We've Seen This LA Lakers Story Before, but It's Not the One You Think

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We've Seen This LA Lakers Story Before, but It's Not the One You Think
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
The secret in fixing the LA Lakers might lie in Kobe Bryant's youth.

The Los Angeles Lakers are perhaps on the verge of reproducing a previous occurrence, but it's not the one most have in mind.

Fans are quick to look at the 2004-05 season as a reference point as it pertains to where the Lakers are headed, and that comparison is close on some level.

Dwight Howard left the Lakers last summer, much in the same way that Shaquille O’Neal forced his way out of L.A. in the 2004 summer. Kobe Bryant ended up having to carry the team, but he failed in that respect as evidenced by the fact the Purple and Gold won only 34 games.

In the following year, Los Angeles re-hired Phil Jackson (he had been previously dismissed by the Lakers after losing the 2004 NBA Finals in five games), and he took the team back to the playoffs.

By the 2007-08 season, general manager Mitch Kupchak acquired Pau Gasol via trade and turned the franchise into a title contender.

It's easy to look at the low-win total from 2004-05 and connect it with 2013-14. However, there's another season that offers far more similarities.

 

This year is the new 1995-96

Frank Wiese/Associated Press
Magic Johnson made a comeback during the 1995-96 season.

The 2013-14 season also offers some intriguing resemblances to the 1995-96 campaign.

It’s worth mentioning, there are differences involved with these two teams. Indeed, the 2013-14 Lakers reside at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, while the 1995-96 team made the playoffs and had fairly high expectations as a 53-win team (won 48 year prior).

In addition, the 1995-96 squad had talented young players in Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones coupled with a seasoned big man named Elden Campbell to either build around, or use as terrific complementary players next to a superstar. Still, that doesn't mean there aren't some clear parallels to hope come true. 

Magic Johnson came out of his retirement and joined the Lakers in January. He had stepped away from the game during the 1991-92 preseason after learning he had contracted the HIV disease.

Johnson sensed that he could still contribute to the Lakers (he did after all participate in the 1992 Olympics with the Dream Team), which prompted him to sign up with the team.

In 32 games, Johnson posted career lows in minutes (29.9), points (14.6), rebounds (5.7) and assists (6.9) per game.

Johnson made a well-intentioned but ill-fated comeback given that his unit accomplished very little. That team made the playoffs but was eliminated in four games (opening round was a best of five at the time).

Still, the 1995-96 campaign set the wheels in motion for one of the biggest offseasons in the franchise's history. The Lakers acquired a premier free agent by the name of O'Neal in the 1996 summer, and they traded for the rights of Bryant.

Fast-forward to the 2013-14 campaign and a similar scenario appears to be just around the corner. Bryant is not retired, but a torn Achilles left many wondering whether he would suit up this year.

Bryant rejoined his teammates in December, but he fractured his knee after six games. Bryant will miss the remainder of the season because of the injury, and he will finish the campaign with his lowest figures in points (13.8) and field-goal percentage (42.5 percent) since his rookie season.

Bryant's absence this season has been one of the reasons for the Lakers' ineptitude. Still, it comes with an added benefit: a high-lottery pick.

The Lakers will get an opportunity to select a player in a draft that ESPN.com's Chad Ford (Insider subscription required) has declared is perhaps the best ever. NBADraft.net projects the Lakers to select Dante Exum with the fourth pick.

Exum compares favorably to Penny Hardaway, who seemed destined for the Hall of Fame before injuries robbed him of his explosiveness.

Keep in mind, in the event the Purple and Gold obtained the top pick in the draft, they could instead go after Joel Embiid, whom many agree is a young Hakeem Olajuwon.

What's more, much like in the summer of 1996, the Lakers will have cap room to make a run at a free agent. After the draft, they should have roughly $20 million in cap room (if they renounce all of their free agents), per Spotrac, which is not sufficient to sign an elite free agent and fill out the roster.

However, they could trade away Steve Nash for a second-round pick or a player at lesser salary and create some additional financial flexibility to go after a player like Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony has already publicly stated his desire to become a free agent at season's end to Rafi Kohan of the New York Observer.

Anthony's wife said before the All-Star break that she believed her husband would remain with the New York Knicks, but the Knickerbockers' mounting losses may have swayed Anthony. Speaking on ESPN’s First Take (h/t HoopsHype.com), Stephen A. Smith shared this nugget:

I was told this last week, I was told a few days ago, I had it reiterated to me by somebody I trust yet again this morning, that Carmelo Anthony is gone, he is leaving New York city [sic]. There are those like myself who still hold up the possibility that that may not be true (...) but for what I'm being told, he is gone. And he is gone because he's at the mindset that in order to achieve any amount of success he would had to sacrifice not just this this year but next year as well, because of this current roster.

To be fair, Phil Jackson joined the Knicks organization, and that could sway Anthony into remaining in New York, even though Anthony has stated the Jackson move will have no impact whatsoever on his free-agency decision, per Peter Botte of the New York Daily News.

Then again, perhaps L.A. should follow its own script and forego free agency this summer. Instead Los Angles can focus on getting younger players. From there, they can get a high-impact talent that fits within the construct of the roster to change the landscape of the franchise.

The Purple and Gold will get a shot at drafting Exum, Andrew Wiggins or perhaps even Embiid. Much like Bryant in the 1996 draft, getting one of these athletes might be one of the dominoes that sets things in motion for title contention in the coming years.

Keep in mind, Kevin Love has been previously linked to the Lakers. ESPN Insider Chris Broussard questioned an executive on the prospect of Love joining the Lakers, and he was given this response: "That's a 100 percent certainty.”

Love would end up being the second domino. Los Angeles wouldn't become a title team overnight, but these moves would certainly set the foundation, in the same manner that O'Neal and Bryant did back in 1996.

 

Looking Ahead

In the event the Lakers can replicate the 1996 offseason this summer or next one, the franchise will still have other moves to make.

The 1995-96 season provides a few lessons that the Lakers can focus on heading into the offseason. Roughly two decades ago, the Purple and Gold acquired young talented players and put them alongside an elite player.

The Lakers became playoff contenders and about three seasons later, management added arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport, who guided the team to championships. Ideally, L.A. could follow into those footsteps, but the pieces are slightly different this time around.

Bryant’s contract expires at the end of the 2015-16 campaign, and it’s probably safe to assume he will retire then. Bryant’s departure will give the Lakers an abundance of cap space, since he is slated to make $25 million in his final season per Sham Sports.

With Bryant gone, the Lakers will get the opportunity to add Kevin Durant (he becomes a free agent in the 2016 summer) to their roster, in a move that would send shock waves around the league. Oddly enough, this offers a striking similarity to O’Neal signing with Los Angeles in 1996.

With that said, before Durant even appears on the franchise’s radar, Kupchak needs to get the right head coach for the team because it appears as though Mike D’Antoni is not the answer.

Sporting News’ Sean Deveney has the details: “Bryant, sources said, has ‘no interest’ in playing for D’Antoni next season, and wants a new coach in place for the 2014-15 season."

If D’Antoni is in fact given the axe, the Lakers will need a headman that can adapt his style to his players, and put them in a situation where they can be successful. Two names immediately come to mind: George Karl and Stan Van Gundy.

Both of them have led teams to the NBA Finals, and they’ve had success with different franchises, which speaks to their ability to get the best out of the talent at their disposal.

Armed with a great player, a young prospect and a quality coach, the Lakers may very well end up sharing another success story once again.

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