Los Angeles Lakers future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant says he’s “100 percent” following an injury-riddled 2013-14 campaign, per an interview from Brazil where the Black Mamba is attending the World Cup (h/t Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver).
That’s great news if you’re a Lakers fan. However, even if Bryant returns to an All-Star-caliber level after playing a career-low six regular-season games, L.A. needs its 2-guard to maintain competitive performance beyond 2014-15.
Seeing Lakerland contend for yet another championship one year after finishing 27-55—its worst mark in more than half a century—isn’t realistic.
L.A. only has Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre on guaranteed contracts. It has to decide what to do with 11 players set to hit free agency, while also determining what man will replace Mike D’Antoni as head coach.
With all that uncertainty, merely climbing out of the Western Conference cellar is a good starting point as far as expectations are concerned.
Love him or hate him, Bryant makes the NBA a more captivating place when he’s on the court. He’s aiming to attain a sixth championship ring, and while the Lakers’ success is dependent upon his resurgence, Bryant’s health and wellness entering 2015-16 is a bigger subplot.
Lack of Immediate Options
The Lakers have no easy answers in terms of securing title contention during the 2014 offseason. Short of flying out of left field like a crazed streaker and inking LeBron James in free agency as a true dark-horse candidate, L.A. will be in a dogfight to nab a playoff seed.
At this juncture, the Western Conference is simply too loaded.
The 2014 champion San Antonio Spurs will be back—really, they never went away. Reigning MVP Kevin Durant will return to try to guide the Oklahoma City Thunder to a championship. Add all of 2014’s playoff teams in addition to the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets, and the Lakers are facing a proverbial Mt. Everest.
Returning to prominence is going to be very, very difficult.
The veteran Spaniard wrote on his personal website, “If there’s anything or anyone who could make me stay it’s Kobe Bryant. I’d stay for him, but there’d have to be significant changes,” (h/t the Los Angeles Daily News’ Mark Medina).
The four-time All-Star has shown continued loyalty to Purple and Gold but notes that “significant changes” need to be made. Replacing D’Antoni is the first step toward wooing Gasol, but management would have to promise more than an aging core of Bryant, Gasol and Nash.
Signing Deng as a complementary piece would be a step in the right direction, but is he the final piece to L.A.’s puzzle?
If Nash, Bryant and Gasol all morph into younger versions of themselves, then sure, they could compete for a ring with Deng on board. As it stands, though, the Lakers must reinvent themselves to put aging stars in positions to maximize their waning skills.
At this juncture, general manager Mitch Kupchak’s best bet may ultimately be to wait for 2015.
The 2015 Offseason
Last year, the Lakers front office put all of its eggs in the Dwight Howard basket and came up empty. The burly big man opted for greener pastures with the Houston Rockets, leaving Los Angeles upstream without a paddle.
Kupchak scrambled by signing a mishmash of guys on one-year deals—Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar, etc.—to compensate for the loss. Those guys played well in spurts, but their contributions to the overall product didn’t constitute many wins.
Could the Lakers bide their time by utilizing the same strategy again?
According to a report from the New York Post’s Marc Berman, L.A. isn’t interested in bringing New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony to California. Honestly, that would have been a long shot to begin with.
“The Lakers have cap space but sources maintain they aren’t too interested in Anthony as a fit with Kobe Bryant,” Berman writes. “Nor is Lakers president Jeanie Buss enthralled with stealing Anthony from (Phil) Jackson, her fiance.”
It appears as if the Lakers will be content keeping cap space as their trump card. For all of the “win-now” free agents, destinations like Miami, Chicago and Houston are far more favorable than Lakerland anyway.
That outlook can change a year from now if the Lakers’ future first-round pick shows promise.
Who knows, maybe someone like Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo or LaMarcus Aldridge will be interested in guiding Lakerland back to the Promised Land next summer.
But again, the most important variable is Bryant.
Last November, Bryant signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension to remain a Laker prior to playing a single regular-season minute.
The new deal was met with criticism from fans who felt Bryant should take a pay cut to put winning above personal financial gain. Considering that the Mamba hauled in $34 million through endorsement deals alone during 2013’s calendar year, per Forbes’ Kurt Badenhausen, the cynics certainly have firm ground to stand on.
Nevertheless, Bryant defended his new contract by saying the following, per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski:
Most of us have aspirations for being businessmen when our playing careers are over. But that starts now. You have to be able to wear both hats. You can’t sit up there and say, ‘Well I’m going to take substantially less because there’s public pressure, because all of a sudden, if you don’t take less, you don’t give a crap about winning.’ That’s total bull----.
The Lakers will never become a small-market franchise that needs to pinch pennies to survive. As a result, squabbling over Bryant’s contract may be a moot point.
Regardless, if he doesn’t live up to that contract and justify being the highest-paid player in basketball, the Lakers will suffer. Just look at the Heat’s 2014 NBA Finals performance with an ailing Dwyane Wade and subpar supporting cast.
For the next two seasons, Los Angeles will continue to depend on Bryant as its alpha dog, go-to option.
First and foremost, the soon-to-be 36-year-old has to ensure a healthy campaign. As Bleacher Report’s Matt Fitzgerald wrote, “Now it’s important for the ultra competitive Bryant not to push too hard in the offseason as he works back into basketball shape. The last thing he needs at this stage is a setback.”
His ability to play well will be huge in 2014-15, mostly because he needs to prove to future teammates that he’s still got it.
Living legend or not, Bryant won’t attract ring chasers unless he’s playing at optimum efficiency. Competing at an elite level will be important for No. 24 in the immediate future, but he has two years remaining on his contract.
That second year—2015-16—will be his best shot at going out on top.