The latest edition in the long-running Clash of Coasts featured more than its fair share of tragedy, albeit without the developments that claimed the lives of legendary rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in the 1990s.
The only casualties this time around? The New York Knicks' fading playoff hopes and fleeting professional pride and, to a lesser extent, the Los Angeles Lakers' "pursuit" of a prime pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Even after that 127-96 bloodbath at the Staples Center on Tuesday night, the Knicks are clearly in a better spot right now than the Lakers, albeit not dramatically so. Unlike L.A., New York has yet to be eliminated from postseason contention. Three games stand between the Knicks and the similarly sloppy Atlanta Hawks in the race for the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference.
Realistically, though, the Knicks figure to spend as much time watching the 2014 playoffs from home as the Lakers will. The disparity in the length and strength of remaining schedules between New York and Atlanta doesn't bode well for the Knickerbockers' postseason aspirations.
And, if we're being honest, neither does the gap in team-building assets bode well for the Knicks in the race to return to the top of the Association between fiancees Phil Jackson in the Big Apple and Jeanie Buss in Tinseltown.
Winning Now in New York
In the immediate term, though, the Knicks are a safer bet to return to the playoffs in 2015 than are the Lakers.
Say what you will about New York's cap-clogging front court, but at least the Knicks have some quality players under contract beyond this season. Tyson Chandler, a defense-anchoring double-double machine, and Amar'e Stoudemire, who's averaged 17.6 points and 6.1 rebounds over his last 10 games (all starts), are still no worse than serviceable in the right system and under the right coach.
The same could be said of Andrea Bargnani, who's never enjoyed the complete backing of a competent organization, and J.R. Smith, who shined as the league's Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13 but was derailed this season by summer knee surgery, off-court distractions and the same coaching chaos that's engulfed the locker room en masse.
Raymond Felton may be a lost cause, and Pablo Prigioni, who turns 37 in May, is probably too old to run the point full-time. But the Knicks can count on a pair of promising youngsters, in Iman Shumpert and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., to cover a measure of the team's ball-handling duties, in addition to the perimeter defense and scoring of which those two have already proven capable.
If the Zen Master's mega-million-dollar pitch is enough to convince Carmelo Anthony to stick around his hometown for the next five years come July, the Knicks will have in place a foundation of talent that, while expensive and utterly disappointing this season, could be good enough to compete for one of the top eight spots in the East in 2014-15.
This group isn't all that different from the one that won 54 games and claimed the No. 2 seed in 2012-13. An early rash of injuries, combined with a sudden shift in the front office's power structure prior to the current campaign, threw the team into a tailspin, during which Mike Woodson proved inept as a stabilizing pilot.
And yet, despite all the drama (manufactured and otherwise), these Knicks managed to string together winning streaks of five, four and, most recently, eight games. Their playoff hopes are dim, but they aren't dead.
So no, the sky isn't falling at Madison Square Garden. It's just a bit cloudy at the moment, and could clear up somewhat next season with a steadier, Jackson-led organizational structure in place and some minimum-salary additions to flesh out the depth chart. Throw in the likely regression of the rival Brooklyn Nets, who could lose Kevin Garnett to retirement and Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko to free agency, and there may yet be a spot in the postseason that'll be ripe for New York's plucking in a year's time.
L.A.'s Rocky Road
That's a cinch compared to what the Lakers will be up against, and not just within the organization.
The West figures to be as loaded as ever next season. The top-eight could remain unchanged if Tim Duncan puts off retirement for another year and Zach Randolph opts into the final year of his deal with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets all look like locks to return to the ranks of title contenders, with the Rockets potentially on the prowl for another key piece (Carmelo Anthony, perhaps?) this summer.
The Portland Trail Blazers' young, talented group sports ample upside for internal growth, as does that of the Golden State Warriors. The Dallas Mavericks will be in the mix so long as Dirk Nowitzki is healthy and performing at a high level.
Even the outskirts of the Western Conference playoff picture could be packed, with the surprising Phoenix Suns, the desperate Minnesota Timberwolves and healthier squads for the New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets all jockeying for position.
That doesn't leave much room for the Lakers, whose roster may be barren if it doesn't closely resemble this year's lackluster edition.
At present, L.A. has just three players signed to guaranteed contracts for 2014-15. One, Kobe Bryant, will be 36 when that season starts, and will be coming off a campaign in which he played just six games due first to recovery from Achilles surgery and then to a fracture in his left knee.
He'll also be the NBA's most handsomely paid player, with a cap-crushing salary of $23.5 million.
