Kobe Bryant is chafing at the bit to get past a wretched season in which he played just six games due to injury.
For a superstar so consumed with winning, that extension will unfortunately coincide with a major rebuild.
In a recent press conference, Bryant expressed his dissatisfaction with the team’s culture and his expectation that the front office will complete that rebuild sooner rather than later. Per the Lakers.com transcript, Bryant talked about change needing to start at the top:
Well, you have to start with Jim (Buss) and Jeanie (Buss), and how that relationship plays out. It starts with having a clear direction and clear authority. Then it goes down to the coaching staff, what Mike (D’Antoni) is going to do, what they want to do with Mike and it goes from there. It’s gotta start from the top.
It’s an appropriate lead-in for how the team can both appease the face of their franchise and build intelligently for the future. And it starts with mending fences.
A Bridge Over Troubled Water
On Tuesday evening, Lakers president Jeanie Buss sat down with Bill Macdonald and TWC Sports Access for a wide-ranging interview. Per the transcript by Trevor Wong for Lakers.com, Buss compared Bryant’s competitiveness with that of her fiancé Phil Jackson—a guy who’s been in the news lately as the newly minted president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks:
"If that competitiveness is not fed or does not have an outlet, it can drive you crazy. So I understand his frustration and I will talk to him and I will commiserate with him because I know how he feels."
It’s all well and good for Jeanie to express understanding, but then again Lakers fans wouldn’t expect any less of her—she’s always been a positive beacon for the team.
The real question is—where’s Jimbo?
Jeanie’s brother is after all the executive vice-president of player personnel and the ultimate word when it comes to the rebuilding process.
Jim Buss has a reputation as a reclusive kind of guy—he’ll give the rare media interview and say some of the right things but he’s certainly not known as someone who sits down frequently with his players, which is a bit odd given his title.
If the subject at hand is how to reconstruct around Bryant, then why on earth would you not consult with him about it?
Buss has to exit whatever hermetically sealed chamber he’s been holed up in and begin a running dialogue with his unhappy superstar. Those conversations should also include Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers long-running GM, of course.
Follow the Bouncing Lottery Ball
Once the circle of trust is repaired, the next item on the checklist is the upcoming draft. The Lakers are heading toward their worst record in generations and should be in a position to nab an impact player. Whether that means a future franchise star can’t really be accurately predicted, but it’s the best place to start.
Here’s a few of the lottery-bound favorites who could either make Bryant’s life easier next season or cause him to scowl and gnash his teeth—you just never know with rookies.
Andrew Wiggins has long been considered the top of this year’s draft class—a shooting guard with exceptional size and length and a true defensive mindset. It’s a stretch to think the Lakers will get the first pick, but there’s no harm in hoping.
Jabari Parker is the kind of wing any team would love to have—he piles up points, is multi-positional, has a tremendous basketball IQ and is very NBA-ready. He’s not necessarily known as an elite defensive presence yet, and that development will either be nurtured or not by his first NBA coach.
Dante Exum, a whiz-kid from Australia, is something of an enigma given that he hasn’t had much live exposure in the U.S. The explosive combo guard is primarily being positioned at the point by his agent Rob Pelinka, who just happens to rep Bryant as well. There are those wondering if Exum’s team workouts will be limited in an effort to guide him into Laker hands.
Joel Embiid is a seven-footer with freakish athleticism as well as a stress fracture in his back that will likely keep him out of opening weekend for the NCAA Tournament. The Kansas Jayhawks' freshman center is a former volleyball and soccer player with a surprising fluidity for someone who only started playing serious basketball in 2011.
Once you get to the fifth pick, things become increasingly shifty. Among those in the conversation are Julius Randle, an athletic power forward with a knack for both scoring and rebounding; Marcus Smart, a 6’4” point guard with a power forward’s build; and Aaron Gordon, an undersized power forward with a Blake Griffin-type motor.
Take Me to Your Sideline Leader
Finding common ground with the front office is one thing, but trusting in the guy who calls the shots from the bench is truly key. Bryant needs a coach he believes in, and that obviously isn’t D’Antoni. Per Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, the Mamba labeled his current coach’s philosophy “small ball, which personally I don’t really care much for.”
D’Antoni still has a guaranteed year on his contract, and there’s no indication yet that ownership is prepared to eat his salary. Yet the conversation is about appeasing Bryant, and it’s hard to go along with the belief that a system that’s all about speed and jacking up the long-ball indiscriminately presents the best case for an injured veteran coming off two major injuries.
Now that the Zen Master is in NYC and truly off the table, let’s look at four other possible candidates.
George Karl is on the loose after so many years with the Denver Nuggets. While he always coaches with passion, the question is whether his fast-ball offense, with its emphasis on pushing the ball quickly and driving to the rim, would work well with Bryant at this stage in his career. Karl’s not big on jump shots, preferring lots of drives, layups and foul shots. His system tends to work best with a young, fast team.
Lionel Hollins has been out of work this season after a solid five-year run as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. He led the team to a franchise-record 56 wins last season, including its first Western Conference Finals appearance. Hollins is known as a tough, defensive-minded coach who holds his players accountable. The half-court, post-oriented style that suited the Grizzlies’ players under Hollins would fit well with Bryant right now.
