In the wake of Mike D'Antoni's departure, the Los Angeles Lakers have even more work to do.
This was always going to be a pivotal offseason for the reeling Lakers. It would shape the immediate direction of this team while gauging how quickly they can successfully rebuild.
That hasn't changed. D'Antoni's resignation, which was announced in an official team release, has only increased the importance of this summer. With him gone, the Lakers' imminent future is tethered to one person: Kobe Bryant. He is the only immovable part in this entire process. Everything and everyone else can be removed, exchanged or abandoned entirely.
To that end, the Lakers are working with a (near-)blank slate. D'Antoni was the last of their urgent loose ends.
But one form of uncertainty is now replaced by another.
And another still.
Head Coaching Search
Installing a new head coach was always going to be part of the Lakers rebuild, even before D'Antoni resigned. It was only a matter time.
Magic Mike's future was enveloped in doubt from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles. The reasoning was simple: He wasn't Phil Jackson. The Lakers' decision to hire him over the Zen Master was never fully embraced, and D'Antoni was never completely accepted.
From the moment he assumed control, he was viewed as a stopgap, a detour on the way to something and someone better. His offensive style clashed with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, his relationship with Bryant was confusing and Steve Nash—the pride and joy of D'Antoni's offense in Phoenix—began succumbing to Father Time.
Calls for D'Antoni's job didn't gain serious traction until this season, but the Lakers were destined to end up here, searching for a successor to their makeshift coaching fix.
And they cannot end up here again.
The list of candidates for this job is going to be long. Think Giannis Antetokounmpo, only longer.
Even after schlepping through the worst season in franchise history, the Lakers still have market and historical appeal. They're the Lakers. They contend. They win. Interest is bound to be high.
It's already high.
There's a good chance D'Antoni hasn't even cleared his office of all selfies and mustache closeups yet, and names are already being tossed around like Vortex footballs.
Former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins is showing interest, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears:
ex-NBA coach Lionel Hollins has interest in the Lakers head coach opening, a source said. Hollins coached Memphis to West Finals last season— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) May 1, 2014
Byron Scott, who most recently coached the Cleveland Cavaliers and won three titles with the Lakers as a player, has thrown his name into the fray as well, according to TWC SportsNet's Jaime Maggio:
SiriusXM's Ben Higgins says Steve Kerr, long considered a favorite for the New York Knicks' coaching vacancy, may enter the mix as well:
SOURCE: @SteveKerrTNT would be interested in speaking to the Lakers about their now vacant head coaching position.— Ben Higgins (@BenHigginsSD) May 1, 2014
Sources told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that the job holds "tremendous appeal" to current Oklahoma City Thunder reserve and former Laker Derek Fisher. CBS Sports' Ken Berger even mentions 2013 Coach of the Year George Karl as a candidate.
But madness breeds options.
The Lakers will have their pick of the available coaching litter. They can sift through options and conduct an extensive search knowing they won't be forced to settle for anyone less than who they want and need.
The issue is finding who they need. They cannot afford to employ another provisional coach who might not make it two years. Their next coach must be someone they plan on moving forward with, someone who appeases Bryant while acting as a pillar of stability for everyone else, someone, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding explains, who typifies what the Lakers wish to stand for:
The next Lakers coach has to have true confidence. He needs a charisma that inspires players and disarms reporters. If you can handle egos in the inner circle and questions from reporters, you gain control of the message that reaches the fans, and you win them over via those players and the media.
The message everyone needs now?
This really will be OK because I am here to make everything better. Trust me.
Finding the perfect coach won't be easy. It never is.
Will D'Antoni's ideal replacement emerge from the index of names already taking center stage? Or will a dark-horse candidate meet their needs more than anyone else?
Rather quickly, the Lakers must find out.
Winning the Draft
Just because the Lakers are unlikely to win the draft lottery doesn't mean they cannot win the draft.
Although their eventual pick will be determined by position and how the draft unfolds, picking smart is imperative. The Lakers have been linked most heavily to Australian guard Dante Exum, according to ESPN's Chad Ford. But even if he's not available or they opt to select someone else, they need to make this pick worthwhile.
This past season cannot be for naught. Something good needs to come from it.
