With Kobe Bryant Era Ending, Steps for Lakers' Return to Prominence Are Clear

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 27, 2015


LOS ANGELES — The Laker way, as fully endorsed by Kobe Bryant, has been to swing for the fences.

About the only thing Bryant and the late longtime owner Jerry Buss clashed over was when Bryant thought Buss was breaking their blood-brothers pact to go all-out for championships in the years after Bryant stayed and Shaquille O'Neal went.

Bryant's new shoulder injury is the latest harbinger of his era's finality, and with Buss gone, it's time to stop and figure out how some other people might return the Lakers to grandeur.

Normally, sports franchises hope for quick rebuilds if good fortune strikes but accept that it usually takes years and years of player development and team chemistry. To that end, both Magic Johnson and Bryant did come to Buss as rookies and grow from there into stars and ultimately legends.

But the slow play is not the preferred Laker way—and it especially isn't when Jim Buss has pledged to resign as head of basketball operations if the Lakers aren't in the Western Conference Finals by 2018, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Lakers have understandably sought to maximize first O'Neal and then Bryant as veteran superstars whose championship windows would not last forever, and they all profited from that approach. The best-laid plans, however, to have Chris Paul or Dwight Howard in place as the next veteran superstar to anchor the roster fell through, though, and you see the dark downside of the Laker way today.

Unable to acquire and keep the next star, the Lakers instead had to be OK totally striking out. Bryant had to be OK with Jeremy Lin being the Lakers' big offseason acquisition, and Lin only came because Houston offered a first-round pick for the Lakers to take him and his salary.

Consequently, the Laker way is now a starting lineup of Jordan Clarkson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Kelly, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre—because management has refused to settle for contact hitting and mere respectability, waiting for the long ball.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

As the Lakers move forward again in the rebuilding process, there remains no safety net—and additional high-wire pressure because Jim Buss knows fans and his siblings alike are questioning his leadership.

The truth is that Jim, in a role that evolved from advisory to authority even before his father's death in 2013, itched to spend money even more freely than Jerry over the past decade in pursuit of victory. That largesse is only the first in a list of priorities in the Lakers' plan to get back on top.

Free Agency

Unfortunately for Jim, spending freely isn't what it once was for large-market NBA clubs in this era of collective bargaining and profit sharing. And with the NBA's rich new national TV contract beginning in 2016, almost every team is confident about having money to offer.

The Lakers are in position to offer more than $20 million to free agents this summer—although what they commit in 2015 affects how much they'd be able to offer free agents in 2016, when Bryant's league-leading $25 million salary comes off the books and they expect to enjoy a real shopping spree.

Even if top unrestricted free agents such as Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe and Rajon Rondo (or restricted free agents Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green) don't want to come to the Lakers or switch teams at all this summer, the Lakers do plan on upgrading the roster in some meaningful way. It is imperative to show some roster progress next season to set the table to sell Kevin Durant and others in 2016.

Regardless, the Lakers' main sales technique is that they have more to offer than just money—or even sunshine.

You want more than those not-even-close-to-Marcin-Gortat 386,208 All-Star votes you just got as a Cavalier, Kevin Love? How about your whopping 58,200 votes from being part of the Clippers' Big Three, DeAndre Jordan?

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

There's nothing like being a Lakers superstar and the opportunities it provides—that's the pitch. In just his first year with the Lakers—and as a bench player on a 27-55 team—Nick Young scored Iggy Azalea.

And if free agents are serious about cashing in and winning later, they have to admit that the Lakers are happy to pay heavy luxury taxes in the future to increase the winning odds.

Draft…or Trade

As much as fans are focused on the Lakers losing enough to keep a top-five 2015 draft pick that otherwise would have to be conveyed to Phoenix from the Steve Nash trade, the reality remains that the Lakers aren't about waiting for a bunch of kids to grow up.

So, yes, keeping the pick is a big deal—but it very well might be more important as a trade asset than for some raw talent who almost surely will be just finishing his freshman year in college. The Lakers also likely will get Houston's 2015 first-round pick from the Lin salary dump, but it won't be any higher than 15th.

