wish. What happens when other teams come calling?
And what about the Lakers’ most expensive current free agent? Gasol, who is earning $19,285,850 this season, per ShamSports, is averaging 17.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3.4 assists in just 31.8 minutes per game. He’s still one of the premiere big men in the league, and management could offer him a reduced salary to stay, conceivably leaving enough to go after second-tier free agents this summer.
It’s highly doubtful, however, that the four-time All-Star would want to stay with D’Antoni still at the helm.
The Lakers could also opt to wait for the summer of 2015, at which point Nash’s three-year contract would come to end.
According to Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, this is becoming a probability:
"And the fact is, as of this time, Nash will get one last chance to play next season with the Lakers, who are not planning a free-agent spending spree this summer and are therefore thinking it does not make sense to use the stretch provision to waive Nash."
By re-signing Farmar, Meeks, Johnson and Henry to modest deals this summer, hoping that Nick Young doesn’t opt out of his option, and clearing Nash’s $9.7 million off the books at the end of the season, management could still be in a position to go after a top-class free agent like Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge.
So the question comes full circle. Do the Lakers have a rebuild plan? They no doubt have multiple plans, plus some questions—including D’Antoni’s future with the team.
And when will the answers come?
May 21 marks the annual rite of ping-pong-ball passage, and we’ll get to see just where the Lakers land in the lottery. June 26 is draft night itself, along with the always tantalizing possibility of draft trades. And finally, June 30 is the official opening of the free-agency period, and as Mitch Kupchak said, “That’s when the mad rush begins.”
Until then, it’s all a game of speculation.