“This is not what we stand for, this is not what we play for.”
That’s what Los Angeles Lakers injured shooting guard and future NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant said earlier this month with regard to L.A.’s woeful, lottery-bound 2013-14 season, per the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan.
The storied Lakers are accustomed to winning, but they haven’t been doing much of that during an abysmal campaign spent near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. As a result, general manager Mitch Kupchak—and the rest of the Lakers’ front office—needs to plan a viable blueprint to steer the franchise back to prominence.
That’s an unenviable task provided the Purple and Gold’s current state of affairs.
Only three players—Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre—have guaranteed contracts for the 2014-15 season, per ShamSports.com. Two of those three guys have reached the twilight of their respective careers and have been derailed by significant injury problems.
L.A. will essentially be building a new roster from scratch, which is a recipe for disaster given how many great teams crowd the Western Conference. The Lakers are at a crossroads, so what is the ideal route to venture down on the road to rebuilding?
Although head coach Mike D’Antoni has been struck with the majority of blame for the Lakers’ atrocious season, no other coach on the planet could have led this injury-plagued roster to a respectable record.
He got the best out of role players like Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar and Kendall Marshall, but it appears as if his run on the Lakers’ sidelines will come to an end this summer.
Stephen A. Smith said on ESPN’s First Take, “I had a source tell me last night [that] Mike D’Antoni is gone at the end of the season,” per Lakers Nation’s Corey Hansford.
Sean Deveney of Sporting News cited sources that said Bryant has “no interest” in playing for Coach D’Antoni next season.
On top of those reports, veteran center Chris Kaman explained that he hasn’t even spoken to his coach in three weeks, per the Orange County Register’s Bill Oram via Twitter:
Chris Kaman said he hasn't spoken to Mike D'Antoni since March 3 in Portland— Bill Oram (@bill_oram) March 26, 2014
Signs point to the Lakers parting ways with the offensive guru at season’s end, but who should replace him?
George Karl is one name the Lakers could pursue, but his reputation as an uptempo, offensive-minded coach closely mirrors what D’Antoni brings to the table. He’d be an odd replacement in that regard.
Guys such as Lionel Hollins or Stan Van Gundy, however, are proven winners who can also bring a change in overall philosophy.
But before Lakers management can bring in the correct coach moving forward, it needs to envision the future roster.
Splurge or Wait for 2015?
With the 2014 NBA offseason on the horizon, the Lakers are faced with two very different options.
The first of which consists of L.A.’s front office going on a spending spree this summer—likely missing out on big-name free agents like Carmelo Anthony—and settling with a collection of mid-tier talents.
Additions like Luol Deng or Trevor Ariza would help keep Bryant’s temper at bay, but they wouldn’t make the Lakers title contenders a year from now.
Additionally, Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding wrote in a March column that the Lakers don’t plan to splurge on available talent just yet:
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.
Lakerland’s best plan of action at this juncture is signing respectable players to one-year deals, developing young talent and waiting for the 2015 free-agent class to roll around—which features Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Re-signing Jordan Hill should be a top priority—especially if the organization plans to move on from four-time All-Star Pau Gasol. He’s shown plenty of promise, despite not receiving many minutes under Mike D, but the Lakers’ offseason success depends heavily on the 2014 draft.
Who to Draft?
With the sixth-worst record in the Association, the Lakers will at least attain a high lottery pick at season’s end. The only question other than where in the first round they’ll be picking from is who the front office will peg as its guy.
Whether the Lakers go big via Julius Randle or Noah Vonleh or small by way of Marcus Smart or Dante Exum, there’s going to be talent on the board when L.A. is on the clock. One of those four aforementioned prospects, however, has already made it quite clear that L.A. is his destination of choice.
Exum, the promising young guard from Australia, said the following in February, 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 youngster is also working out in Los Angeles and attending Lakers games in the meantime, per the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Pincus:
Dante Exum is a Rob Pelinka client - he's preparing for the draft in LA & while I don't know if he's taken in a Clippers game - his 3rd LAL— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) March 26, 2014
Given that Bryant and Nash are each approaching retirement, it makes sense for the Lakers to reciprocate interest in Exum as heir to the starting backcourt. He wants to live in L.A. and learn under Kobe, so why not add him if he’s available?
Ultimately, the level of play from Bryant will dictate success regardless of whether the front office makes savvy moves in the draft and free agency. The Lakers need the Black Mamba to perform at an All-Star level, and I’m not sure he’s capable of doing so any longer.
Waiting to target big-name free agents in 2015 rather than 2014 may not sit well with Bryant, but it’s in the organization’s best long-term interest to keep plenty of options on the table.
The Lakers are facing adversity for the first time in years, but they always seem to find a way back to the "Promised Land."