Whereas Boston can't expect a free-agent bonanza and is hoarding draft picks as its primary means of rebuilding via youth or eventual trade, the Lakers see this draft stuff as supplementary.

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

Jim Buss doesn't have time to wait for Julius Randle to get healthy and steadily evolve into someone who can lead the Lakers. That makes Randle either a supporting player to help incoming free agents—or a promising prospect, one the Lakers truly believe, to be flipped in a trade for greater immediate potential.

Bryant, for one, believes Mitch Kupchak's trade acumen will play a key role in this.

"It's phenomenal, so much so that the league had to protest a trade that he made," said Bryant, referring to the 2011 deal for Paul that was aborted. "He pulled that off and saved money? What other GM could pull that off? You've kind of got to lean on the track record of the front office and the decisions that they make."

Thing is, what does Kupchak have to trade these days? Expiring contracts aren't nearly as attractive as they used to be, so there's not much—even when it comes to future picks.

If the Lakers do keep their pick this June, they have to give the Suns their 2016 first-rounder (as long as it's not in the top three). The Lakers also owe Orlando their 2017 first-rounder (as long as it's not in the top five) from the Howard trade.

That means the Lakers wouldn't have much additional young talent coming in to join Randle and the incoming rookie in a group rebuild anyway.

Packaging that 2015 top-five pick, if the Lakers keep it, in a trade for a high-level player Buss and Kupchak deeply believe in would be an ideal way to hasten the rebuilding process.

Develop Existing Talent

Randle will recover from his just-to-be-safe January foot surgery before his broken leg from opening night heals. He might be on the court by May—and the Lakers hope ready for NBA Summer League. Tarik Black, Clarkson and Kelly are young guys the Lakers really hope show significant growth the rest of this regular season.

With the ability to opt out of his modestly-priced contract this summer, Ed Davis may find plenty of suitors in free agency.
With the ability to opt out of his modestly-priced contract this summer, Ed Davis may find plenty of suitors in free agency.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Young, 29, has a golden opportunity to show he can do a lot of what Bryant does and establish his Lakers future, as Byron Scott doesn't intend to overhaul his offensive system in the wake of Bryant's absence. If Young does prove something to the league, it could also give Kupchak a trade chip; Young is under contract through 2018 with a trade-friendly salary at just more than $5 million, about the mid-level exception.

One player the Lakers would be wise not to let show too much growth is power forward Ed Davis, 25. He almost surely will opt out of his $1.1 million salary next season, and even though he's limited, Davis might actually be the Lakers' most valuable player now that Bryant is out.

The Lakers would be fortunate if they're able to retain Davis, who hasn't been getting abundant playing time lately, without other clubs realizing how useful he is.

Rebuild the Brand

You can count on Lakers president Jeanie Buss to be all over this one.

Ninety minutes after the Lakers revealed on Monday that Bryant would have rotator cuff surgery, they announced they would be heading off to Honolulu for happy days during 2015 training camp. The Lakers have a large fanbase in Hawaii but in 2007 discontinued their semiannual tradition of going over in October.

When you consider Bryant will have played just 41 games in a two-year span—and none in a three-year stretch of NBA playoffs—there's reason to wonder about fans losing interest. But the NBA fan map released by Twitter earlier this month was a testament to the Lakers' ongoing local and national popularity.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JULY 25: Carlos Boozer #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks at the Los Angeles Lakers championship trophies in the office of Jeanie Buss before a press conference at the Toyota Sports Center on July 25, 2014 in El Segundo, California. NOTE
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Clippers, despite their contending status, were not the most popular team in any county in the United States—and didn't even crack the top three in Orange County or San Diego County, where it was almost all Lakers, followed by the Spurs and the Bulls. In Los Angeles County, it was Lakers 50 percent, Clippers seven percent.

The Lakers intend to lean on all their past success so that fans don't readily forget. They'll keep bringing in former players and celebrating what once was, including Scott as head coach.

That whole business side is a foundational element of the big sales pitch to free agents—and those free agents are the whole key to the Lakers' basketball side regaining its glory.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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