Even though much of the Los Angeles Lakers’ fanbase appeared to favor a return to the franchise in some form or fashion for Phil Jackson, his ultimate hiring by the New York Knicks had to finally provide a sense of closure. Not that seeing the 13-time champion (11 as a coach, two as a member of the Knicks) casually take his talents back to familiar stomping grounds was the preferred outcome of most, but no longer having Jackson as a viable option at least gives them the ability to finally move on. Whether fans like it or not, the fate of their future still rests in the hands of owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak.
The truth is, while certain moves have eventually backfired, as is the case with most front offices if placed under a similar microscope, that duo has been the driving force behind the day-to-day basketball operations for the better part of the past decade. While the late, great Dr. Jerry Buss was obviously around for the final approval on certain larger deals and plans, they are more than capable of putting together the type of competitive roster that might restore some good faith among some of the more invested and dedicated fans the league has. The unprecedented amount of cap space and flexibility the Lakers will have over the next few seasons gives them financial flexibility they haven’t had in quite some time.
For the first time in many years, the Lakers will not only have what could eventually be a top-five lottery pick, but they also have the freedom to essentially press the proverbial “reset” button with 11 of the current players coming up as either free agents or having non-guaranteed contracts for 2014-15. Basically, while there is a certain amount of discomfort with all of the uncertainty and unanswered questions, at least they finally have options.
Before looking to reshape the roster, a choice has to be made regarding the head coaching position and preferred philosophy moving forward. By no means is that intended to be a jab at Mike D’Antoni, who has unfortunately taken the brunt of the anger and outrage from many of the fans. The reality is, while there are definitely some fair questions regarding his flexibility and willingness to adjust at times, this season’s injury-spree had little if anything to do with D’Antoni’s approach.
That said, while no one enjoys speculating about someone’s job, it would be naïve and even irresponsible (as an analyst) not to acknowledge the fact that the “perfect fit” Lakers’ management may have anticipated simply has not come to fruition regardless of the reasons behind it. When you take Kobe Bryant’s eventual return and the fact that rumors of a potential Pau Gasol return at a somewhat discounted rate have begun to surface, the writing may prove to be on the wall for D’Antoni.
Once they’ve made a decision about their preferred basketball identity, June’s NBA Draft is an absolute “can’t miss” situation for this team. Guys like Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Australia’s Dante Exum have made it clear Los Angeles is a place they would consider a good fit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right selection for this team’s most immediate needs. If D’Antoni were to stay in place, then perhaps Duke’s Jabari Parker would be the right fit. Already a gifted scorer in several ways, Parker is also the type of versatile and interchangeable player D’Antoni loves playing anywhere from power forward to shooting guard.
Although Embiid has shown great potential in somewhat of a surprise freshman season for Kansas, concerns over his health and durability have already started to circulate. Embiid may eventually go on to have a magnificent NBA career at some point, but teams cannot be faulted for wanting to make absolutely certain about his back before mortgaging so much of their future hopes on him.
After nearly a year of being considered a “guaranteed lock” for the No. 1 pick as a high school senior, Andrew Wiggins not only willingly shared the Kansas spotlight during that early season outbreak from Embiid, but also played better than some might realize. Wiggins was still able to not only lead a strong and balanced Kansas scoring attack (17.1 PPG), but also appears to have the makings of an excellent perimeter defender. His upside remains the highest of any prospect at this point. Teams that pass on him with one of the top picks may rue the day when articles are written about this upcoming draft years from now.
Opinions may differ on the ultimate potential of any of these prospects, but the fact remains the Lakers absolutely need a home run with the pick.
Not only are they in serious need of an influx of young talent with star potential, they are currently without any picks in the 2015 draft barring another catastrophic season. Their first-round selection is only top-five protected as a result of the deal that brought Steve Nash in from the Phoenix Suns, while their 2015 second-round pick is owed to the Orlando Magic as a result of the deal that brought Dwight Howard in for a season.