Another, Steve Nash, has been in and out of the lineup all season while battling nerve irritation in his lower back and left leg. At the age of 40, he doesn't figure to be any less delicate going forward.
The third, Robert Sacre, is a serviceable big man who's best suited to spot duty off the bench.
Those three hardly constitute the core of a competitive club. They wouldn't look much better surrounded by the same supporting cast that Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss cobbled together prior to and over the course of the 2013-14 season. Kendall Marshall, a former D-Leaguer; Kent Bazemore, a renowned bench celebration artist; and Ryan Kelly, an intriguing rookie, could all return if the Lakers choose to keep them around. Nick Young is the only other current Laker with any kind of contract for next season, but he may well opt out to seek more wins (and more money) elsewhere.
Aside from that group, Kupchak and Buss will be left to sort through potential mid-level earners (i.e. Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks) and bargain-bin finds (i.e. Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, MarShon Brooks, Xavier Henry) before hitting the open market for help.
Farmar makes sense as an insurance policy for Nash at the point, though his own hamstring problems haven't rendered him all that reliable this season. Johnson and Henry have shown intriguing potential as athletic, rangy wings with streaky jump shots. Hill and Meeks may be too expensive for L.A.'s tastes, especially if the front office is as keen to preserve flexibility for the summer of 2015 as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding recently suggested it is.
Who the Lakers peg to occupy the frontline could come down to whether or not Mike D'Antoni is still employed by the team after this season. According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, Pau Gasol might not be keen to stay in L.A. if doing so means playing for a coach with whom he's so often butted heads over the last year-and-a-half. Chris Kaman is almost certainly a goner, if his comments about not having spoken to D'Antoni in three weeks are any indication.
Then again, that might not be a problem if Bryant has his way. According to Sporting News' Sean Deveney, the Mamba has "no interest" in playing for D'Antoni next season. Nash all but corroborated that report during an appearance on ESPN Radio, during which he told Colin Cowherd (via The Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina), "It’s not the perfect marriage."
But another coaching change wouldn't exactly provide the Lakers with the measure of stability on which winning teams tend to thrive. Instead, whatever rebuild the organization undergoes would have to begin first with the front office finding a new voice, and continue with said voice installing another new system with what's expected to be an entirely revamped roster.
Free Agent Frenzy
This isn't to say that the doom and gloom will loom over Lakerland for long, or that the Purple and Gold won't be restored before the Knicks find their shine again. If anything, the lack of impending commitments, when compared to New York's payroll of nearly $92 million for next season, gives L.A. a leg up over the long haul.
The Lakers could enter free agency in 2014 with upwards of $20 million in cap space, depending on where their pick winds up in the 2014 draft and which of their current players they end up keeping. That money won't likely be spent on any marquee free agents, in part because this year's crop doesn't figure to feature many, if any. L.A. could throw money at 'Melo, but would be hard-pressed to lure him away from his hometown, where Phil Jackson's cachet and James Dolan's cash could prove enticement enough.
Beyond Anthony, the Lakers could cast some of their lot with a second-tier All-Star like Luol Deng or try to sign a young stud like Lance Stephenson, Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward or Greg Monroe, to name a few. Of that group, all but Stephenson will be restricted free agents, though each player's incumbent team will have a clear advantage in keeping him around.
That doesn't mean L.A.'s cap space is bound to lie fallow. They can use it to facilitate trades in which they take on salary, be they summer deals or those that pop up around the annual February deadline. They may well do what the Dallas Mavericks did prior to the 2012-13 season: fill their cap sheet with short-term contracts and roll their financial flexibility into the following offseason, when the free-agent options will be better and more abundant.
That strategy didn't quite pan out for the Mavs. They swung and missed on Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, leaving them to single, steal and bunt their way around the bases with Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert last summer.
The class of 2015 should be far deeper than those Dallas previously tried to pick from. Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap and DeAndre Jordan will all be in the mix. Kevin Love can opt out of his contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves in time to join the party. So, too, can Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Goran Dragic, Eric Gordon and the Miami Heat's Big 3.
Granted, most of those players will probably stay put, as is usually the case with marquee free agents. But landing even one of them—particularly Love, who was born in L.A. and played his college ball at UCLA—would solidify the Lakers' prospects for success in 2015-16 and give the team a foundational piece around whom to build for the post-Kobe era.
Of course, the Lakers won't be alone in their pursuit of another superstar in 2015. The Knicks, too, figure to be flush with cap room by that time. The eight-figure salaries of Chandler, Stoudemire and Bargnani will all be off the books. Even if Anthony re-signs this summer for the full amount for which he's eligible, New York could have space enough to bring in another max-level free agent after the 2014-15 season, depending on how the front office plays its hand and how much the salary cap expands between now and then.