Byron Scott won three titles as a guard with the Lakers during the Showtime era and returned at the end of his playing career at the request of Jerry West to mentor Bryant as a rookie. The two formed a close bond, and it would seem like a completed circle for Scott to work with Bryant in his final two years. As a head coach with the New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers, Scott ran the Princeton offense, something the Lakers dabbled with briefly at the beginning of the 2012-13 season.
Before Mike Brown was fired and D’Antoni was hired, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles reported on Bryant’s enthusiasm for the recently installed Princeton offense:
The essence of the offense is everybody sharing the spotlight. Everybody being able to read and react and working as one. That takes time to do. But the reality is, when you have talented players that are willing to sacrifice their game and to play within a structure, it makes you unstoppable.
Kurt Rambis also has long Laker ties as a Showtime player, an executive under West and Kupchak and an assistant coach under Jackson. Rambis was the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves for two unsuccessful seasons and is currently an assistant under D’Antoni. Rambis could easily snap back to the triangle offense Bryant knows so well, but it’s not an easy system to teach a rebuilding team. Also, you have to wonder if he would be a good fit with Kevin Love, if the Timberwolves star were to join the Lakers during free agency in 2015—it wasn’t exactly a love fest in Minny.
Not the Summer of Love
Finally, we come to the all-crucial summer free-agency period. And while the T-Wolves' power forward is a year away from being on the market, the Lakers still have to play the field, especially since they have just three players under guaranteed contract next season: Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre.
This makes for a delicate balancing act. In order to free up cap space, the Lakers have to renounce the rights to most of their players. They may be able to coax some back, but they’ll lose some as well. In other words, the Lakers have to hit the ground running on June 30, looking at outside free agents and their own all in the same breath.
Carmelo Anthony has been in the conversation this season about free agency in general and a possible Lakers destination in particular. However, Jackson’s arrival in the Big Apple has Melo singing a new tune. Per Ian Begley for ESPN New York:
"I’m excited about the opportunity to hopefully go forward with Phil. He’s a basketball genius. He’s done it so many times, so many ways, in so many different situations. Hopefully he can do the same things here."
Pau Gasol is the most expensive of the Lakers own free agents and hasn’t exactly seen eye-to-eye with D’Antoni. Bryant would like to see the guy he won two championships with return, but it’s doubtful the Lakers in their rebuild mode will feel the same way.
Per Mark Medina of InsideSoCal, Gasol seems to feel the same way, in reverse:
The ideal scenario is not to be the team that sees what happens, let’s be patient, let’s rebuild and let’s get a couple of young players and go from there. That’ doesn’t bring you a championship or make you win, in the short term at least.
The Lakers will likely have more frontcourt holes with Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman also heading out the door—both have expiring contracts and neither has been in favor with D’Antoni.
Greg Monroe will be a restricted free agent for the Detroit Pistons, and it’s not clear yet whether they’ll match any competing offers. His fit with the Lakers would also depend on coaching philosophy—Monroe can be an effective bully under the basket offensively, but he’s neither fleet of foot nor particularly adept on the defensive end.
Marcin Gortat is an unrestricted free agent with the Washington Wizards and could be an interesting addition in L.A. He’s averaged 12.8 points and 9.3 boards this season and is an enforcer as well. He also played well with Nash during their time together with the Phoenix Suns.
Nick “Swaggy P” Young was having a strong season with the Lakers until he fractured his knee. He has a player’s option, and the general sense has been that he’ll opt out and test the market. Whether his injury has compromised that is as yet uncertain. Young may be returning to the lineup soon. If the Lakers can keep him, they should—Young can put up numbers in a hurry and brings an infectious spirit and energy to the team.
The Utah Jazz, another team in cap-clearing mode, opted not to sign Gordon Hayward to an extension. The athletic small forward is averaging a career-high 15.7 points per game this season and is a restricted free agent at $4,677,708. Teams will be making offers, but how much is too much?
Jodie Meeks has had a career season, averaging 15.3 points through 62 games and burying shots from beyond the arc at a 39.9 percent clip. He’s also a free agent for the Lakers. They should keep him.
With Nash remaining a giant question mark heading into his final contract year, the Lakers need a healthy, quality point guard. They have a minimum salary option on Kendall Marshall which they’ll probably exercise, but they need more than that. Jordan Farmar will be a free agent, and he’s been in and out of the lineup with injuries all season.
Kyle Lowry’s contract is up at the end of the season, but he’s had a redemptive year with the Toronto Raptors, averaging 17.3 points, 7.8 assists and 1.6 steals through 67 games so far. He’s probably in line for a long-term extension this summer.
Another big maybe when it comes to availability is Eric Bledsoe, whose progression has been off the charts since joining the Suns this season. While he missed a large number of games with a knee injury, he’s back in time for a playoff push and averaging 17 points, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Bledsoe’s a restricted free agent but will probably remain in Phoenix.
When it comes down to it, the 2014 free-agency market just isn’t all that deep. Yet Bryant, heading into his extended farewell tour, wants to win—this is one of the fiercest competitors of all time, after all.
So what is the best way of both appeasing him in the short term and rebuilding intelligently, while preserving money for the deeper free-agency market in 2015?
It will be a tricky path, and it starts with the draft, followed by a coaching change and then threading the needle through this summer’s marketplace—bringing back the best of the current low-cost roster and trying to find one or two mid-level outside free agents. Hopefully, it allows for enough wins to keep Bryant happy, and with Nash’s $9,701,000 coming off the books, one more quality acquisition.
And then perhaps, one glorious last run at a ring for a superstar in his 20th and final NBA season.
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