The Los Angeles Lakers’ Next Star
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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As the Los Angeles Lakers get set to play for their season on Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, their front office’s focus is much further down the line. When this $100 million, star-laden team was put together this offseason, it was like a dream becoming a reality, on par with when the Miami HEAT were able to add LeBron James and Chris Bosh alongside Dwyane Wade two years ago. While the HEAT are still living the dream, this season has been nothing short of nightmarish for the Lakers.
All season long they’ve battled coaching, chemistry and injury issues. Every time it seemed like they were going to turn the corner, they suffered another setback. Last week, their already unlikely championship hopes received a knockout punch as Kobe Bryant, who had been playing at as high of a level as ever this season, tore his left Achilles on a routine move. As Bryant went down, the Lakers’ small championship hopes dwindled into nothing and the front office’s approach has shifted as a result.
This team was always thought to have a two-year window. But, with Bryant out the next 6-9 months, they basically have to move forward as if that window has closed. There’s no telling what Bryant is going to be able to give them next season or if he’ll ever be the same.
Dwight Howard was brought in to anchor the Lakers in the post-Bryant era, but he’s been noncommittal on his future with the team. The Lakers can, and will, offer him more money and a longer deal than any other team can. However, in today’s day and age, one star is not enough. Howard’s time in Orlando showed that even as good as he is, he cannot get the job done by himself.
So, the Lakers not only have to worry about proving to Howard that they’re the best place for him, they also have to figure out who is going to help him usher in a new era.
There appears to be three clear paths for the Lakers’ management to take and we’ll take a look at what each one would entail and the pros and cons behind them.
Option 1: Rebuild Immediately
The Lakers have wisely distanced themselves as much as possible from talk about amnestying Kobe Bryant. While their general manager Mitch Kupchak suggested he’s not even sure how the amnesty provision works, the fact of the matter is that the savings are going to be too immense for it to never hit the discussion table.
Bryant is set to make $30,453,805 next season. He is going to receive that money no matter what, but if he is amnestied the Lakers receive serious luxury tax relief. It’s a necessary step for the Lakers to take if they want to try and be players in free agency this summer. It’s the first of many, though.
The Lakers would also have to find a cost-cutting deal for Pau Gasol and his $19 million expiring contract and hope that Metta World Peace exercises his early termination option.
From there, they would have to waive Chris Duhon, who has only $1.5 million of his $3.75 million contract guaranteed for next season, decline Jodie Meeks’ $1.5 million option and renounce the rights to Earl Clark, Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris and Robert Sacre. If Howard was willing to take slightly less than the max, that would really help the Lakers make a quick turnaround, but that doesn’t seem likely.
Still, that series of moves could help get the Lakers in a position where they could make competitive offers for some of the top free agents this summer, like Josh Smith or Monta Ellis, two fringe All-Star players who Howard has voiced a desire with to play in the past. There are some notable point guards set to be free agents this summer as well, but with Steve Nash and Steve Blake on the books already it’s unlikely the Lakers go that route.
A core of Howard, Nash and a big-name free agent would likely bump the Lakers into the top four in the West, but would they be true title contenders? It’s a reasonable question to ask, which makes this option seem unlikely, especially considering the difficulty behind parting ways with Bryant. If it propelled them into the same contention mix as the Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder, it would be much more plausible.
If the Lakers can’t find a favorable enough deal for Gasol to get under the cap, this route does at least get them under the luxury tax threshold and give them full exceptions to offer and the ability to do sign-and-trade deals.
Option 2: Bank on 2014 Free Agency
Although the Lakers have made some tough decisions in the past, like trading away Shaquille O’Neal and parting ways with Hall of Fame head coach Phil Jackson, amnestying Bryant, at this point at least, seems like it would be too heartless to go through with. Yes, the savings would be great, but the Lakers have never been about saving money. Holding onto Bryant would cost them a chance at going after a Smith or Ellis, but those are guys you can live without at that cost.
For the last 17 years, Bryant has known nothing but Lakers basketball. To drop him after the first major injury in his career, considering all that he has accomplished with the franchise and how much he has given them in terms of work ethic and dedication, would be borderline immoral. The chances of him taking it well are extremely slim, even with the caveat of being able to return to a potentially stacked Laker team in the 2014-15 season. Bryant isn’t going to want to spend the year away from the team. He was talking to Gasol during halftime of the first game he was out after his Achilles tear, he’s going to want to be a part of the team regardless of whether or not he’s healthy enough to play next season.
The smartest choice for the Lakers is to stick with Bryant through this injury and see what he can bring in 2013-14. If there’s one thing he’s shown throughout his career, it’s a miraculous healing ability. This is the most severe injury of his career, but you can bank on Bryant being downright maniacal with his rehabilitation. He’s already made as much clear through his social media account.
The 2014 free agency class is also much more appealing, especially when you factor in that the Lakers can be major players without risking damaging their relationship with Bryant by amnestying him. Nash, and presumably Howard, would be the only players on the books after 2013-14. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony have early termination options in their current deals that could make them available then and while they seem happy where they are now, if any franchise is capable of luring them away it’s the Lakers.
That’s a lofty goal. It’s contingent on those star players situations changing drastically, because right now leaving seems unlikely. The Lakers always have big aspirations, though. Acquiring Nash and Howard seemed impossible last offseason, yet the Lakers were able to pull that off. They are probably confident enough that they can land a big fish in 2014 to settle for the 2013-14 season being a minor rebuilding period.
Option 3: A Full Rebuild
This is the worst-case scenario for the Lakers and one they would only embark on if Howard leaves. As of right now, all indications point toward Howard returning, but there are going to be teams who make attractive offers this summer like the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks. As much as the Lakers believe they’re the best place for Howard, they have to acknowledge that he could end up walking while they receive nothing in return.
If Howard takes his talents elsewhere, that’s $20.5 million in 2013-14 the Lakers don’t have to pay. It makes the possibility of becoming players in free agency this summer much easier, or they could just move forward with the core of Bryant, Nash and Gasol for one season and have almost completely clean books to work with in the summer of 2014. Instead of being able to sign one max-level player then, they could sign two. Add in Bryant at a reduced rate, assuming he wants to play beyond next season, and the Lakers are positioned for a relatively quick turnaround considering the circumstances.
As of right now, the second option seems to be the most likely, but the Lakers will undoubtedly consider and prepare for the others as well. A decision on whether or not to amnesty Bryant has to be made by early July. That’s only three months after his surgery, so they won’t have a real strong grasp of how close he is to returning then.
The first major order of business is for the Lakers to keep Howard. They’ve been very transparent that he is their future and someone who they think can be the face of their franchise. Every plan they have starts with keeping him. But, he won’t want to stay without assurances that he’s going to have the necessary help to compete for a title sooner rather than later.