The franchise is in the midst of a rebuilding process that may last a few seasons, depending on how fast general manager Mitch Kupchak can turn things around. By his own admission, it might take a while. Kupchak offered as much to Mark Medina of Inside SoCal:
I don’t think that we’ll use our cap money to patch together a team for next year. It may take more than one year to build, I don’t know. But just because we have a lot of money this summer, doesn’t mean we’ll spend it all. We’ll spend it wisely and if we can’t, then we’ll do the best we can this summer and then we’ll look maybe to the next summer. We don’t know how that’s going to play out right now.
It seems appropriate to mention that Bryant will be 36 years old by the time next season tips off and that his contract expires at the end of the 2015-16 season per hoopshype.com.
The days of the five-time champion carrying mediocre teams to playoff contention and possibly the NBA Finals appear to be over given his age and questionable health.
Let’s have a look at Bryant’s situation as a whole and how that affects the Lakers going forward.
Kobe Bryant: Slowing Down the Rebuild?
Bryant might very well be the reason that the Lakers' rebuild takes a few seasons before it gets completed.
The future Hall of Fame 2-guard tore his Achilles late last season, which forced him to miss the start of the 2013-14 campaign. Bryant is the source of multiple problems, and honestly, solutions will be hard to come by until he retires.
Bryant made his return in December, then fractured his knee after a mere six games. The injury was debilitating enough that the organization felt it was in the team’s best interest to shut down Bryant for the remainder of the season.
This is problematic because it’s difficult to gauge what kind of player Bryant is and will become.
Bryant looked nothing like the elite performer fans have become accustomed to seeing. This is pertinent because there is a chance that this is the new version of Kobe. Remember, he looked a step slow before the knee injury.
It’s entirely possible that Bryant might regress even further. Then again, he could make a triumphant return and once again look like an unstoppable scorer. However, that seems to be a long shot.
A broken-down Bryant affects the landscape of the Lakers given his immense salary and the lack of appeal it all creates. Indeed, Bryant’s $48.5 million extension compromises some of the cap space L.A. initially projected to have for this summer and the following one.
If we take into account the player they will draft this year, the Lakers should have around $20 million in cap room (if they release all of their free agents), which is hardly enough to sign an elite player and fill out the roster.
Furthermore, Kupchak might find it challenging to add even slightly above-average players, because they might not be interested in playing alongside a diminished Bryant.
Keep in mind, this could be the reality for the 2014 offseason and the ensuing one.
To be fair, the Lakers are probably still a much more desirable destination than the Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks, but it’s probably safe to say they take a back seat to contenders like the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat and Houston Rockets.
Considering that good players might potentially view the Purple and Gold as a bottom-tier team (probably at the top of that tier, but still), rebuilding will be a tough task throughout the duration of Bryant’s contract.
If the Lakers are going to have issues fielding a competitive roster with Bryant on board, it stands to reason that the Bryant era will end with Los Angeles nowhere near title contention.
Mitch Kupchak to the Rescue?
Mitch Kupchak has pulled off the impossible before, and perhaps he will do so again.
In addition, the Lakers general manager pulled off a series of moves in the 2012 offseason that made other executives jealous. Kupchak traded for Dwight Howard and also acquired Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns.
At the time, Howard was by and large viewed as the best big man in the league, while Nash was still a borderline-elite point guard.
Ultimately, those moves failed. Howard played injured in L.A., and his play suffered for it. Afterwards, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year jumped ship and joined the Houston Rockets in free agency.
With respect to Nash, he has only appeared in 60 games since joining the Lakers because of various ailments.
Still, most would have pulled the trigger on those moves in a heartbeat given that the Lakers made deals for some of the most talented performers in the league.
Despite the recent setbacks, Kupchak has proven that he can build a championship team around Kobe Bryant, and perhaps he will be able to do so again. Bryant is certainly counting on it, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:
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. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, it's the same expectations I have for them up there.
Kupchak has secured the services of some great players; maybe he will find a way to convince a superstar to join the team this offseason as well as the following one.
In theory, this all makes sense. However, it stands to reason that it will be difficult to execute in practice.
Howard left the Lakers because he grew tired of playing with Bryant. Former Laker Antawn Jamison hinted as much with NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper. It’s worth noting that Howard wanted out of town after playing with a healthy Bryant.
Thus, we are left to wonder if anyone will truly be willing to sign on and play in L.A. next to Bryant regardless of Kupchak’s sales pitch. What’s more, we have yet to see any player take a substantial pay cut for the sake of joining forces with the Lakers' all-time leading scorer.
These inescapable facts suggest one thing: Superstars do not wish to pair up with Bryant at any price. Thus, Kupchak might not be able to build Bryant a championship team.
The evidence suggests that Bryant’s title window has been slammed shut.
Between his seemingly broken body and his exorbitant salary, Bryant generates obstacles for the Lakers that are very difficult to overcome if they want to build a team with championship aspirations.
Players will more than likely be reluctant to join an injured Bryant, especially when the money that is owed to him prevents the team from adding key pieces.
There is still a chance that Kupchak will be able to pull a few rabbits out of his hat and create a super team if everything goes right, but that appears to be quite unlikely.
Big-name players are not all that enamored with playing alongside Bryant because of his attitude and command on the franchise. ESPN.com’s Henry Abbott offered this observation on the matter:
The second reason the Lakers may struggle to get a free agent is that Bryant has gained a reputation as a difficult teammate. The Lakers have been a fine destination of late for role players, but not for would-be stars such as Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Shaquille O’Neal and Andrew Bynum, none of whom get the ball as much as they'd like, and all of whom, despite playing well, become targets for media scorn.
This appears to solidify the idea that the Lakers’ rebuild will be tied to Bryant. As long as he is part of the team, the Purple and Gold will struggle to attract the best players even though Kevin Love has been linked to the Lakers according to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard (Insider subscription required) .
In turn, Bryant will not get the help necessary to compete for championships at his advanced age. Hence, it’s no longer necessary to anticipate where his ring count will end.
That number has already been reached.