The Los Angeles Lakers are hobbling to the finish line of a lost season and will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004-05. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash have already been shut down due to injuries, so the front office must move forward by planning for the 2014 NBA offseason.
The question is: What does the strategy actually look like?
LA only has three players on guaranteed contracts for 2014-15. That list includes Bryant, Nash and Robert Sacre, according to ShamSports. One way or another, the Lakers are going to have to fill out a 12-man roster by staying busy during the summer.
That may consist of signing a big-name free agent like Carmelo Anthony to slot next to an aging Bryant, but general manager Mitch Kupchak and Co. may lean toward a more conservative route that utilizes one-year deals for long-term cap flexibility.
Regardless of what the blueprint is, however, the Lakers have more questions to answer than any other team in the Association.
The Nash Factor
Father Time has caught up to the Lakers point guard, but he continues the fight to get back out on the court.
Although cutting ties with Nash via the stretch provision is an option for LA, it doesn’t appear as if the organization plans to do that.
Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding wrote the following in a March column:
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.
The Lakers would rather be done with the entirety of Nash’s $9.7 million salary next year if they’re not planning on spending much next season, as opposed to stretching that money across the next three seasons if they waive him and suffer future burdens.
With the salaries of Nash and Bryant working so heavily against the cap, LA may ultimately ride out one more year of lesser deals in order to eye 2015 free agency—when guys like Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge could hit the market.
However, that will not sit well with the team’s star shooting guard.
Kobe’s Cryptic Words
After signing a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension in November, Bryant continues to be the past, present and future of the storied Lakers franchise.
Injury woes cast a dark cloud over the twilight of his career, but he still has time to compete for a championship if the right pieces are positioned beside him. “The Black Mamba” could have a say in the decision-making processes moving forward, but the ornery veteran has said he doesn’t want to be involved with higher-ups.
According to Brett Pollakoff of NBC Sports' Pro Basketball Talk, the legendary shooting guard doesn’t want any input regarding free-agent decisions in 2014.
“In all honesty, I don’t want it,” Bryant said.
Just one month later, however, the 35-year-old ripped into Lakers management by saying the following, per the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan:
"Oh, yeah, let’s just play next year and let’s just suck again. No. Absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform, no excuses for it. Right? You’ve got to get things done."
He added, “How can I be satisfied with it? We’re like 100 games under .500. I can’t be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for, this is not what we play for.”
Provided that Ding is reporting LA doesn’t plan to be big spenders this offseason, and that Bryant doesn’t want to be involved in rebuilding the team, how are the Lakers supposed to move forward and keep their star player happy?
They could flip the script and target marquee superstars, but their situation isn’t exactly favorable.
Why Would ‘Melo Join?
Speculation surrounding purple and gold includes the prospect of Anthony leaving the New York Knicks in order to join up with LA. As things currently stand, however, that doesn’t look like a smart decision for ‘Melo any way you slice it.
USA Today’s Sam Amick wrote the following back in November:
(Anthony) may as well have been speaking for the entire free agency class of 2014 when he made this not-so-surprising statement: Bryant’s health and performance, rather than the size of his deal, likely will determine whether anyone of equal stature joins him this summer.
Considering that ‘Melo’s statement was made before Bryant’s injury-riddled campaign in which he only played six games, that’s not a good sign for Lakers fans.
Bryant’s health was a prevalent issue as he rehabbed from an Achilles tear. Now he’s made just six regular-season appearances due to a broken left knee and he’ll be 36 years old in 2014-15.
Would Anthony really leave money on the table in New York—where Phil Jackson is now playing a prominent role—to join a situation as uncertain as the one in Lakerland?
Color me skeptical.
The Coach and the Draft
Head coach Mike D’Antoni is still under contract through the 2014-15 season, but the chances he sticks around through the summer seem remote at best.
Speaking on ESPN’s First Take (h/t Lakers Nation’s Corey Hansford), NBA analyst Stephen A. Smith said that Mike D will not be returning to the Lakers’ sidelines.
“I had a source tell me last night [that] Mike D’Antoni is gone at the end of the season. He won’t be there […] I’m just telling you, that’s the word coming out of L.A.”
If you don’t trust Smith’s word, Sean Deveney of Sporting News cited sources that said Bryant has “no interest” in playing for D’Antoni next season.
Numerous signs point to the offensive guru being let go, which means the Lakers will need to be interviewing coaching candidates on top of filling out a viable roster.
They’ll also have to be scouting aggressively, because their losing ways have all but ensured a top-10 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
There’s sure to be plenty of talented guys near the top of the board, but Australian prospect Dante Exum has separated himself from the pack by already showing interest in purple and gold, per B/R’s Jared Zwerling:
Definitely L.A. is one option. I’ve been to L.A. many times and I love the city, and it is a great city. If I get the opportunity to go to L.A. and play for the Lakers, I know I’ll have love for the city. And their fans are loyal and they have the rivalry with the Clippers. But just to be in an environment where you have a great player like Kobe, where you have a mentor in a way as a rookie, I think that would be the best option.
The young guard is clearly intrigued by LA, and the Lakers will need a promising young guard to replace Bryant when he retires. Perhaps there’s mutual interest in that respect.
Lakerland has a plethora of questions to answer during the 2014 offseason. With a roster to fill out, a lottery pick to peg and the possibility of a coaching search, LA will be a madhouse this summer.
Bryant clearly isn’t pleased with the current scenario, but at least he can take solace in having a hefty paycheck if roster moves flop once again.