In the minds of diehard Los Angeles Lakers fans, there exists a perfect world where superstar free agents like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony happily sign to play for the purple and gold next season.
And then there is reality: that of a decimated franchise anxious for a return to glory but at least two to three years away from making that happen.
In a perfect universe, the Lakers somehow persuade James to opt out of his contract in Miami to come play with Kobe Bryant in L.A. Or, convince the Phoenix Suns to let go of their superb young point guard Eric Bledsoe.
The Suns will likely match any big offer for Bledsoe, a restricted free agent.
Signing Anthony to a long-term contract might make Kobe Bryant happy, but it wouldn't fill the gaping holes the Lakers face on the defensive side of the ball. Anthony is likely to opt out this summer and has told sources he would like the "Dwight Howard treatment," per the Sporting News, of having interested suitors come to him with their best offers.
The Lakers may be one of the teams Anthony is considering, though it wouldn't appear to fit with the team's long-range plans of rebuilding through youth and athleticism.
While much is up in the air with a new coach to hire and a first-round pick to select, the Lakers seem likely to save their big dollars for 2015 when such highly desirable talent such as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol become available.
With about $27 million of cap space this summer, the Lakers can afford to go after a one or two star position players that could help transform them from a doormat into a playoff team. They may not be able to sign every player they covet this summer but should and probably will make the attempt.
Byron Scott, a leading candidate for the head coaching position, told ESPN Radio's Max Kellerman and Marcellus Wiley (via Eric Pincus at L.A. Times) that management is taking the correct approach to rebuilding.
There's a lot of holes to fill but, unlike a lot of people that think this is a three- or four-year process, I really don't think so. Mitch (Kupchak) has done a fantastic job. I think Jim (Buss) really has a good idea where they want to go and what direction they want to head in. I don't think it's going to take three or four years. I think it might take a couple of years at most.
Let's play next year and suck again? Absolutely not. It's my job to go out on the court and perform. No excuses. Gotta get this. It's the same with the front office. The same expectations the front office has of me when I'm on the court, I have the same expectations of them. You've got to figure out a way to do both.
Despite Bryant's insistence that management somehow assemble a championship caliber team now, the general feeling coming from management is that the Lakers hierarchy wants to create a winning atmosphere as soon as possible while building for the future.
Only Bryant, Steve Nash and center Robert Sacre have guaranteed contracts, so the team must fill 12 roster spots. Their wish list of free agents could quickly change over the next few weeks, as a new coach and a No. 7 pick in the upcoming NBA draft June 26 will help determine that direction.
For this summer, expect the Lakers to seek competitive position players but with an eye toward next year's bigger prizes. A realistic wish list of potential free-agent signings for the Lakers might include:
Darren Collison, Los Angeles Clippers, Point Guard
If the Lakers don't take Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart in the draft next month, they may set their sights on the 26-year-old Collison. A former No. 1 pick in 2009, Collison has been a starter at times and would stand a better chance with the Lakers than Clippers, where he backs up Chris Paul.
Collision is a safe bet and a good one. His player option with the Clippers would pay him $1.985 million next season, per Spotrac. The Lakers could easily go higher than that and, in the process, give young Kendall Marshall another year to learn under veteran Steve Nash.
In five NBA seasons, Collison has averaged 12 points and five assists in 29 minutes per game, while shooting a respectable 46 percent from the floor and 37 percent from long distance.
Signing Collison could leave Jordan Farmar expendable. Another former UCLA standout, Farmar earned $1.1 million, per Spotrac, with the Lakers last season and was playing at a high level when not injured. Farmar averaged 10 points and five assists in 41 games, shooting 44 percent from three-point range.
Another free agent, Farmar will look look to at least double his salary this summer, though he has indicated a desire to stay local and remain a Laker.
Nick Young, L.A. Lakers, Small Forward/Shooting Guard - Sixth Man
The Lakers would certainly love to re-sign Swaggy P, who has intimated he will test the open market but not turn his back on a possible return to Los Angeles, via L.A. Daily News reporter Mark Medina:
I think we’ll come to some kind of agreement. Hopefully it happens. We’ll have to see what they’re going to do.
Young was a crowd favorite at Staples Center, providing a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dismal season. He was the team's leading scorer, averaging 17.9 points in just 28 minutes off the bench. He hit on 39 percent of his attempts from long distance and was brilliant at creating the four-point play.
Young would play an integral role again as the sixth man if he'll agree to stay in L.A.
With one eye toward next year's free-agent bonanza and another on the desire to win now, the Lakers could substantially help their playoff chances by signing Luol Deng. The 6'8" small forward rejected a three-year, $30 million extension offer from the Chicago Bulls, who then traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Deng is an unrestricted free agent and, at age 29, is in the prime of his career. He's likely to command anywhere from $10-13 million per season with his next club and all signs point to the Lakers as being among the teams he is considering.
