Viewed pessimistically, the Lakers' offseason can be seen as discouraging. They didn't sign Carmelo Anthony. They didn't sign LeBron James. They didn't spend their way to contention.
Absorbed optimistically, there's ample reason to applaud it. They didn't invest long-term money in underserving talent. They drafted Julius Randle. They acquired Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis for virtually nothing. They preserved financial flexibility for the Summer of (Kevin) Love.
Regardless of how the Lakers' offseason activity is looked at—cynically or enthusiastically—there have been victories, some bigger than others.
None, though, are bigger or more impressive than the Lakers' ability to assuage the still-tough-to-please Kobe Bryant.
A Tale of Two Vastly Different Visions
Winning him over was hardly a foregone conclusion. From the moment he signed his two-year, $48.5 million extension, there existed this sense of tacit discord between player and team.
Finally coming to terms with his own basketball mortality, anything less than contending for a championship during the life of his new deal was inexcusable, more so than normal.
"But I think we need to accelerate it a little bit for selfish reasons, because I want to win and I want to win next season," Bryant told ESPN's Darren Rovell in March during a "Sunday Conversation" segment for SportsCenter (via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin). "So, it's kind of getting them going now as opposed to two years from now."
There, on national television, Bryant issued a win-now mandate. That's what he did; that's what this was. He wasn't prepared to slog through another year of mediocrity or devote his final two years to playing for pride and pride alone.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, had something different in mind.
"Our goal is not to go 41-41," general manager Mitch Kupchak told USA Today's Sam Amick in April of the Lakers' plans next season. "That's not our goal. Our goal is to be considerably better than that. And maybe we can do it in a year, or maybe it takes two or three years, OK?"
The stage was set for disaster. This offseason stood to define a relationship that has spanned nearly two decades. Would the Lakers bend to Bryant's demands, or would the big picture win out for the first time?
Somehow the Lakers managed to juggle both Bryant and life without him.
Laying the Groundwork
Showing interest in the Bryant-endorsed Carmelo Anthony was the first step.
Offering him a max contract was a sign of respect for Bryant. It was, as Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb wrote, all about Bryant:
There just aren't enough basketballs to go around to keep both Bryant and Anthony happy. They both thrive on touches, and they both need teams to themselves.
And yet, keeping Bryant happy would seemingly be the only reason for such an aggressive pursuit of Anthony.
Paradoxical, isn't it?
Babb isn't wrong. Not even a little bit. This max-contract offer came after months of chatter that posited the Lakers weren't interested in Anthony or spending big this summer. They would wait for 2015. They would wait for Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and others.
Abruptly shifting gears means the Lakers protect secrets better than most front offices—who, by the way, tend to leak intel like fourth-graders hopped up on Pop Rocks—or that Bryant's will won out over everything else.
Either way, it was a calculated gamble for the Lakers that came bearing no downside. At the end of everything, they would tell Bryant, "Look, we tried," or they would house two superstars. Life gets worse than that, even if Bryant and Anthony don't effectively complement one another.
Anthony remained with the New York Knicks in the end, leaving the Lakers with "Look, we tried." And they played that card well. They're still playing that card well.
After missing out on Anthony, they traded nothing for Lin's expiring deal and a future first-rounder, claimed Boozer off amnesty waivers for less than 20 percent of his actual salary and stole—absolutely stole—Davis.
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
Partner those moves with the returns of Nick Young, Ryan Kelly and Jordan Hill, and the Lakers pieced together an interesting roster without compromising their financial plasticity next summer or thereafter.
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
That, like Lakers Nation's Gary Kester reminds us, was the plan all along:
Outside of James and Anthony, the 2014 free agent class lacked star power. The Lakers live by a principle: get the star players first, then build the supporting cast around them — not vice versa. It’s a formula that has made them the most storied franchise in NBA history, so it’s hard to imagine them abandoning the strategy anytime soon.
Not one of the Lakers' moves brings them within immediate contention. Not even close. They don't even project as a playoff team. Some, despite the obvious value in players they have brought in, still see them tanking:
Source strongly suggested a few days ago that LAL planned to tank, to avoid sending pick to Phx. Not sure if Boozer claim proves/disproves— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) July 17, 2014
Months after Bryant's win-now-or-else soliloquy, the Lakers are marginally better than they were before. And yet he's left singing Los Angeles' praises.
"I can sit here and tell you with 100 percent honesty that I'm happy with the effort the organization put forward this summer," he said, per two tweets from ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "I think Mitch has responded quite efficiently (from missing on Melo/Pau) by picking up some of the pieces he has."
Effort—not execution—has been enough to turn the decree-delivering Bryant into a gushing romantic. There is no bigger immediate victory.
Happy Kobe, Happy Future
Nor is there a more important one.
A disgruntled Bryant paralyzes the Lakers' rebuilding efforts. He's still part of their dynamic for at least another two years. Anger and dissatisfaction can rub off on younger players and adversely impact locker-room dynamics.
It can destroy Los Angeles' recruiting pitch next summer.
Convincing free agents to play alongside an approaching-37 Bryant will be hard enough. Selling them on joining a testy, fading veteran who doesn't buy into the team culture or restructuring plans is a flimsy pitch.
Like it has been for 18 years, Bryant's happiness, his support, is still everything to the Lakers. Even if they don't care about this year, they need him to be on board—not just along for the ride, but as their loudest advocate.
"It's my job to go out there next season and lay it all out there on the line and get us to that elite level," he said, via ESPN.com.
At a time when Bryant could bemoan a mediocre offseason, he's entertaining the idea of leading the Lakers to contention, as if it's 2005-06, as if he's 27, as if he's not pushing 36. He's campaigning for a team that didn't land a superstar and blatantly moved forward with a plan that is more about their future than his twilight.
Collecting $48.5 million in paychecks over the next two years is certainly worth a practiced smile and faked optimism. But it's not like that. Bryant isn't earning hush money. If he were unhappy, the Lakers would know.
We would all know.
Instead, Bryant's approaching this upcoming season like it's any other, like it's business as usual when it's really not. Both parties are still traveling down two markedly different paths. The Lakers have merely ensured those paths converge, if only briefly, even though it doesn't make total sense.
Planning ahead, beyond Bryant, could have cost them his loyalty, his trust. It didn't. And after everything they've done and everything they have yet to do, selling Bryant on visions he didn't believe in just months ago will remain their greatest offseason victory of all.