Such is the risk the Lakers run having roped their rebuild to free agency and their ability to recruit superstars like Kevin Love and Marc Gasol during summer 2015. This upcoming campaign is more of a makeshift respite from contention and towering expectations than anything else.
It is one last year of the Kobe Bryant Show. It is a chance to see what Carlos Boozer offers outside obscene paychecks, what Ed Davis can do with consistent playing time, what Jeremy Lin looks like trying to coexist alongside the Black Mamba.
Next year, however, is not a window into Los Angeles' long-term direction. The Lakers will offer but a desultory glimpse into their future.
That glimpse is, of course, rookie Julius Randle, the top-five talent who fell into the Lakers' lap at No. 7 overall in this year's draft. He is one of the few Lakers—Bryant included—who figure into their lasting plans and add actual purpose to a deliberately designed year-long placeholder.
The Short-Term Solutions
There are other players to watch, additional storylines to follow. But which current Lakers really factor into the distant future?
Watching Bryant will be entertaining, not to mention incredibly informative. The Lakers still need to see what he has left and what it will take to prop open his championship window one last time.
Steve Nash looked done last season. That the Lakers haven't used the stretch provision on him is somewhat miraculous, though financially prudent. Even if he parties like it's 2011-12 and he's in Phoenix, Nash is nothing more than a means to a money-managing end.
Boozer and Lin are basically two expiring pacts. Both could play so well they catch the Lakers' eye next summer, but neither of them is a player the team will shell out a long-term, cap-constricting contract to.
Jordan Hill is trade fodder. The way his contract is structured, he's someone the Lakers can flip to match salaries in a bigger deal or, at best, a frontcourt body they allow to stick around for another year.
Makes a little more sense now: The Lakers hold a team option for the second year of Hill's two-year, $18-million deal. Each yr is $9 mill.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) July 11, 2014
Davis' development isn't meaningless, but his discounted deal is a joke. Either he ups his market value and leaves next summer, or he's so bad the Lakers wind up paying him virtually nothing through 2015-16.
Can't really think of any reason Ed Davis should get such a small contract. Great signing by the Lakers. Bizarre market.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) July 17, 2014
Xavier Henry falls into the same category. Ryan Kelly and Nick Young should both be around for more than another year, but they're complementary role players who will be tasked with helping the franchise cornerstone(s) usher in the next, post-Kobe era of Lakers basketball.
Who are those cornerstones? The Lakers don't quite know, because they aren't on the team yet.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Love and Gasol, among others, will all be free-agent targets in 2015, when the Lakers will look to reverse their fortunes and forge an insta-contender.
The arrivals of prospective targets far from guaranteed, there is only one in-house component who can manipulate the direction of Los Angeles' restoration project: Randle.
Top-seven draft picks aren't transactional silage outside Cleveland (our condolences go out to Andrew Wiggins). They are the selections deemed most suited for NBA stardom. They are possible cornerstones.
And the Lakers don't have to purchase or trade for Randle. They already have him. They signed him. He is on a rookie-scale contract that makes him more affordable than anyone the Lakers plan on chasing in the next year or two.
This is big, and, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, the Lakers know it:
Not only must Randle contribute immediately as a polished power forward for what figures to be a thin roster next season, he must lead the shift toward the Lakers' post-Kobe life.
Dwight Howard didn't want to follow that act, and it remains to be seen which elite free agent, probably in 2015, is willing to embrace that challenge: join Bryant and then basically replace him.
There isn't another current Laker you can say that about. Not one.
Passed torches have been linked to Love and Kevin Durant more than they have actual Lakers. The team even tried to endow its future to Dwight Howard via trade and free agency before now. Randle is something different, someone the Lakers don't have to wait on, only evaluate.
Watching him through four NBA Summer League appearances was a treat. Randle's conditioning needs work, and he's often out of control on offense and out of position on defense, but the aggression, the drive, the will—it's all there.
“I felt great,” he said of returning to five-on-five action for the time since April's NCAA national championship, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. “My wind was a lot better today. Physically I felt great in how I was moving and stuff. Just overall, how I was moving and the flow of the game, I felt pretty good.”
Active. That's the only way to describe Randle's summer league efforts. He worked diligently in the post, frequently fought for rebounds and even showcased his understated passing abilities. He closed out his summer league stint averaging 12.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
And the Lakers were, naturally, impressed by his energy, according to the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan:
Just wait until he’s in shape, they say. And has a chance to study the offense. And settles in the city of Los Angeles.
Because of minor concerns about his right foot, which ended up not needing follow-up surgery from a procedure done while he was in high school, Randle barely even played two-on-two when the Lakers worked him out last month. He primarily went one-on-one against assistant coaches Mark Madsen or Larry Lewis.
It was … feisty. It was the first thing Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak mentioned when the team formally introduced Randle a few days after drafting him.
All of which means little. The summer league isn't a time for making ironclad assumptions or forming career-careening opinions. It's summer league. Defense is optional. Participants are either inexperienced or fighting for their NBA lives, or both.
Regular-season action is the true test—a chance for the Lakers to see who Randle is, who he can become and, more importantly, where he can take them beyond this season, next season and the one after that.
Someone for Tomorrow, Not Just Today
What could be more important to the Lakers than evaluating their only legitimate building block?
If they had landed a big fish in free agency or acquired enough assets to complete a blockbuster trade, there would have been other futures to project or perhaps a contending team to watch. Right now, there is only Randle.
See how much basketball Bryant has left him in him, how he shapes the Lakers' plans over the next two summers. Look at Boozer and Lin in hopes of understanding whether Los Angeles is more than a one-year layover.
Pay attention to Swaggy P, Jordan Clarkson, Hill, Kelly or Davis. Find out if there's a diamond in the rough there.
Who is the Lakers' most pivotal player next season?
The message, though, doesn't change: Hurry up and wait.
Wait to see what Bryant's 2014-15 means for the Lakers' 2015-16. Wait to see if their free-agency ambitions come to fruition.
Wait for hints, for insight into what comes next.
Outside of Randle, that's all there is: waiting. Wait, wait, wait. Because of him, there is something more for the Lakers to do: look.
Look to the future. See what could await. Find future certainty in the one available source—Randle, the lone peek into the Lakers' long-term direction, the only one on their roster who can shed clarity on a future concealed by darkness, what-ifs and hopefullys.