The Lakers have officially ruled out Bryant for the remainder of the 2013-14 season. The 35-year-old has been sidelined since Dec. 17 by a fracture in his left knee, an injury he suffered just six games into his return from a torn Achilles tendon.
With $23.5 million coming Bryant's way in each of the next two seasons, via ShamSports.com, his seat atop the pecking order is one of the only certainties inside the organization. Of course, with Bryant forced to stand on one leg, there's only so much stability he can bring.
The snail-like pace of his recovery, far more predictable than surprising for an 18-year veteran, should be reason enough to raise the caution flags for LA's rebuilding plans. There are far too many question marks in the present for the Lakers to carry a win-now mentality into this offseason.
Focus must be centered on the future.
Delaying the Spending Frenzy
It's no accident that the Lakers will shed more than half their payroll at season's end. At one point, this seemed to be the perfect summer for extravagant purchases.
Now that the crack of baseball bats is starting to be heard in Florida and Arizona, though, this free-agent crop has already lost most of its luster. There have been no indications that Miami's talented trio plans to part ways. Anthony's one-way contributions and the fact that he'll turn 30 in May have some wondering aloud if he's max-contract material.
If Anthony isn't worth the money and the Heatles are staying put, this crop suddenly loses most (or all) of its intrigue. There's a decent chance the best free agent to swap a jersey this offseason is Luol Deng. Deng does a lot of things well, but he's not saving a team that has now slipped 20 games below .500.
This isn't necessarily a change of course for Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. Ding previously reported that barring a LeBron James sighting on the open market, LA had already warmed to the idea of delaying its free-agent splash for another summer.
What may have been an inkling before, though, has now become a near certainty with Bryant's injury woes.
The last thing a rebuilding team wants is a championship-or-bust payroll that doesn't include championship-or-bust pieces.
If no difference-makers are available, the Lakers aren't going to tie their financial future to baseless dreams.
What's more likely to happen, according to our own Ric Bucher, is the Lakers bringing back Pau Gasol on a one-year deal and seeing what they can do with a core built around Bryant, Gasol, Steve Nash and their 2014 lottery pick.
Bucher explained the rationale:
That would then allow them to wave goodbye to both Nash and Gasol at the same time, leaving only Bryant’s final $25 million on the books for the 2015-16 season and providing enough cap space to go after a combination of Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, Tony Parker, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan.
Postponing their free-agent heist would not only afford them two potential key contributors instead of one, but it would also help them get younger in the process. Of that group of players, only Tony Parker (31) is older than Anthony.
This gives Bryant (at least) one last shot at that elusive sixth ring, but it does so without handcuffing the franchise once he decides to walk away.
As badly as the Lakers might want to give Bryant a championship send-off, the more important thing here is keeping open a path to the podium for after he's gone.
Another Coaching Change Coming?
Again, this isn't exactly a new development.
As soon as Phil Jackson's name became attached to the coaching search that ultimately brought Mike D'Antoni to LA in 2012, the offensive guru has been sitting on the hot seat. The fact that the team has gone 62-74—and lost perennial All-Star Dwight Howard—under his watch has done nothing to cool those flames.
So, how would Bryant's medical issues impact D'Antoni's fate?
Because LA's (latest) one-year plan wouldn't work with D'Antoni still stalking the Staples Center sideline.
Father Time might have started the ball rolling on the 33-year-old Gasol's decline, but D'Antoni's presence has only sped up that process.
Gasol's interior skills are wasted in the coach's perimeter-based system, and the four-time All-Star's production has plummeted over the past two seasons. An 18.3 points-per-game scorer and a 51.5 percent shooter for his career, Gasol has managed just 15.8 points on 47.6 percent shooting since the start of last season.
The big man hasn't ruled out a possible return to LA for next season. He did, however, stress that his free-agent decision "will be based purely on sporting considerations" in a blog post to his personal website, via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.
According to Bucher, those concerns include D'Antoni's future in LA, and Gasol is not the only one keeping a close eye on the coaching box:
Those “sporting considerations,” a team source says, include who the Lakers head coach is, since much of Gasol’s frustration stems from coach Mike D’Antoni and a system that utilizes Gasol largely away from the basket. At least two other players frustrated with their current roles were told to be patient because the Lakers will have a new head coach next season, sources said.
While Bucher cautioned that this assurance of a coaching change may have simply been a way to pacify the players for now, he's not the only one hearing that D'Antoni's job could be in jeopardy.
On ESPN's First Take, Stephen A. Smith said he heard that D'Antoni's fate has already been sealed.
"I had a source tell me last night [that] Mike D’Antoni is gone at the end of the season," Smith said, via Lakers Nation's Corey Hansford. "He won’t be there [...] I’m just telling you, that’s the word coming out of L.A."
Now, there's still a chance the decision hasn't been made yet or could change over time. However, if next season's Lakers closely resemble this year's Lakers, what would the Lakers expect D'Antoni to get out of them?
LA sits 22nd in offensive efficiency (101.5 points per 100 possessions) and 26th at the opposite end (106.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). Would a (hopefully) healthy Bryant and an unnamed draft pick produce the type of results needed to dramatically change those rankings when there seems to be an obvious disconnect between the coach and his personnel?
Would Bryant really want to sit through another disastrous season of this experiment gone wrong?
That has unfortunately become the prevailing theme both for Bryant's future and that of his franchise.
Shutting down the "Black Mamba" was the right move, but it carries no guarantees. The extra rest can't hurt, but it doesn't necessarily help either.
The Lakers weren't trying to rebuild. In a perfect world, they'd be competing for a title with Nash motoring an explosive offense, Bryant wreaking havoc on the wing and Howard anchoring the interior.
That, of course, isn't happening.
Howard escaped the Hollywood lights for the chance to make a title run with the Houston Rockets. Nash and Bryant have become fixtures inside the team's training room.
Reality has changed. So have the possibilities of a return to relevance for this storied franchise.
Bryant, at least in terms of economics, remains at the center of this rebuild. But he's as much of a question mark as LA's uncertain foray into free agency.
Even a healthy Bryant can't save these Lakers. Not before getting some badly needed assistance, which won't be arriving until 2015 (at the earliest).
How have Bryant's injury problems impacted this rebuild? They've shown just how much work must still be done before the Lakers are competing for anything of substance.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.
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