When you’re talking about an iconic sports franchise that’s won 16 league championships and produced some of the brightest stars to ever suit up, the proverbial bar is already set at ultra-high when it comes to rebuilding an old, injury-plagued, misdirected roster.
The Lakers today are more in focus than they were in June, if for no other reason than they finally have a head coach (Byron Scott), first-round lottery pick (Julius Randle) and a roster of newly signed (and re-signed) free agents.
Logic would indicate this was not necessarily their Plan A, since Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak took over three months to hire Scott and has never been a big advocate of holding onto and using a high first-round draft pick.
Had Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James been serious about jumping to the Lakers, Kupchak and the Buss kids (Jim and Jeanie) would have surely given up the pick that later became 19-year-old power forward Julius Randle of Kentucky in a heartbeat.
James was a pipe dream for the Lakers, but Anthony was serious enough about a move to L.A. that he came out west for a meeting with Kupchak and Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss.
Though some fans of the quick fix may not like it, the Lakers were better off not signing the free agent this summer. Anthony in a Lakers uniform, playing alongside his friend Kobe Bryant, surely would have been entertaining. But as management probably recognized, hardcore Lakers fans care way more about championships than about high-wire basketball acrobatics.
Still, Kupchak pursued Anthony because Bryant expressed his desire to see him in Los Angeles, and ownership saw the incredible entertainment value in having the two play together.
Plan B was always in place. It’s just that impatient Lakers fans don’t want to think about taking three or four years to rebuild a championship-caliber club. We’ve been spoiled over the years by an innate ability to bring in such big-time stars as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant.
But rebuild is just what the Lakers must do if they want to get back to the level of perennial contender. They’ll have money to spend the next couple of years despite giving up $23.5 million this year and $25 million next season to Bryant in the extension they gave him last November.
Lakers President Jeanie Buss said the reason the Lakers rewarded their 18-year veteran star was to show their appreciation for all he had done to make them a multibillion-dollar juggernaut. Speaking on Access SportsNet on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, Buss said this:
We never got an opportunity to do the farewell tour for Magic Johnson. Kobe, by signing that deal, will have played 20 years for one organization. I guarantee that won't happen again. ... We don't draft players at 17 anymore. To have the kind of longevity that he's had, makes it extremely special and I think that Lakers fans understand that.
Most Lakers fans admire Bryant and hope he can play at a high level for at least two more years. But does anyone truly expect the team to build a championship contender that quickly?
As the Lakers' offseason continues, it’s become increasingly clear that this team is not ready for prime time. Yet beneath the realization that L.A. will most likely fail to make the playoffs for a second straight season lies the fact that Mitch Kupchak is one of the league’s best GMs.
Plan A was to sign Anthony and then welcome a busload of talented veterans willing to play for less in order to chase a title. As soon as Anthony said no, Kupchak went to Plan B, which would prove a much more difficult, fluid assignment.
But to Kupchak's credit, the Lakers went from a team of three (Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre) to a competitive-looking squad of 13 in just one month. No one is talking about playoff tickets yet, but the manner in which management aggressively found personnel with potential is impressive.
Focus on Big Forwards Who Can Defend
The Lakers find themselves overstocked with an intriguing number of forwards, a couple of whom can also play center when needed. They include Ed Davis, Julius Randle, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly and Sacre.
The glut of forwards also includes such smaller hybrids as leading scorer Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Bryant, who will probably play some at the 3.
Guards—Still Shallow but Lin Could Have Breakout Campaign
Steve Nash says he’s feeling good these days but admits he may not have much left in the tank to get him through a final season at age 40.
Nash told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News back in June that
I feel great right now. I’ve been able to pretty much go without limitations, I’m obviously not trying to overdo it so I can allow that nerve to settle down perhaps and be less irritating. It has worked so far, but I would hate to say this is where it will be like once I join the rigors of an NBA schedule.
Not very encouraging.
Despite losing Jordan Farmar to the crosstown Clippers and the promising Kendall Marshall to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers may actually have improved at the point through the acquisition of Jeremy Lin from the Houston Rockets. They also feel lucky to have worked a deal with the Charlotte Hornets that led to them picking Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson in the second round of the draft.
Lin will soon turn 26 and is just entering the prime of what has been a promising career, but he has failed to live up to his potential.
Lin averaged 12.5 and 13.4 points in each of the last two seasons with the Houston Rockets, where he became odd man out when the team started giving Patrick Beverly more minutes alongside James Harden.
Still, Lin improved his three-point shooting last year (a career-high 36 percent) and is almost automatic (80 percent career) from the charity stripe, a place he gets to often. He should see 32-34 minutes of action per night with the Lakers and has a chance for a breakout season.
Lakers Reward Loyalty and Past Achievements
Mitch Kupchak signed an extension with the team in April on the night his Lakers lost 145-130 to the Rockets. Despite it being the worst season in franchise history (27-55), the Lakers rewarded Kupchak for his 14 years of service, which includes four championships under his guidance.
Bryant's extension was also about the past, which to some is not smart for a team thinking of its future.
Bryant's lucrative deal continues to make him the league's biggest breadwinner, and he'll be close to 38 when the deal is done.
The Mamba has been Mr. Optimism this summer, crediting management for its efforts in trying to sign Anthony and honestly believing this year's team could do some serious damage in the playoffs.
He tells reporter Chris Ballard in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated:
I hear people say, ‘They don’t have a championship team.’ Yeah, maybe from your perspective. But if Boozer does this, Jordan Hill does that, Lin adds that. What’s the best way to put all those pieces together and use them to win? That’s the puzzle to figure out, and if we can figure out that puzzle, we’ll shock a lot of people.
They might even shock themselves.