Lakers' Next Step in Rebuild May Be Leading Them on Path to LaMarcus Aldridge

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJune 30, 2015

Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — You lower your standards in so many ways when things get rough.

You don't even realize the slippage most of the time.

We've heard all about how the Los Angeles Lakers pride themselves on their rich history and their all-about-championships attitude. Now that they're regaining some footing—understandably excited over lucking into the No. 2 overall pick and landing the gem that is D'Angelo Russell—it is time to remind everyone that some standards always drop.

The Lakers' news conference Monday was all about that.

General manager Mitch Kupchak knew it, off-handedly mentioning at the beginning that they don't usually have formal introductory events for three rookies at a time but "clearly we believe that the three players will be on our team."

While Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown were still at the dais and answering questions, Kupchak was already off to the side—talking on his cell phone, punching in keys for a text.

So much work lies ahead for Kupchak and the Lakers in July free agency. And make no mistake, it is and always was the important stuff.

This kids stuff is over. Which established star will take the Lakers' money is what really matters.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers attempts an alley-oop dunk between J.J. Hickson #7 and Gary Harris #14 of the Denver Nuggets during a 110-103 Clipper win at Staples Center on April 13, 2015 in Los Angeles, Califo
Harry How/Getty Images

LaMarcus Aldridge is the most likely candidate, DeAndre Jordan is the most intriguing and Greg Monroe is the most comparable to what long-term life would've been like with Jahlil Okafor's post offense but dearth of explosiveness on defense.

It doesn't end with a short list this summer. The Lakers have around $23 million in salary-cap space this offseason, and they are determined to spend it on the longer-term contracts they've largely avoided in the past to carry hope over to future seasons.

The Lakers will come out of the free-agent period with two proven NBA players, regardless of whether one of their top targets chooses them. In that way, the worst is over for Lakers fans.

Yet how happy these new days really are depends on those top targets.

It remains muddy whether Kevin Love will make severe financial and competitive sacrifices in pursuit of a preferred quality of life and leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, although the Lakers haven't given up on that.

LeBron James (Cleveland) and Marc Gasol (Memphis) aren't expected to leave their teams, and tying up the Lakers' money with three-day offer sheets on low-percentage gambits for top restricted free agents like Jimmy Butler (Chicago), Draymond Green (Golden State) and Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio) is almost futile.

That leaves Aldridge, who turns 30 in July, as the one available, established, in-his-prime standout.

He has made the All-Star team four years running, and he would be the one sure thing on a Lakers roster full of inexperience and Kobe Bryant questions.   

Not only would having that sure thing help for Bryant's presumed final season, it would be absolutely critical to the franchise foundation that 2016 free agents will be evaluating to see how close the Lakers are to winning that next championship.

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 22:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots against Zach Randolph #50 of the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 22, 2015 at FedExForum in Memp
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Whether Aldridge wants to be a tide-turning chess piece for the Lakers more than he wants the chance at an immediate title with San Antonio, going home to Dallas, staying in Portland or trying something else is unclear, but there is valid reason to believe the Lakers can convince him.

Like Love, Aldridge likes the Los Angeles area, and he has an offseason home near Bryant in Newport Beach. If a torch ever needs to be passed, Aldridge and Bryant can do it over dinner at Javier's Cantina, a favorite restaurant of both.

Aside from his fitting initials, Aldridge's signing would be ideal because of his uniform number: 12. The Lakers would like nothing better than to close the book on all the ugliness of the Dwight Howard experiment by meshing Aldridge's arrival with their uptick in optimism now.

But until the Lakers actually secure a prime free agent such as Aldridge, the franchise can't possibly operate on the level it once did.

Russell is 19. He is young enough to be Kobe's son, so it's only realistic to accept that he has a lot of growing up to do.

Bryant indirectly offered that reminder Monday, when Nance was recapping his relief at seeing Bryant's text-message acceptance of his apology for suggesting Bryant was a "rapist" in a tweet from 2012.

"Hey, you're a kid…" was the gist of Bryant's note.

Indeed, the new kids spoke predictably and haltingly in their media session Monday. Nance admitted he was "terrified" of how mad Bryant might be at him.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Despite the formal air the Lakers' public-relations department established, the event wasn't interesting or meaningful because these guys honestly don't have a clue about how to be interesting or meaningful in the NBA yet.

Still, the Lakers have upheld their standards in one key way: They are here today, ready to offer their world to Aldridge and others because they stayed disciplined.

They pitched only to cleanup hitters James and Carmelo Anthony and accepted the misses. They did not squander their salary-cap space on some Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson or Channing Frye out of impatience and desperation.

In that regard, the Lakers remained about championships.

And now they're in position to pursue championships again.

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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