Speaking of Nash, while many automatically presumed the Lakers would utilize the NBA’s ‘stretch’ provision in order to spread his salary out over the upcoming three seasons, there are a growing number of people who believe they might actually hold on to the 40-year-old point guard and permit him to play out his contract so that it is removed from their payroll all at once. Another potential outcome to consider is that Nash will also be an expiring contract next season, and could eventually be an appealing asset to a team looking for 2015 cap relief. Whether the Lakers allow his contract to expire themselves or look to move him in a scenario of that nature, he actually becomes more valuable in his third and final season than he has been for in L.A. at any point prior.
The next decision comes in determining which potential free agency class looks more appealing, 2014 or 2015? While Carmelo Anthony and several other large names could potentially opt-out and look for greener pastures elsewhere this summer, there is a growing amount of concern over whether those players ultimately terminate their contracts and whether this front office currently possesses the ability to “sell” them on playing in Los Angeles.
Acknowledging how crazy that last statement would have sounded just a few years ago, the history and glory of yesteryear appear to have less of an impact with at least a percentage of players these days. Not that Los Angeles is no longer a desirable destination for many, but those remaining are too stubborn to realize there are plenty of viable alternative options for players. They need to take the same ‘long look’ in the mirror at themselves as the Lakers’ front office had to once Howard left for Houston last summer.
Again, the Lakers have been able to pull themselves out of dark times in the past, but it simply hasn’t been and will not be quite as easy at this point given the restrictive nature of the CBA and the current lack of a young star. Of course, they could very well end up finding a way to convince a player of Anthony’s caliber to join them, but his signing would likely all but remove them from the eventual Kevin Love sweepstakes entirely.
That fact alone, regardless of how realistic landing Love may actually be, leads us to think the actual plan is to fully re-stock in the summer of 2015 rather than this upcoming July. Love is eligible to be a free agent after 2014-15, and has expressed a strong desire to compete in the playoffs and ultimately for titles as some of his contemporaries have already done. His productivity, marketability as a fun-loving guy and UCLA ties are why he is seen as tailor-made for the purple and gold.
If Love is still in the plans, the Lakers might find themselves in a bidding war with teams like Golden State or Phoenix for his services. Not that it has been reported either of them are officially interested in the 25-year-old son of former-Laker Stan Love, but those are teams where he would also fit well and they have plenty of assets to offer Minnesota in terms of draft picks and young players.
Kyrie Irving and Rajon Rondo are also guys the Lakers could ultimately be interested in as players to build around for the future. Rondo’s name has been attached to rumors involving the Lakers for years, and it appears Boston may be willing to finally part ways with the four-time All-Star as they continue to re-shape their own roster.
Irving would appear to be a long-shot unless he were to decline the extension Cleveland will undoubtedly offer this summer and play on a qualifying offer, a risky proposition. As much as we like to think things have changed with the modern athlete, some of us still need to see that phenomenon actually take place before we can believe it. Conventional wisdom would say a potential $100 million contract is simply too much to turn down, but in the hypothetical event where the 21-year-old eventually did, Cleveland would then have no choice but to explore the potential market for him. In this event, again, the Lakers would likely have plenty of competition. It’s possible that Irving could sign the extension and then demand a trade from Cleveland in the near future, but it remains to be seen what will happen with Irving and the Cavs.
Crazier things have happened with Kupchak and Buss in the past (e.g. Pau Gasol’s 2008 deal), but a 2015 plan seems more likely as time passes and things continue to develop.
If they were to go in that direction, the current players most likely to be retained could very well be determined by both the existing market for each player and the direction the organization wants to pursue. If D’Antoni were to return, the likelihood of players like Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman returning would seemingly decrease. Guys like Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly or even the recently acquired Kent Bazemore are the types of players that have traditionally excelled in his preferred style.
If they were to go with an approach that required more balance or even a preference toward post play, then the organization could look to retain one or more of those three big men at the right price. Either way, unless offered deals from other teams that would price them out of the Lakers’ range with 2015 and beyond in mind, expect guys like Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Kendall Marshall and perhaps a couple others to return regardless of whether they spend the bulk of their money on a free agent this year.
Most fans of the Lakers don’t want to hear about patience at a time like this, but the reality is now is the exact time when it is most necessary. They didn’t get to this point in one day, and the front office won’t be able to turn things around overnight. It simply doesn’t work that way, and anyone that has been a fan long enough would know just that.