The playoffs are meaningless for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers.
For Lakers Nation, it's all about the future.
This week we'll take a broad look at what the organization's strategy will be during the 2014 NBA free-agency period.
It's a three-pronged approach, beginning with the biggest and most obvious dilemma, which is...
Finding a Head Coach
The first and most important step for the Lakers to take is to find a replacement for Mike D'Antoni.
It's impossible to stress enough how vital it is to select the right man for the job.
Stability breeds a positive, winning culture.
Lakers fans know this because all the success brought to them by the brilliant cohesion of Phil Jackson, Mitch Kupchak and Dr. Jerry Buss is still fresh in their memories.
Two-thirds of that equation are gone, and the franchise has suffered because of it.
Though their last championship came just four years ago, L.A. is about to play under its fourth different head coach since that 2010 triumph.
They need to make sure that whomever they bring in can not only help during the rebuilding phase, but can grow with the team and be prepared to lead them back to glory when all the pieces are in place.
Choosing a new head coach is always a speculative exercise—even more so when the roster is in such a state of flux.
A key factor in the decision should be to find someone whose success won't hinge on the players fitting perfectly into his particular philosophy.
Rather, L.A. should target a boss capable of adapting his system to cater to the strengths of his charges.
The firing of Mark Jackson opens up an intriguing possibility.
He's already shown that he can lift a big-market team back to prominence, and his squad increased their raw win total every year.
Coincidentally, the Lakers' defense could use some work after ranking 28th in defensive efficiency this season.
His best attribute, though, may be the force of his personality.
Golden State's players loved their coach, and none of them wanted to see him go.
The Lakers know that having a coach your team—and especially your star players—actually wants to play for is kind of important, regardless of whether that person ends up being Jackson or not.
Dealing With Free Agents In-House
Before the Lakers can turn their attention bringing in new talent, they must decide what to do with their own impending free agents.
This comes first because those players all have cap holds that clutter up all of L.A.'s cap space until their fates have been decided.
Once the Lakers either re-sign them or renounce their rights, those holds disappear and the cap room comes back into play.
Gasol has a massive cap hold in excess of $20 million, which pretty much eats up all of L.A.'s precious cap space by itself.
Bird rights are a mechanism by which teams can offer their own players an extra year with more money and higher raises every season.
But since Gasol will definitely not be getting an extension and an increase in his annual salary, the Lakers can renounce his rights immediately to erase that hold and free up oodles of room on their books.
From there they can work with Gasol to bring him back on a cheaper contract or part ways with the Spaniard should one side or the other feel the need to walk away.
That process essentially repeats itself with every other free agent, though Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman are the only players with a cap hold even a tenth the size of Gasol's.
Decisions on some players—like Kaman or MarShon Brooks—will be quick and painless.
For others it will be harder. There are a lot of players worthy of being retained—Hill, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Kent Bazemore and Ryan Kelly come to mind— but surely not all of them will be kept.
Who is at the head of the list, and can they be brought back on a value budget?
If not, the Lakers may be forced to let them go and preserve that space for similar players who can be signed for cheaper on the open market.
The Lakers would be remiss to let Hill slip away.
He is one of the very best rebounders in the league—on both ends—and showed last season that his offensive game has developed nicely as well. Maybe the next coach will actually give him the minutes he deserves.
Nick Young's stellar scoring may place him out of L.A.'s desired price range.
As much fun as it is to have Swaggy P around, he's not a fundamental building block. You can get someone like him for cheap, as was borne out this year when the Lakers got tremendous value out of Young's cost-effective deal.
Much the same applies to Meeks, who could be a hot commodity after proving he could maintain a high efficiency even while carrying more of a load than he likely ever will again.
Contenders are always targeting extra shooters to fill out their wing rotations, and Meeks brings a little more to the table as well. Don't be surprised to see him wind up with a team like San Antonio, Oklahoma City or Miami for the taxpayer's mid-level next season a la Ray Allen or Marco Belinelli.
Farmar's injury issues will keep his value depressed, which should allow the Lakers to retain an excellent third guard—one who can be a competent starter in a pinch—at a team-friendly price.
Kelly's relative anonymity plus the fact that he will be a restricted free agent should make it easy for L.A. to bring him back.
If he signs a longer-term, low-cost deal, Kelly could provide more bang for the buck than any other stretch 4 in the league.
Henry and Bazemore have very similar games, so it may come down to one or the other for the Lakers.
Should that be the case, Henry is the guy with the higher ceiling, and his injury issues last year will keep his price tag reasonably low.
The keyword this offseason will be "patience."
Lakers fans expect a quick rebuild. After all, the franchise hasn't missed the postseason in back-to-back years since before Kobe Bryant was born.
But the truth of the matter is this roster is in shambles.
The onerous contracts attached to Bryant and Steve Nash really handcuff the Lakers. There isn't enough money to go after two max-level superstars—assuming there are even two available.
Carmelo Anthony is projected to be the big prize this offseason, but the Lakers should exercise caution in pursuing Melo.
A max deal for Anthony would eat up pretty much all of L.A.'s available cap room, meaning they would have to fill out the rest of the roster with bargain-bin pickups yet again.
Is it worth it to basically just swap Anthony for Gasol?
In a conference that is absolutely loaded it might not even be enough to get to the playoffs, even if Bryant comes back at something close to what he was in 2013.
It's certainly not enough to produce a contender, and the consequence would be erasing all financial flexibility until Bryant's contract is up. You definitely wouldn't be able to move Anthony if you sign him to a max deal.
The Lakers also need to avoid falling into the trap of overpaying for two second-tier guys of the Luol Deng/Kyle Lowry/Lance Stephenson/Marcin Gortat ilk.
There is little chance of getting value out of those guys, as their next four years will be less productive than their last four, which is going to set their market price.
Eric Bledsoe is almost as big a pipe dream as LeBron James at this point, and the goods aren't there to make a miraculous trade for Kevin Love the way L.A. snagged Gasol six years ago.
Again, the Lakers must be patient.
They have to try to collect assets that have the possibility of being leveraged into a bigger piece somewhere down the road, while also keeping their cap sheet as clean as possible so it's easy to make room for 2015 free agents like Love.
Los Angeles will likely stick to the same script it used last offseason, targeting value veterans who will sign a short-term deal in order to boost their value for one more payday and failed former first-round picks who may bloom late and turn into an unlikely trade chip.
It's not an exciting plan of action, but it's a necessary one for a franchise that is truly starting from the bottom for the first time in a long, long time.
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