It appears that just about everyone you ask has an idea (or three) for rebuilding the Los Angeles Lakers, but recent history has shown even the best-laid plans offer no guarantees for the current front office. The tandem of executive vice president and part-owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak is charged with the unenviable task of finding a way to transition from the “we’re L.A. and will simply glamour and outspend everyone” approach the organization has been able to employ over the past couple decades to one that utilizes a more conventional method of building throughout the draft, cultivating and molding young talent and figuring out how to also add complementary talent along the way with favorable deals and trades.
That may sound like a relatively straightforward plan, but it’s much tougher than it sounds to reverse course completely on the fly while navigating the restrictive nature of the collective bargaining agreement. Not to mention, the 29 other teams aren’t exactly trying to pave the way for the Lakers to return to contention. While their recent transactions have been widely criticized and questioned, the truth of the matter is the organization has been hit by myriad blows over the past few years they simply couldn’t have been prepared for. Not to reopen any freshly-healed wounds, but from the vetoed deal for Chris Paul, to the unfortunate passing of Dr. Jerry Buss, to essentially losing Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol via free agency for nothing things have spiraled considerably for an organization that has generally been lauded for having (or making) positive fortunes in the past.
Did we mention the unprecedented amount of untimely and never ending injuries to both veteran and young players? When you combine all of those variables with the fact that four different head coaches – no offense to short-lived interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff – have been at the helm for the purple and gold since just the start of the 2010-11 season and it is no wonder the franchise is in a total state of flux.
No one is going to feel sorry for an organization that has 60 playoff appearances and 16 NBA Finals trophies, so don’t expect opposing franchises to fall over themselves in support of a rebuilding process in Los Angeles. Here are several potential paths for the Lakers:
Fully embrace the tank a la the Sixers, Celtics (previously), Knicks and several other teams
This seems to be something the franchise isn’t comfortable with no matter how often #TeamTank trends on Twitter. Although the team isn’t necessarily in a position to rest on the “we’re the Lakers and we simply don’t do that” mindset right now, we can see how such an approach could be problematic for the front office. Not only would you be playing completely against the “pride and legacy” angle the team has often utilized when attempting to entice a desired player, but such a strategy offers no certainties of the top pick.
The trouble is, this particular team actually needs to either lose enough games to ensure they can retain their top-five protected pick rather than surrendering it to the Phoenix Suns (from the Steve Nash deal), or find a way to win enough games to at least make it more likely Phoenix will get a pick in the early-teens rather than a sixth or seventh selection. Even though it may not be entirely within their control, you just never want to assist an opponent within your own division with the final piece they need to truly establish themselves as a playoff team.
The recent addition of power forward Tarik Black may suggest the front office is interested in moving Jordan Hill (eligible to be traded as of January 15) or even reserve big man Robert Sacre to teams in search of frontcourt depth. Such a move would also permit the Lakers to take a serious look at their younger big men. Coach Byron Scott should have plenty of time over the next 40 games to assess Ed Davis, Black and a returning Ryan Kelly and see who is worth being part of the core moving forward.
Regardless of whether you take this approach, it might also make a great deal of sense to start playing rookie guard Jordan Clarkson a bit more over the second half of the season. At some point, once it is established they are not a title or even a playoff contending team, everything should be about the future and what can be built upon for next season. Unless the thought is that either Jeremy Lin or Ronnie Price are to be considered franchise point guards moving forward, those second-half minutes could definitely go a long way toward Clarkson’s development.
Let Kobe Bryant play out his current contract and see where the team is at that point
This actually appears to be what they are doing, whether they openly acknowledge it or not. The front office made rumblings about LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony last summer and even delayed all other negotiations until after those two were essentially off the market, but the truth is neither of those players were likely to sign in Los Angeles given the financial constraints. Next season is actually a much more appealing time to join these Lakers if you are a free agent, because Nash and his $9.7 million will no longer be on the salary cap and even Bryant’s $25 million will be an expiring contract at that point.
The Lakers could also go about acquiring additional young talent to surround a returning Julius Randle in order to make the roster that much more appealing to a potential free agent. For example, the front office has been in search of a viable option at the point guard position for more than a couple seasons. Why not approach a team like the Sixers about the potential of a deal for last year’s Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams?
At just 23 years old, the 6’6 Carter-Williams has shown plenty of promise over his first 15 months in the league, and appears to have the type of composure and “basketball-is-everything” mindset the organization seems to long for. And don’t even think about talking to him about tanking.
These are the types of unforeseen deals this front office has surprised everyone with in the past. Even though they haven’t fared well on the open market of late, Kupchak and Buss have definitely shown a somewhat unparalleled creativity when it comes to finding a way to make a deal work. It is clear the Sixers are not interested in winning basketball games at this time, and Carter-Williams definitely appears to be a player that could be a part of a turnaround if placed in the right system. He also seems like a guy that wouldn’t have a problem playing with Bryant for what could potentially be his farewell tour around the league.
Maintain full cap space flexibility in order to lure a couple big-named free agents
Well, if the summers of 2013 and 2014 were any evidence of what is to come, then perhaps the front office should reconsider such an approach. No, we aren’t going to the extreme and suggesting (as some have) these Lakers can no longer lure a big free agent, but the last two rounds of free agency have not gone very well in terms of retaining their own free agents or finding a way to persuade others to join.
Whether caused by personality clashes, uncertainty over the future or a lack of the total cap flexibility they desired due to existing contracts, they simply haven’t been able to retain or entice the bigger names. Regardless of whether you think Howard and Gasol should have been re-signed, you absolutely never want to see a legitimate asset leave without finding a way to at least capitalize on their market value in some way.
In what seems to be an increasing trend, current players are wisely inquiring about the talent they’ll be surrounded by, the basketball philosophy that will be employed and what the future plans of the organization might be. While the notion that no one wants to play alongside Kobe Bryant at this point in his career is overblown by some, it is a fair assessment to say his contract may have dissuaded players from joining at this time. We aren’t debating the merit of the deal or whether Bryant has earned such a salary – as he’s clearly worth every penny for the organization from a financial perspective – but the simple math of it will tell you it’s going to be difficult to field a title-contending team under the current CBA with two players (Bryant and Steve Nash) taking up roughly half of the team’s cap space for 2014-15.
This is a plan that makes far more sense once you have those larger contracts off the books and can fully pursue guys like Marc Gasol or Kevin Love (2015), Kevin Durant (2016) and Russell Westbrook (2017) among others.
As you can see, there are no easy or simple answers when it comes to reconstructing what has been a proud franchise. Although Buss and Kupchak may be up against some unprecedented circumstances for this particular organization, fans of the Lakers are now dependent upon the two of them finding a way to put the pieces back together. We are only about eight months removed from Jim Buss acknowledging a somewhat daring pledge he made to fellow team board-members during an interview with Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times.
“I was laying myself on the line by saying, if this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed,” Buss told Bresnahan. “I don’t know if you can fire yourself if you own the team … but what I would say is I’d walk away and you guys figure out who’s going to run basketball operations because I obviously couldn’t do the job.”
If we are to believe the now-infamous (around Southern California, at least) Buss proclamation, they are definitely on the clock with only a couple seasons to figure it out. Kupchak might remind you that he’s made no such guarantees, but the point is each of them realize the task at hand and seem fully committed to embracing the challenge; whether the odds are stacked against them or not.
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