Feeling a Draft
Between Anthony's expected salary and Bryant's $25 million take for 2015-16, the Knicks and the Lakers will both be operating from a tough spot financially. Where L.A.'s advantage takes root is in what the rest of the roster might have to offer.
By July of 2015, the Lakers could have in place the makings of a team whose ceiling would clearly be championship-caliber with the addition of one more bona fide building block. Some lesser free agents this summer would help, as would a healthy, productive campaign from Bryant in 2014-15.
The biggest chip of all, though, will be whomever the Lakers land with their lottery pick in June.
If the season ended today and the lottery weren't a factor, L.A. would wind up in the No. 6 slot by virtue of its 24-46 record. The depths of the Lakers' despair should deepen before mid-April. Of their 12 remaining games, eight will come against (potential) playoff teams. The other four will take the Lakers on the road, where they've won just 11 times in 35 tries this season.
However poorly things turn out for them over the next three weeks, the Lakers can count on reaping a reward for their misery. The 2014 draft looks to be loaded with blue-chippers, from one-and-dones (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Noah Vonleh) to super sophs (Marcus Smart, Gary Harris) to international men of mystery (Dante Exum, Dario Saric).
Exum, in particular, seems like a strong fit for the Lakers. The Australian teen is represented by Kobe's agent, has been preparing for the draft in L.A. and has been spotted as a spectator at several Lakers games this season. According to Sporting News' Sean Deveney, Exum's proclivities sparked concern among league executives that he will force his way to the Lakers, just as Bryant did back in 1996.
Exum and a number of his 2014 draft classmates could develop into the NBA's next generation of superstars. Whichever one of them the Lakers land will have a full season to show off his skills for 2015's free agents, some of whom could find the idea of riding out their respective primes and chasing championships alongside an aging legend, in Bryant, and a rising star in L.A to be plenty palatable.
The Knicks will have no such luxury to show for their struggles this season. Their 2014 first-rounder belongs to the Denver Nuggets by way of the trade that brought Anthony to New York, and may be re-routed to the Orlando Magic depending on where it lands. They'll also send their own second-rounder to the Houston Rockets as a price paid for the acquisition of Marcus Camby in 2012.
Without any of their own picks in June, the Knicks will probably enter the 2015 offseason in much the same way the Lakers will step into the one upcoming: with an expensive, aging superstar (Anthony will be 31 by then); a point guard in rapid decline (Raymond Felton) and some youngsters (Hardaway, Shumpert) who, while talented, don't exactly grade out as franchise cornerstones.
Oh, and J.R. Smith and whatever he brings to the table.
A blank slate that's not, but neither does it look like all that pretty of a picture on paper. Whichever superstars the Knicks pursue in 2015 would have to be fine with spending some of their best years alongside a twilight-bound Anthony and without much upside elsewhere on the roster.
Down the Road
Fortunately for the Knicks, they'll have their own first-rounder in 2015 thanks to the NBA's Stepien rule, which stipulates that teams can't trade first-round picks in consecutive years. But if New York fields as competitive a club as it should next season, its selection will fall in the mid-to-late first round in a draft that's not expected to be as deep or as talented as this year's presumptive bonanza.
The Lakers, then, shouldn't feel too bad about their 2015 pick going to the Phoenix Suns as penance for Nash coming to town in 2012, so long as they land their budding superstar this summer and fight their way out of the high lottery thereafter.
Once the summer of 2016 rolls around, the Lakers will be back in the free-agent game, armed with cap space left over from Kobe's expiring contract and a solid roster with which to attract, say, Kevin Durant or Joakim Noah. The Knicks, on the other hand, will still have to work around Anthony's bloated salary if he does, indeed, stick around.
To be sure, these scenarios are all largely speculative. We don't know exactly which potential free agents with opt-out clauses will exercise them. We don't know where the first-round picks of the Lakers and the Knicks will land, much less who will be available for them to choose and which young talents they'll actually spring for. We don't know how much control James Dolan will end up ceding to Phil Jackson in New York, or how the Buss family drama will play out in L.A.
Heck, we don't even know if Kobe Bryant will be healthy enough to honor the entirety of his two-year extension, or if Carmelo Anthony will be a Knickerbocker next season.
What we do know, though, is that these two featured franchises will play major roles in reshaping the landscape of the NBA over the next few years.
And that their attempts to tilt the tables toward one coast or another could reinvigorate one of the league's oldest rivalries.
Which of the NBA's sleeping giants will rise again first? Tweet me your pick!
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