LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant could only say what he knew.
Bryant did not believe the franchise could help him win again. Until, much to his awe and delight, Bryant said, the Lakers turned it all around in 2008, getting him Pau Gasol and two more titles.
Bryant didn't stop there: He brought up the blocked Chris Paul trade to Aldridge as even greater proof of Mitch Kupchak's team-building brilliance.
Bryant suggested to Aldridge that attempting to land Paul wasn't just paving the way for even more championships; the Lakers were set to save a ton of money in that deal in an even more extraordinary victory. Although the Paul trade wasn't allowed to go down, Bryant said, it just goes to show that you can count on Kupchak and the Lakers to find a way to get you the help you need.
It was strong, passionate, inspiring stuff. But Bryant's message, and everything else presented to Aldridge in the Lakers' two-hour free-agent meeting with him late Tuesday night, did not hit home. Aldridge gave the Lakers his first audience of free agency, yet he's believed to be leaning toward the San Antonio Spurs or Phoenix Suns, assuming he follows through on leaving the Portland Trail Blazers.
As much as Bryant deflected credit from himself and intended to reassure Aldridge about the Lakers' future, the story he told was still rooted in the past.
And therein lies the crux of the problem for the Lakers as they try to sell Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe and anyone else in free agency.
The future might draw more star free agents. The past was undeniably glorious. But the Lakers have nothing to offer in the present.
They are, by their own admission, distinctly far from championship contention. If you put yourself in Aldridge's shoes—just days from turning 30 and about to choose a new team for the first time—are you OK with making that move to a loser?
It's a hard sell for guys who have been patterned to rise above the competition their whole lives and know it's socially accepted these days for pros to pick the chance to win a title over top dollar or quality of life.
After a Lakers contingent flew to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to court Monroe for two hours, there was another meeting all the way back in Los Angeles with Jordan on Wednesday night. Kupchak, assistant general manager Glenn Carraro, coach Byron Scott and senior vice president of business operations Tim Harris tried to make Jordan appreciate what a game-changer he would be as a Laker.
If Jordan wants more than anything else the chance to shine individually, then maybe that can work. Otherwise, exchanging Paul for D'Angelo Russell and Blake Griffin for Julius Randle is impossible to justify, no matter how bright those young Lakers' futures might be.
For now, the Lakers are telling these free agents that they could come make the playoffs with Bryant next season, then win big the very next season with perhaps two max free agents joining up.
The Lakers told Aldridge that the Spurs surely offer more likely success in the coming season, but beyond that, the power of the Lakers is more compelling than the potential of Kawhi Leonard. There are no analytics to explain away the no-brainer advantage the Western Conference finalist Houston Rockets have in being able to project Aldridge's impact next to James Harden and Dwight Howard. The Lakers' most concrete building block is hope that Bryant can stay mostly healthy one more season.
The bottom line is that a star free agent would be taking a leap of faith—just what Bryant was trying to get Aldridge to embrace in telling his tale—in signing up to play next to kids and faceless future teammates.
That will take a truly special star free agent, one who has a truly special confidence in himself.
As much as it is generally known that Kevin Love wants to live in Los Angeles and be a Laker, he was not even thinking about it in recent days. Carmelo Anthony's obvious affection for the Hollywood sign wasn't enough to get him to jump a year ago.
It's not that it can't happen. Jordan's idol, Shaquille O'Neal, made that very free-agent move in 1996, trusting himself and the Lakers to make it work.
O'Neal had an outsized interest in the off-court opportunities his move would provide, no doubt. But he wound up maximizing that business side of his career and winning three titles with the Lakers to establish his legend.
O'Neal's 2000 NBA championship, however, was the first for the Lakers after a 12-year wait. Let that serve as a reminder:
Rebuilding is supposed to be a long process—as the New York Knicks' ongoing 42-year championship drought can corroborate. You gather and plant and nurture and grow something that takes time.
The Lakers, who just won five years ago, are determined to shortcut rebuilding, even as they are taking solid, small steps with some young players. And maybe they can.
Maybe Randle and Russell will be proven-enough realities a year from now to attract experienced talent.
Maybe it'll be easier for one free-agent star to come if another comes at the same time in 2016.
Maybe the old-school Lakers are learning the hard way that today's free agents require more energy, bells and whistles in their basketball presentations.
Or maybe Jim Buss, Kupchak and Scott aren't the men for this job—and a fresh, younger voice will be the one that ultimately calls the next generation of talent together to bring the Lakers back.
Free-agent recruiting is critical to becoming the Lakers that team president Jeanie Buss envisions, and in that, the franchise has faltered.
As understandably unlikely as it is to beat the rebuilding odds, the Lakers believe they can and they should.
Now they need a star who believes them.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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