The Los Angeles Lakers' long nightmare is over. After losing an unthinkable 55 games, they landed a sought-after prospect in the lottery, Kobe Bryant's body continues mending rapidly thanks to his mamba blood and team president Jeanie Buss still has a ton of championship trophies to display in her office for prospective free agents.
To be sure, the Lakers' status as a marquee franchise persists despite the clunker that was 2013-14. However, the team's future remains opaque. The roster has three players signed entering July's free-agency period, according to Spotrac: Kobe, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre. The position of head coach also remains wide-open, with the team seeming to leave that decision up to the best free agents around the league as a sweetener for committing to the Lake Show.
Among the plethora of question marks, two stand out as concrete: Will Pau Gasol return? And is the team that committed $48.5 million to a degrading Kobe really gunning to save $500,00 on their talented rookie forward? The remaining rumors around the team are awash with league-wide speculation over the destinations for the league's top free agents, but there's no denying L.A. remains an attractive place to play.
At times last season, Lakers fans spent more time pitying Gasol than actually rooting for the team. With the Lakers decimated by injuries, Gasol dutifully turned in another sparkling season, posting 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. All the while, the rest of the starting five looked more like a lineup at the Las Vegas Summer League.
Understandably, Gasol has turned his mind to the future, and he's contemplating the best place to pursue another championship after turning 34. The relaxed locales he frequents should encourage a tranquil mind for the decision-making process.
However, a storm brews back in L.A.
ESPN's Marc Stein counted three primary suitors for Gasol's services other than the Lakers, not including the potential of the New York Knicks pursuing Pau, contingent on Carmelo Anthony's choice for next year:
Competition for Pau, though, remains stacked. You've got Thunder/Spurs/Bulls still chasing PLUS Knicks or Lakers depending on who gets Melo— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 8, 2014
From Gasol's perspective, the decision appears simple: Go to a current contender with an established roster and an actual head coach. The San Antonio Spurs have been the best organization in basketball for a couple of decades. The Oklahoma City Thunder remain on the cusp of dominance in a very tough Western Conference. And the Chicago Bulls have everything they need to win a championship except an established scorer (and a healthy Derrick Rose).
However, never underestimate either the power of the Lakers' purple and gold or the persuasiveness of Kobe. If Gasol returns to L.A., that would give the Lakers some clarity and leverage as they fill out the rest of the roster.
According to Los Angeles Times writer Eric Pincus, the return of Pau would allow Bryant to court useful players around the league, including departed point guard Steve Blake and inconsistent swingman Caron Butler:
If Lakers do get Melo - and Pau - speculatively I could see Steve Blake and Caron Butler back with team - I hear Kobe recruiting both— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) July 8, 2014
However, such pieces would probably require another core All-Star, with Carmelo Anthony considered to be the primary potential addition.
Courting Melo, LeBron and Everyone Else
Despite speculation that Anthony would return to the Knicks sheerly on the basis of their ability to offer him an extra year on the contract and hence much more money, Melo has yet to render a decision on his future.
Vibe I get out of New York, meanwhile, is legitimate unease ... given that some in the organization expected a decision from Melo by Monday— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 8, 2014
As reported by the New York Daily News' Frank Isola on Monday: "According to a friend close to the Knicks’ All-Star forward, Anthony is still debating his next move, with the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls all regarded as the most likely landing spots."
Even if Chris Bosh prefers to stay with the Heat, if he accepts the four-year deal worth $88 million offered him by the Houston Rockets, which was reported by ESPN's Chris Broussard, it would drastically shake up the future of the Heat and the entire NBA.
LeBron could return to Cleveland, Melo could choose Chicago or they could both take their talents to Long Beach. Or an endless permutation of possibilities could also play out. What is certain is that the Lakers have plenty of wiggle room by virtue of having three players and no coach, and the possibility of landing Melo or even (gasp) LeBron remains feasible as long as Pau's decision is pending.
Kentucky's Julius Randle had been projected as a top-eight pick for months, and his skills around the rim positioned him as a possible pick at No. 4 or No. 5. However, in the weeks and days prior to the draft, it emerged that some teams were concerned about a foot injury he had previously sustained.
The Lakers did not share those concerns and drafted him seventh overall.
As Randle told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times about his foot during his only college season: "I didn't have any pain. It never really gave me any trouble last year whether it was in practice or in a game. It kind of caught me by surprise when that [injury] stuff came out."
However, now that the Lakers control the rights to Randle, they are in no rush to sign him. Kobe and Nash will command over $33 million next season, and with an entire roster to fill out, the Lakers have been thrust into an unfamiliar position of acting frugally.
According to Bresnahan, Randle waits in limbo while the organization determines how to construct the roster for next season:
The Lakers begin summer league Friday in Las Vegas, but Randle will not be on the court until he signs with them. The team is waiting because it can save about $500,000 if his signing is delayed, money that could be used toward free agents such as Anthony and Pau Gasol.
Randle remains unfazed, saying, "I'm ready to play whenever," as in, whenever the Lakers actually sign him to a contract.