There are two trains of thought regarding the appropriate path of the Los Angeles Lakers for the foreseeable future – they can continue placing themselves in position to strategically pursue the top upcoming free agents over the next few years or act aggressively this summer in an effort to simply remain (what would likely end up being) only slightly more competitive over the last couple seasons of Kobe Bryant’s career.
Competing for championships has always been this franchise’s singular goal. Longtime members of the organization all seem to embrace it, almost as a mantra of sorts. So make no mistake about it, these Lakers will be looking for some sort of redemption next season regardless of the direction they choose. Bryant’s incessant desire to win, especially in wake of what became a wasted season for him personally in 2013-14, all but guarantees they’ll come out and compete on a nightly basis.
At this stage in his career, no one questions Bryant’s dedication to his craft. But the supporting cast he’ll have to work with could vary significantly depending upon which course of action general manager Mitch Kupchak and VP of basketball operations Jim Buss elect to pursue. From the decision for the next head coach to the direction they go in the draft to how assertive they are in free agency come July, the path would look significantly different for these Lakers moving forward. Here’s a breakdown of what each option would look like:
Build for the future while remaining relatively competitive
The hiring of a college-level coach at this point is understandably troubling to some, especially given the last couple missteps with the process. In perhaps the biggest decision of the summer, management can ill-afford to go in the wrong direction with their head coach yet again. With that said, the right “fit” is every bit as vital to choosing a coach and philosophy as it is to finding the proper mix of talent to place on the court. Names like Kentucky’s John Calipari and North Carolina’s Roy Williams may have cachet, but the recent groundswell of support surrounding Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie actually makes the most sense for these Lakers if they were to tap a college coach for the position.
Unless a deal for a truly elite-level NBA commodity were to materialize, the Lakers shouldn’t even consider trading their lottery pick. In the event they were able to hire Ollie, both his success at the collegiate level and his connection to so many of today’s players could truly make him the ideal person to develop young talent and bridge the gap with the veterans. With practically a blank slate outside of Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre – the only players with guaranteed contracts – the front office will have the luxury of simply picking the best player available with the understanding that a guy like Ollie would presumably be around for the long-haul to oversee the development.
With only three players currently on the roster for 2014-15, it would still be a busy free agency period even if the Lakers elect not to spend the bulk of their available $28.2 million in cap space this summer. This plan would allow them to fill the roster out in a similar fashion to this season with one- or two-year deals that would give them flexibility for the next few summers. A Pau Gasol return would seem unlikely in this case, as even though he has expressed an interest in remaining alongside Bryant, he could determine another situation might give him the best chance to win as he will be 34 years old by the start of next season.
Bryant certainly wouldn’t be satisfied by this route (nor should he be as an ultimate competitor), but isn’t left with a great deal of options other than voicing any dismay having already re-signed.
Continue to embrace the “win now” approach
Some might think the size of Bryant’s contract would point to the increased likelihood of this approach, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Either way, a “win now” regime would look significantly different than one with the future in mind. Much like the plan laid out above, this strategy would also involve the decisions at head coach and in the draft, while significantly altering the method by which they attacked free agency.
Experienced coaches like George Karl, Byron Scott or even Lionel Hollins would seem more likely with this direction. Each would seem to appeal to veterans like Bryant and Nash for various reasons, and could potentially even influence Gasol’s decision. While we won’t know which pick the Lakers will end up with until the draft lottery on May 20, each coach would also help determine which direction the team goes in the draft. Duke’s Jabari Parker or Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins might appeal to Karl, while Scott may be more interested in cultivating a young guard like Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart or Austalian phenom Dante Exum. Hollins, on the contrary, might want to develop a young big man like Kansas’ Joel Embiid or an athletic big like Arizona’s Aaron Gordon.
There’s also the distinct possibility that the Lakers decide to move the draft pick for an established talent under one of these coaches. Especially in the event the pick winds up outside of the top three, the team could look to explore the possibility of pairing Bryant with the oft-rumored Kevin Love. Love could conceivably sign with the Lakers as a free agent following next season, but there is no guarantee. Trading for him brings him to L.A. now and the Minnesota Timberwolves might finally be interested in moving their franchise power forward with the risk of losing him on the horizon. In that case, the Lakers would be forced to at least consider a move if they’ve determined Love is a player that fits with their future plans.
There has even been talk of the Lakers acquiring a young guard like Kyrie Irving, but that seems unlikely since that would not only require him to effectively turn down his first max contract opportunity later this summer, but it would also take the foresight of selecting a player the Cleveland Cavaliers may have interest in with their draft pick. It’s certainly not impossible, but that turn of events seems much easier when discussed in theory or on your preferred social media platform.
Free agency is perhaps where you might see the most significant difference if the front office decides to go-for-broke this summer. Names like Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng and Gasol could very well morph from potential options to priorities for this front office. LeBron James could also be an option, but it remains to be seen if he’ll exercise the early termination option in his contract to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Someone like Anthony is a more realistic target. A hypothetical Anthony/Gasol frontcourt would almost certainly appease Bryant, and would actually be competitive with relative health. But that would all-but knock the Lakers out of consideration for upcoming free agents including the likes of Love and James if he chooses to delay his free agency until next offseason.
The trouble with a core of Anthony, Bryant and Gasol is that without some defensive-oriented players around them and a coach like Tom Thibodeau to construct the types of schemes that might at least ‘mask’ having multiple defensive weaknesses in key positions, they’re probably left with an entertaining, high-scoring team that would still struggle to defend on a nightly basis. That’s an issue in a league that’s becoming far more difficult to simply outscore your opponents to win. It was reported the Lakers would have interest in interviewing Thibodeau if the Chicago Bulls would grant them the opportunity, but it would undoubtedly take a transaction similar to last summer’s deal between the Boston Celtics and L.A. Clippers that resulted in the essential “trade” of Doc Rivers, with two years left on Thibodeau’s current deal.
As you can see, there is no “easy answer” when it comes to solving the Lakers’ current dilemma. Unless they are able to find a way to hit the proverbial “home run” across the board in terms of head coach, draft and free agency, look for this front office to continue biding their time while steadily positioning the franchise to strike when the opportunity and desired players become available.