Carmelo Anthony may seem an odd fit next to Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James could be no more than a long shot to come to the West Coast, but what options do the Los Angeles Lakers really have other than to at least try casting their lot with the NBA's best free agents?
As if doing so were a bad thing. If you have cap space and even a puncher's chance of landing Anthony or James, you'd be stupid not to try.
But there's more at stake in these pursuits for the Lakers than there might be for, say, the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns or even the Cleveland Cavaliers. Those organizations have actual teams already in place. They should still be in the mix for no less than a playoff spot without the addition of another star, though they'd all obviously benefit tremendously from the services of LeBron and/or 'Melo.
The Lakers have no such luxury. Heck, they barely have enough players right now to field a proper starting lineup, especially now that Jodie Meeks, Chris Kaman and Jordan Farmar have signed elsewhere. Kobe and Steve Nash are both coming off the most injury-riddled campaigns of their respective Hall of Fame careers; Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are unknown quantities as rookies; and Robert Sacre is, well, Robert Sacre.
(Randle, by the way, remains unsigned, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan.)
That threadbare roster puts all the more pressure on general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss to cobble together a team that can compete for a playoff spot in the crowded Western Conference. They've already sunk $48.5 million over two years into Bryant's broken-down, soon-to-be-36-year-old body. It would behoove the Lakers, then, to maximize the remainder of Bryant's career.
For what it's worth, L.A.'s brass likes what it's seen so far from Bryant as he works his way back from a season-ending knee injury. "He said he feels great," Kupchak told Dan Patrick just prior to the start of free agency (h/t Lakers Nation's Ryan Ward). "The times I've watched him work out in the last month, he looks great. He's not doing full-court stuff, which you don't do in June, but in terms of on the court, putting the ball down, making moves, taking shots, he looks great."
The Black Mamba isn't the only one driving the bus here, though. The Lakers have never been ones to throw in the towel on a given season before it's begun. They have a winning history to not only uphold, but update, now that the late Dr. Jerry Buss' children are in charge.
From a strictly business perspective, the Lakers can't afford to "tank." The Buss family derives its wealth not from other businesses, like most (if not all) of the NBA's other owners, but rather from the organization's own revenues.
Not that those revenues are hurting at all. According to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus, the Lakers were the most profitable team in the league this season by a wide margin.
Still, L.A. would have a hard time justifying its exorbitant ticket prices and TV-rights fees without putting a quality product on the court. Moreover, the Lakers wouldn't stand to benefit from another stinker of a season; their 2015 first-round pick is already betrothed to the Phoenix Suns as penance for Nash, with only top-five protection to potentially keep it in L.A. Otherwise, it might make more sense for the Lakers to bide their time by developing Randle into the franchise's next cornerstone.
Don't count on the Purple and Gold going the deep-tank route—not unless 2014-15 proves as organically disastrous as 2013-14 did. Such an outcome isn't out of the question, given the fragility that Bryant and Nash bring to the table and the uncertainty surrounding the Lakers' prospects in free agency.
In truth, the Lakers are far from screwed if they strike out on both James and Anthony in the days (weeks?) to come. They'd still have ample cap space to offer up to other top-tier free agents, including Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson and Trevor Ariza, to name a few. They might even be able to lure Pau Gasol back to L.A. on a short-term contract with a strong yearly salary, especially if the market for his services remains limited to contenders with mid-level exceptions.
It's possible, too, that the Lakers will use their cap space more strategically. As Grantland's Robert Mays proposed, the Lakers could sign-and-trade Gasol to, say, the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Carlos Boozer's expiring contract and a first-round pick in 2015.
At this point, the permutations are practically endless, but there are only two on which the Lakers would seem to be most focused. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, L.A. is firmly in the mix for 'Melo now, along with the New York Knicks and Bulls. ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard reported that the Lakers were one of a handful of teams that scored an audience with Rich Paul, James' agent, in Cleveland last week.
Landing LeBron in Purple and Gold would appear to be a long shot. He'd fit well with and vault just about any team into title contention, but his process isn't quite where Carmelo's is right now, and as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding suggested, that disparity in proximity has the Lakers' attention more closely trained on Anthony.
It's easy to imagine many of the knee-jerk reactions to a Kobe-'Melo pairing calling into question their ability to play together. Both sport well-established reputations as high-usage scorers who need the ball in their hands to be effective.
But context here, as always, is key. Anthony's never played on an NBA team wherein he wasn't the top dog in both name and game. Barring a miraculous comeback for Bryant, Anthony would be the Lakers' best player, but wouldn't have to be the face of the franchise. That's Kobe's job, and will be until he retires.
We've seen glimpses of what Anthony can do on the court when he doesn't have to be his team's be-all and end-all. During his time with Team USA in 2012, Anthony shot 53.5 percent from the field (50 percent from three) and averaged 16.3 points per game (including a 37-point performance) on the way to winning his second gold medal at the London Olympics. Anthony was but one in a stable full of superstars on that squad, with Bryant turning in his international swan song.
Bryant, for his part, is more malleable than most might give him credit for. As Kevin Ding put it:
Bear in mind that Bryant, at a time when he was just starting to learn what Jackson would teach him, showed he could facilitate for a championship team en route to Shaquille O'Neal's three consecutive NBA Finals MVP awards. The basketball cycle could come full circle if Bryant finishes as the high-profile setup man again—and it could even change the end point of his career.
In other words, never underestimate the flexibility of greatness.
Or the disappointment of falling short in pursuit of it. The Lakers losing out on Anthony and James would read like yet another slap in the face of the NBA's most famous franchise, after watching Dwight Howard walk away last summer.
On the other hand, the fact that the Lakers are even in the mix for this year's top free agents, after all the turmoil of the past three years, speaks to the enduring appeal of the organization. The cupboard is all but bare in L.A., especially when compared to those boasted by some of the other squads currently vying for Anthony and James.
Yet those two have, to varying degrees, shown interest in being a part of Kupchak and Buss' big plans, of wearing purple and gold, of getting the royal treatment that was granted to Bryant last season.
Missing on James and Anthony wouldn't qualify as any victory, especially for a franchise that's long been accustomed to winning. But there is value in contention, in showing the league's best players that the Lakers are alive and well.
In that respect, the Lakers aren't risking anything by going after these superstars. If anything, it'd be riskier for them not to try, to assume that they'll get someone next year.
Because, really, the Lakers wouldn't be the Lakers if they didn't try to make a splash, odds of success be damned.
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