Pushing 36, coming off a season during which he appeared in just six games and headlining a roster devoid of staying power, Bryant needs help—a star-studded supporting cast anchored with more than one proven player who can help him salvage what's left of his career.
And it's the Los Angeles Lakers' job to give him those players.
Are those players Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol? And if so, are they enough to rescue Los Angeles from the depths of the lottery in time to bring Bryant within reach of his legacy-cushioning sixth championship?
Making the Necessary Assumptions
Part of finding out whether this trio is title worthy lies in our understanding of what it will take for them to join forces.
Summer 2015 gradually became the Lakers' bread and butter. They would chase down and sign impact free agents then instead of now. Players like LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Anthony were long shots. Waiting another year was the smart play.
But there has been a stark shift in the mentality recently. There is no longer a need for the Lakers to sit tight and bide their time. The time to strike, to maximize Bryant's remaining two years, is now.
"We're prepared," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said, via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "If any of those players do want to make a move, we're prepared. And if we get word, when we're allowed to get word, we will go all out."
And go all out they will.
Or rather, have to.
The Lakers have to clear enough cap space for Anthony before going after him. He can earn more than $22.4 million next season, a price the Lakers can pay—as yours truly calculated earlier—if they only retain Bryant, Steve Nash, Ryan Kelly, Julius Randle, Kendall Marshall, Robert Sacre and second-round pick Jordan Clarkson.
After creating the necessary cap space, the Lakers then need to hope that Anthony wants to play for them. Marc Stein of ESPN.com says he's expected to meet with them, but his trip to Hollywood will come on the heels of lavish sales pitches delivered by the Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets.
Cited as one of Anthony's preferred landing spots—along with Houston, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski—Chicago has already pitched the seven-time All-Star on relocating, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson.
Whatever the Bulls and Rockets are promising Anthony, the Lakers have to sell him on something better. They'll look to use Gasol in addition to Bryant there, per McMenamin:
Has Pau Gasol already played his last game for the Los Angeles Lakers? Not if the Lakers' brass has its way...
...In fact, should it appear that James and Anthony are not pursuing a mutual destination as a package deal -- especially with Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh opting out of their deals with the Miami Heat -- the Lakers believe that having Gasol back on the team could be vital in their solo pursuit of Anthony.
Here come the pay cuts.
Anything the Lakers offer Gasol eats into the money they can give Anthony. The former earned nearly $19.3 million last season, and he's due for a pay cut. But the Lakers will need him to accept something well below market value if their offer to Anthony is to remain somewhat respectable.
Kupchak does have the option of using Randle as a buffer to dump Nash's contract. Moving those two would open up even more cap space and allow the Lakers to hand Anthony and Gasol something close to what their worth.
No matter how it's done, sacrifices must be made. Anthony and Gasol need to accept pay cuts or the Lakers must deplete their supporting ranks even further, or some combination of both.
This triumvirate isn't formed any other way.
When making so many sacrifices and adjustments, you want to be assured of a viable return. That's a championship core in this case.
Anthony, Gasol and Bryant aren't what you would call the ideal troika. Gasol works alongside any perimeter scorers. His passing acumen and ability to space the floor are ineffective only when he plays next to limited big men or is asked to shoot three-pointers on the regular (looking at you Mike D'Antoni).
The Anthony-Bryant factor is of more concern here. Two-ball dominant scorers aren't picture-perfect partners. Not unless both of them can play off the ball for stretches at a time.
Neither Anthony nor Bryant is accustomed to using off-ball movement as a primary weapon. More than 46 percent of Anthony's offensive possessions last season came within isolations and post-ups, per Syngery Sports. Back in 2012-13, when Bryant appeared in 78 regular-season games, more than 62 percent of his offensive touches came within post-ups and isolations or as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
To Anthony's credit, he did shoot 44.2 percent on spot-up three-pointers. Bryant had no such success in 2012-13, though, drilling only 32.7 percent of his. Can either one of them cede ball-handling duties to the other while functioning properly on offense?
Age enters the fold once you move beyond playing styles.
All three members of Los Angeles' Big Three would be on the wrong side of 30. Gasol has been battling injuries over the last two seasons, and Bryant hasn't been at full strength since April 2013.
Anthony's brand of basketball doesn't figure to age well either. He attacks the rim and barrels into opponents with reckless abandon, an admirable trait that regresses into foolishness when you hit a certain age.
It was also Anthony who admitted in November that Bryant's health would be a deterrent as the Lakers try to rebuild through free agency.
"I mean you'll have to see," he said, via USA Today's Sam Amick. "It's hard to gauge at this point, not until he comes back (from his April Achilles tendon tear) and figures some things out."
Nothing was figured out upon return. Bryant's time in the lineup lasted all of six games. It wasn't enough time for the Lakers or prospective free agents to learn much of anything—except that there are still things to figure out in Los Angeles.
Enough to Move Forward?
Perfect formations don't exist.
The Lakers are up against a number of different obstacles, the most prominent of which is Bryant. He doesn't have time to wait around, to rebuild in the conventional sense.
Telling him to wait one more season is even too much. You're essentially removing one year from a two-year window and hedging your bets on future free agents you don't have.
Acting now is attractive, if only for its immediacy. Anthony and Gasol are equally appealing for their familiarity with Bryant—Gasol as a teammate, Anthony as a friend—and their reputations. They add instant star power to a Lakers team suddenly with very little.
Yet star power isn't always enough. It wasn't enough for the Heat in this year's Finals, and it won't be enough for the Lakers next season. They need talented role players surrounding their stars. That's the only way superteams will work nowadays.
Los Angeles won't have that flexibility. Not after signing Anthony and Gasol—assuming they can—and especially not after Bryant's two-year, $48.5 million extension, as NBC Sports' Brett Pollakoff shortly after it was signed:
The problem isn’t that Bryant doesn’t deserve every penny. It’s that at this stage of his career, he may no longer be capable of being the best player on a championship-caliber team, and the money tied up in his salary will limit the options the franchise has in surrounding him with enough talent to once again contend for a title.
Championship squads aren't founded upon shallow, aging rotations. Teams need to have one or the other at the very least. This version of the Lakers would have neither.
Even the most ideal picture has them moving forward with a core of Bryant, Anthony, Gasol, Nash and Randle. Not only is that picture beyond unlikely and nigh impossible to actualize, it's nowhere near good enough.
There are various scenarios in which the Lakers reopen Bryant's championship window between now and summer 2016 when his contract expires.
Pairing him with Anthony and Gasol isn't one of them.
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