If Not Kevin Love, Who Can Save the Los Angeles Lakers?

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If Not Kevin Love, Who Can Save the Los Angeles Lakers?
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Sorry to break it to you, Los Angeles Lakers fans, but if Kevin Love's desire to ditch the Minnesota Timberwolves lands him on the trading block this summer, he's not going to be wearing purple and gold any time soon. At present, the Lakers don't have the assets to satisfy the T-Wolves' demands, nor would they have much hope of competing for anything meaningful right away with Love in tow.

That doesn't mean, though, that the Lakers are necessarily screwed for the foreseeable future. Between their pick (seventh overall) in the 2014 NBA draft and the free agents due to hit the open market this offseason and next, their front office should have ample opportunity to find at least one more star to complement Kobe Bryant now and lead the franchise into the future once he retires.

 

Feeling a Draft

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That process will begin on June 26, when the Lakers will pluck what they hope will be a primo prospect out of a draft class that's long on them. It would require nothing short of a miracle for one of this year's top three talents (i.e., Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker) to fall into L.A.'s lap.

The same may be needed if the Lakers are to land Dante Exum, the teenage Australian sensation whose ties to the Lakers—he's been preparing for the draft in L.A. for the past few months, he and Kobe share an agent (Rob Pelinka) and he was spotted several times at Staples Center this season—are nothing if not obvious.

Beyond those four, though, the Lakers should have a shot at one of a handful of recent collegians who, while not surefire stars like the previous four mentioned, all come equipped with considerable upside nonetheless.

According to Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell, the team is set to evaluate a slew of high-profile potentials, including Indiana's Noah Vonleh, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and Arizona's Aaron Gordon.

There's always the possibility, too, that the Lakers will trade their choice at some point after the draft. Their 2015 first-rounder already belongs to the Phoenix Suns as penance for the Steve Nash trade, and NBA rules prohibit teams from dealing such plum picks of their own in consecutive years.

Still, that needn't entirely preclude the Lakers from restocking their nearly barren roster with more than one quality rookie. As it happens, the Suns could hypothetically be a viable post-draft partner for L.A.

Phoenix owns the 14th and 18th picks in this year's draft and could be in range to nab the likes of Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, Michigan's Nik Stauskas, Michigan State's Gary Harris, Kentucky's James Young, Creighton's Doug McDermott or UCLA's Zach LaVine.

Though, if LaVine's workout for the Lakers is any indication, they may have to snatch him up early if they want him at all, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.

In any case, the Lakers won't know if their new youngster will be their next savior for some time. Every new pro has to face some sort of learning curve, and those to whom the Lakers figure to have access will have relatively steep ones to climb. 

 

Free in '14

As such, it might behoove L.A. to peruse this summer's free agent market—if not for Bryant's eventual replacement, then for his next sidekick.

The pickings could be slim. It's tough to imagine LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh opting out of their current contracts and leaving the Miami Heat behind, especially if they round out their remarkable run with a three-peat in the coming weeks.

Carmelo Anthony hinted to TMZ that he won't be wearing purple and gold, and New York Knicks president Phil Jackson is trying to convince him to see through his existing deal rather than test free agency this summer.

Don't count on any of Bryant's long-time rivals—Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, among others—to join forces with the Black Mamba, either.

Instead, the Lakers could turn their attention to any number of solid second-tier options.

Luol Deng seems as good a bet as any to soak up some of L.A.'s cap space, assuming the Lakers are at all inclined to hand out big-money, multiyear deals in July. Deng's perimeter skills as a lockdown defender and competent offensive weapon make him an ideal fit alongside Bryant, even if his age (29) would make him less so in the context of a larger Lakers rebuild.

If it's a point guard the Lakers are after—and it just might be, after having Chris Paul snatched away in 2011 and losing Steve Nash to injury and old age since signing him in 2012—they could do much worse than Kyle Lowry. Like Bryant, Lowry is a native of Philadelphia, with a hypercompetitive mentality that makes him a nightmare on the court but can rub teammates and opponents alike the wrong way.

