The futility of the Los Angeles Lakers' present has forced the franchise's legions of fantasts to reflect on its glorious past and project a triumphant future, if only to stave off the insanity that creeps in while watching the Purple and Gold get steamrolled night after night.
The most popular refuge for those seeking quick fixes? Free agency.
As the conventional wisdom goes, the Lakers are the be-all, end-all of destination franchises. They've got everything a superstar in search of a new home could ever want: the winning tradition, the lineage of great players, the willingness to spend in pursuit of victory, the global brand and, of course, everything that comes with the locale (i.e. the ingredients of Kendrick Lamar's "recipe").
So, naturally, the Lakers should have their pick of every free-agent litter so long as they have the requisite cap space because, well, they're the Lakers, and because they're the Lakers, they've always been the hot spot for free agents...right?
Except, the team's history suggests otherwise.
The Reality of Rebuilding
In the quarter-century that unrestricted free agency has been a thing in the NBA, the Lakers have signed just one superstar from another squad: Shaquille O'Neal. Since then, the title of "Biggest Lakers Free-Agent Addition" evokes a three-way tie between Metta World Peace, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, the latter two of whom spent a single season in L.A. toward the end of their respective Hall of Fame careers.
The rest of L.A.'s major, modern-day additions—Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard—have come via trade. Even Steve Nash, whom the Lakers signed away from the Phoenix Suns in July 2012, arrived in a swap that sent four draft picks back to the Valley of the Sun.
Truth be told, trades have long been the "Laker Way" of rebooting the franchise. That's how the team acquired Wilt Chamberlain from the Philadelphia 76ers to make sure the Jerry West era didn't end without a title. That's how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to be the foundation of "Showtime," before Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott emerged from the NBA draft.
Prior to the arrival of the free agency that we see today, the Lakers benefited rather handsomely from losing one of their own. When Gail Goodrich left to join the New Orleans Jazz in 1976, the Lakers were able to extract as compensation a slew of draft picks, one of which yielded Magic in 1979.
L.A. may have another such "golden ticket" on its hands when this year's draft rolls around. At 22-42, the Lakers are currently tied for the worst record in the West and the fourth-worst in the entire league. According to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, the team's terrible performance—and the potential reward for that failure—played a part in the Lakers convincing Bryant to sit out the rest of the season.
Though, to hear the Lakers training staff tell it, Kobe's left knee probably wouldn't have healed in time for him to give it a go anyway.
"With Kobe's injury still not healed, the amount of time he'd need to rehab and be ready to play, and the amount of time remaining in the season, we've simply run out of time for him to return," head athletic trainer Gary Vitti said in an official statement. "However, Kobe will have the entire offseason to heal, rehab and prepare, and we look forward to him being 100 percent for the start of next season."
Without Bryant and Nash, who's also done for the year with nerve issues in his leg and back, the Lakers have come to rely on a rotation of scrap-heap pickups and D-Leaguers with whom to surround an aging Gasol.
Mike D'Antoni has done a decent job of fashioning something resembling a basketball team out of an oft-injured and inconsistent cast of characters like Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Kendall Marshall, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jodie Meeks (to name a few), but even the brightest minds in the business would have a tough time winning games with that group.
Pain and Gain
The more the Lakers lose now, the better their pick in the 2014 draft and the better off they'll be in the long run. Landing a blue-chip prospect like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid or Dante Exum could set the Lakers up for success over the long haul, just as Bryant's arrival in 1996 and Johnson's debut in 1979 did in the past.
Whether everyone involved will exercise the patience required to see this rebuild through to its full potential is another story entirely.
Bryant, for one, isn't willing to wait around, nor should anyone expect him to. He'll be 36 by the time he returns to the court next season, with a two-year, $48.5 million pact that may well be his last as a player. He's spent most of his pro career operating with a "championship or bust" mindset, and with the clock ticking on his chase for Ring No. 6, that isn't likely to change.
"We're like 100 games under .500. I can't be satisfied with that at all," Bryant told the attendant media while announcing that he'd miss the remainder of the 2013-14 season while recovering from a fracture of his left tibial plateau. "This is not what we stand for. This is not what we play for. A lot of times, it's hard to understand that message if you're not a die-hard Laker fan. It's hard to really understand where we're coming from, what we're used to, what we're accustomed to, which is playing for championships. Everything else is a complete failure. That's just how it is."
That leaves the front office, helmed by general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss, with little time in which to turn around the Lakers' dilapidated operation.
On the one hand, Kupchak understands that doing so under the auspices of the current collective bargaining agreement will require a measured approach. "Patience is the key," Kupchak told USA Today's David Leon Moore. "With the new collective bargaining agreement, there are no quick fixes. You cannot outbid teams for star players."
On the other hand, Kupchak doesn't see tanking for a primo pick as any sort of silver bullet to combat the team's lack of young talent.
"To think the draft can save your franchise, we just don't think that way," he added. "We just don't. Whatever happens happens. If we end up with a high pick or a mid pick or a late pick. ... a lot of players have been picked in the middle or late first round that have turned out to be great players, and a lot of guys who have been picked 1, 2 or 3 haven't worked out. Just because you think the higher the better is always the case, it's not always the case."
But it may be, depending on how the Lakers decide to play their hand this summer.
Time Will Tell
A patient approach on par with Kupchak's expectations would probably see L.A. spend its 2014 pick on a star-in-the-making, use its ample cap space to load up on short-term contracts this summer and preserve its resources for a run at a marquee free agent in 2015.
If Bryant had his way, though, the Lakers might try to parlay their draftee into a (disgruntled) superstar—like, say, Kevin Love—who can help right away. Whoever that pick becomes will instantly be the Lakers' juiciest trade chip. They vacated most of their skid-greasing assets to bring Howard and Nash to town in 2012 and won't have any first-round picks to trade outright until 2019 as a result.
Or, if Carmelo Anthony opts out of his contract with the New York Knicks and decides to take his talents elsewhere, Bryant could push the powers that be in L.A. to pursue a signature from 'Melo, long a "friend" of Kobe's (insofar as Bryant has "friends" among his playing peers).
What should the Lakers do to rebuild?
That might not be the smartest move, given Anthony's age (he turns 30 in May) and likely salary demands, along with the opportunity to attract younger talent in 2015 and beyond that such a signing would sacrifice. But, for Bryant, it'd probably be even more foolish to forgo the chance to win now in service of a future unknown. By then, it might be too late for the Lakers to realistically contend for a title with Kobe still in the fold.
As such, rebuilding by trade doesn't figure to be the way in which the Lakers will move forward. Their proverbial cupboard is practically bare as is. They don't have anything of value to swap.
Not yet, anyway. If the Lakers re-sign Gasol—an option that Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher says is still in play, as rocky as his relationship with the franchise has been at times—they'll have at least one piece who can help them win now and, if need be, fit into a blockbuster trade later on to make the money match up.
The same goes for any free agent, be it the Lakers' own or one coming from another team, who seeks gainful employment in purple and gold this summer.
Ironically, then, those Lakers fans fixated on free agency might actually be operating in something close to reality. It just may not be the one filled with quick fixes and instant superstars that they, as well as those within the organization, would prefer.
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