According to Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders, Deng could wind up in either Phoenix or Los Angeles, with the Suns having a slight advantage. If Phoenix lands him, the Lakers may opt to sign the guy he would replace in Arizona, P.J. Tucker.
Writes Brigham on Deng's next team:
I’m going to say L.A. or Phoenix, with a slight lean towards the Suns. P.J. Tucker was great for them, but Deng is undeniably an upgrade and the perfect guy to push them over the hump and into the playoffs next year. He’s a great locker room presences for some of those young guys, and he’d have a good coach in Jeff Hornacek and a great training staff to help keep him healthy. Feels like a great fit to me. Lakers, less so, but they’ll have the money, the history, and the good weather to push on him. Guys have signed with teams for much worse reasons than that!
Deng has averaged 16 points, six rebounds and three assists during his 10-year career, primarily with the Chicago Bulls. He was averaging 19 points in 23 games with Chicago before being traded to the Cavs in January.
Jodie Meeks, Shooting Guard, Los Angeles Lakers
Easily the most improved Laker last season was Jodie Meeks. With Kobe Bryant sidelined most of the year, Meeks pounced on his opportunity and made the most of it.
Meeks averaged 33 minutes and 15.7 points in 77 games for the Lakers, both career highs. Prior to last season, the 6'4" former Kentucky star had never averaged better than 44 percent from the field, so his 46 percent accuracy and 40 percent from long distance were high-water marks.
The 26-year-old Meeks will certainly receive free-agent interest from a number of teams as he seeks a significant pay raise above the $1.5 million he made last season.
He'll also be relegated to less minutes and come off the bench to spell the veteran Kobe Bryant.
Jordan Hill, Power Forward/Center, Los Angeles Lakers
Signing Jordan Hill this summer should be a top priority for the Lakers and their new coach, whoever that may be. Hill can flat-out play and is one of the few members of the team who excels on defense.
Hill would not come back to L.A. if Mike D'Antoni was still the Lakers coach, but that is a moot point.
The Lakers should offer the former No. 1 pick of the New York Knicks a three-year deal at about $4.5 million per season, up from the $3.6 million he made last season.
Hill is primarily a power forward but can easily move over to the center position. He does not need to be a starter and is great off the bench. A high-energy performer, Hill had his best year averaging 10 points and seven rebounds in just 21 minutes per game.
What's more, Hill is now a seasoned veteran but still young (27 in July).
Lance Stephenson, Shooting Guard, Indiana Pacers
Like Deng, this might be a long shot but definitely worth taking the risk.
The 6'5", 230-pound Stephenson will see an enormous pay hike wherever he plays next season. The 23-year-old, fourth-year pro had a breakthrough season and has been a force in the playoffs, both on offense and defense.
A former second-round pick out of Cincinnati, Stephenson would fit nicely into a long-term, rebuilding Lakers solution, but at a price that could easily reach $10-11 million a season. Stephenson made just $981,000 this year.
Stephenson improved at all facets of his game this year, averaging 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists while making 49 percent of his shots (35 percent from three-point range). He's upped his point total in the playoffs to 14.5 and continues to be a big-time defender.
Pau Gasol, Center, Los Angeles Lakers
Other than Greg Monroe, a restricted free agent, and the Washington Wizards' Marcin Gortat, there really aren't any centers the Lakers should consider this summer. That leaves center/forward hybrid Pau Gasol as the likely free-agent candidate.
Gasol is testing free agency for the first time in his career. While the almost 34-year-old may be on the downside of a Hall of Fame career, a healthy Gasol is still one of the league's most versatile big men.
Despite missing a quarter of the season to various nagging injuries, Gasol averaged 17.4 points, 10 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. His shooting percentage did drop to 48 percent, the second worst of his career, but Gasol appeared to get better as his health returned.
There are very few big men in the game with his offensive versatility. Signing Gasol to a much smaller contract would give L.A. a short-term solution at center while allowing them to further develop such young players as Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Jordan Hill and a possible big-man draft choice.
Gasol will receive interest from contending teams looking for that certain piece that will get them to the next level. Both the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies have been mentioned as possible landing spots for the 7-footer, per SI.com.
Gasol loves Los Angeles and playing with Bryant. He's already indicated a desire, per CBSSports.com, to come back if he feels the fit is a good one. Like Hill, Gasol would not even consider the Lakers if D'Antoni was still the coach come July.
With Bryant publicly declaring his basketball love for the 7-foot Spaniard, the Lakers could make Gasol an offer in the neighborhood of $6-7 million per year. But he'll first listen to what's out there in the free-agent market.
As one Eastern Conference executive told SI.com's Chris Mannix:
There are a couple thoughts out there on Pau. Some people say he is worn out, that he is too far past his prime to really help a contender. There are others that think that LA, that environment the past two season, that style of play has destroyed him and if he goes somewhere else, plays with a different coach, he might be rejuvenated. I could see someone who thinks the latter paying him $10 million a year.
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