That would usually mean the Lakers select a building block and future star, someone who can help usher them into the post-Bryant era without sacrificing hope or damaging optimism. But the Lakers aren't your usual team.
Picking smart can most definitely be about the future and their attempt to develop a "homegrown" star. Or it could be about drafting for assets.
General manager Mitch Kupchak previously indicated the Lakers would be open to trading who they select under the right circumstances, per Lakers Nation's Serena Winters:
Kupchak says there is a possibility they could trade the pick. Says there's not much convo going on right now— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) April 18, 2014
The right circumstances, of course, are any deals that land them another franchise star. That star could be Kevin Love, it could be someone else. It doesn't matter.
Whatever the Lakers decide to do, they must do it right. They must use their first-rounder wisely.
Pick a Summer
Pick a summer, Los Angeles. Any summer.
Well, not any summer.
Pick summer 2015, and go with it.
According to ShamSports.com, the Lakers will be armed with $20 million-plus of cap space to burn this summer. That's enough money for them to chase (pretty much) any superstar free agent they want. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, LeBron James—anyone.
Tempting as a spending binge may be, the Lakers are better off remaining patient. Waiting won't be easy—much like their coaching search—with Bryant. "Patience" is one of the very few things not in his off-court repertoire. He wants to win now and the Lakers have nearly 50 million reasons to meet his demands.
But the quick turnaround Bryant seeks doesn't exist. There isn't a fortunes-reversing superstar ready to leave the comfort of their current home for Los Angeles and a 35-going-on-36-year-old Black Mamba.
Miami Heat owner Micky Arison has already said he's "100 percent" certain the team's Big Three will remain intact, according to The Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser. No surprises there. The idea that LeBron James would spurn the Heat—who are still chasing a third straight NBA title—to help drum up Bryant's ring count reeks of shallow, rinky-dink thinking.
After missing the playoffs for the first time of his career, Anthony could be prepared to leave the New York Knicks for more championship-ready pastures. Does Los Angeles qualify as "more championship-ready pastures?"
That depends. Are we talking about the Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers?
If the Lakers sign Anthony, they would have very little room to fill out the rest of their roster, leaving them with two ball-dominant superstars on the wrong side of 30, one of whom will be on the less flattering side of 35 by next season.
And that's it. There are no other real stars available. The Lakers can look at Luol Deng and Kyle Lowry, among others, but signing those types of players doesn't spearhead the kind of instantaneous turnaround they're thought to want.
Committing to 2015 makes more sense. James, Bosh, Love, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol and so many others could all become available, increasing the likelihood of Los Angeles striking it big in free agency.
Conserve, Conserve, Conserve
So much for an exciting summer and subsequent renaissance.
In the interest of waiting for 2015, the Lakers' primary job becomes preserving their financial plasticity, which—broken-record style—isn't going to be easy. Slogging through last season hurt. It hurt the fans, it hurt the players, it cut to the core of Bryant's win-now-or-die-trying morality.
But rebuilding is a process. Any way it's done takes time. The Lakers have the means to purchase a contender, but necessary talent isn't available. Not right now.
"Our goal is not to go 41-41," Kupchak told USA Today's Sam Amick of next season in April. "That's not our goal. Our goal is to be considerably better than that. And maybe we can do it in a year, or maybe it takes two or three years, OK?"
True to his word, Kupchak, along with the Buss family, must do this right. Parting ways with D'Antoni was the first of many steps. A new beginning starts now, but closure and satisfaction will not be achieved overnight.
When will the Lakers contend for a title again?
Instead of spending freely and placing championship stake in next season, they must now show restraint. Again.
Keep Nash. Allow his $9.7 million contract to come off the books next summer.
Show no loyalty. If Gasol and Nick Young are after multiyear deals that significantly dip into next summer's cap space, cut them loose.
Sign players to one-year deals.
Embrace the prospect of evaluating talent such as Kendall Marshall and Kent Bazemore for at least another season.
See what Bryant has left. Find out what he can be counted on for moving into 2015-16.
Pursue trades on the condition they don't add long-term salary.
If a blockbuster, star-nabbing deal is out there, explore it. Settle for another year of mediocrity and potential losing if it's not.
That's the realistic play.
The smart play.
The only play.
*Salary information via ShamSports.com.