According to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, the Lakers inquired of the Toronto Raptors about acquiring Lowry, who enjoyed a banner year in 2013-14, but "the talks didn't go anywhere." Perhaps a face-to-face sitdown with Lowry and his representation would work better in L.A.'s favor. So, too, might getting him on the court next to the Mamba himself, as Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster noted:

Could Lowry work next to Kobe Bryant as the point guard in Mike D'Antoni's point guard-friendly offensive system? Absolutely. It wouldn't be a shock if he put up even bigger numbers than he is now, and he'd certainly improve the Lakers as a whole, especially since he's a bulldog of a defender. 

As is the case with Deng, though, Lowry might not fit an age profile commensurate with that of L.A.'s upcoming project. He turned 28 in late March, and his reputation for erratic play on the court and causing headaches off of it won't help him.

 

Can't Fool the Youth

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The Lakers could get all of those qualities (and more!) in a younger player and for a lower price if they pursue Lance Stephenson. For all of his antics both on and off the court, Stephenson, 23, is still a tantalizing talent whose youth portends significant improvement in the years to come, particularly under proper mentorship. Bryant, who was no stranger to hotheadedness in his younger days, might just be the right man for the job.

Whether Stephenson wants to leave the Indiana Pacers, or vice versa, is another story. As hesitant as Paul George was to praise Stephenson after Indy's six-game defeat in the Eastern Conference Finals, most of the Pacers' key dignitaries—including David West, Frank Vogel and Larry Bird—have since come out in support of his return.

And, well, Stephenson hasn't said anything to suggest that he wouldn't take them up on that offer. "I definitely want to be back," Stephenson said in defeat, via USA Today's Zak Keefer. "Right now I can't really, I'm not really focused on that right now. Right now I'm just showing love to my guys and showing how hard we worked.

"I wanna come back. I love Indiana."

Where, then, might the Lakers turn for support if "Born Ready" stays in the Hoosier State? Probably to restricted free agency, where they'll find the likes of Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Gordon Hayward on offer.

All indications are that the Suns will match whatever offer sheets Bledsoe fields this summer in order to keep the 24-year-old around for the foreseeable future.

The Utah Jazz haven't exactly given up on Hayward themselves. "Nope," said Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin when asked about finding a replacement for Hayward in the 2014 draft, via Deseret News' Jody Genessy. "That doesn’t come into our thinking because we think we’re going to have Gordon with us next year."

As for the Detroit Pistons, they don't seem at all eager to part ways with Monroe. "I love Greg Monroe," said Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy, via Pistons.com. "I liked him before. Now, as I get into more film work and look at things, I like him even more. Highly skilled, high-character young big guy. Those are very, very hard to find. But free agency, even restricted free agency, you can’t predict exactly what’s going to go on."

Van Gundy also praised Monroe for his work alongside Andre Drummond, Detroit's other young big man, calling the two "an ideal pairing"—on the offensive end, anyway.

Losing out on these guys might not be the worst thing for the Lakers, though. Sure, a noteworthy addition would be nice, and failing to land one wouldn't be the best reflection of the franchise's standing around the league. But none of this summer's likely free agents can realistically be considered anything close to a worthy heir to No. 24's throne in L.A.

 

'Cause When You're '15...

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The same can't be said of next summer's free-agent class. If Love doesn't move sometime between now and the league's trade deadline in February, he'll be available to sign come July of 2015.

Even if he's not, there won't be any shortage of All-Stars and franchise cornerstones in search of new deals. Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap will be out there. Goran Dragic, now an All-NBA performer, will have the option to join them, as will Brook Lopez, whose brother Robin will be on the lookout for another payday. Al Jefferson might be just as apt to exercise his own opt-out clause. 

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If the Lakers are in search of a defensive specialist at center by then, they could inquire about Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler and/or Omer Asik. If they'd prefer to skew younger, the Lakers can only hope that the top draftees from 2011 (i.e., Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kenneth Faried, Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson) aren't granted extensions before they can become restricted free agents.

And if an established superstar is what they're after, the Lakers may well find James, Wade, Bosh and Anthony waiting in the wings, assuming some (if not all) of them stand pat through this summer.

By then, the Lakers could have a healthy Bryant, a more established lottery prospect and enough spare cash to fill a Brink's truck with which to attract any one of those big names. Losing out on Love, who was born in L.A. and spent a year at UCLA, could still hurt, but not nearly as badly if the Lakers stumble upon another star capable of filling the space he would've been presumed to occupy until recently. 

 

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