By JOHN ZAKOUR
Los Angeles can still attract free agents. Just ask the Clippers. While the Lakers were spurned by Dwight Howard, the Clips resigned their max player, Chris Paul, without much drama while (or due to) adding a new high profile coach.
A surprising opening day win aside, the Lakers need to start looking at themselves honestly. They lost out on Dwight Howard after trading for him. The Lakers, for once, were not the destination. Houston, with all its newly cleared cap space, was able to swoop in. Kobe Bryant has to face his own mortality for the first time in his basketball career. The Lakers are going through a midlife crisis. Or rather, just a crisis. Sure, the Lakers are saying they have a chance at both Lebron and Carmelo Anthony in 2015, but they aren’t fooling any one. This isn’t 2008. The Lakers are directionless and struggling. The Lakers are in a bad place, but putting on a brave face and saying “It’s okay, we’ll just get Lebron and Melo!”
It’s worth laying out why Lebron and Carmelo are such long shots to wind up in L.A. It seems reasonable enough on the surface. They both left the teams that drafted them, and L.A. has always been a destination. But they have both caught a lot of flak for how they left. Carmelo orchestrated a power play out of Denver, forcing a sign and trade to ensure he got paid. And when he got to New York, his lackadaisical play was a big reason why current Lakers coach D’Antoni was fired. This, and his repeatedly calling New York “home,” would seemingly indicate he has burnt his bridges.
And Lebron, without needlessly recapping, didn’t leave Cleveland on good terms. But he never has ruled out a return, and has won two titles in Miami. It would seem Lebron’s only choices are to stay in Miami and keep together a team that has only lost one series since his arrival, or try to carve out a special legacy by winning a title in Cleveland. It seems unfathomable, at this moment, that either player could sign with L.A.
But these are not basketball reasons. And emotions can change quickly. Basketball is not so mercurial. The Lakers are old, and Kobe Bryant will either be a diminished player or command a $30 million salary. It’s hard to say which is more conducive to the Lakers contending.
Historically, the Lakers really haven’t been bad for any extended period of time. But they could be faced with a real rebuild if they can’t coax Lebron to come to Hollywood. Yes, they have cleared cap space for 2015, but they are short on draft picks after acquiring Nash and Howard. The Lakers did not have a first round pick this draft and won’t have an all important first round pick in 2015. The Lakers also gave up their latest and 2014 second round picks, which don’t usually produce stars but can provide cheap controllable role players.
So the Lakers are stuck. It seems that Kobe’s return is imminent, and tanking won’t be an option. The Lakers might not be bad enough to tank anyways, and the Western Conference is brutal. Either way, Andrew Wiggins, the potential franchise-changing first overall pick, is probably out of reach. But if the Lakers don’t make the playoffs, the lottery is always, well, a lottery.
But it seems beneath the Lakers to have their future pinned on a few ping pong balls. Maybe they could pin their hopes on a second-tier prospect such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker, but that doesn’t sound like the Lakers. Even Kobe was acquired via trade and brought along with Shaq. The Lakers don’t rebuild. The Lakers are allergic to rebuilds. The Lakers first-round draft picks exist solely to be traded for smaller-market developed superstars. They’re the freaking Lakers. The Lakers don’t wait for years and develop players, they make what would be irresponsible trades that end up being very favorable. They’re the freaking Lakers. They traded for Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight, without giving up much.
The biggest problem for Lakers’ future is their front office. Jerry Buss is dead, and Jim Buss hasn’t shown to be nearly the owner his father was. Mitch Kupchak is the GM, but it’s hard to say who really runs the Lakers, since the Buss family has always been involved. And with Jerry gone, it’s hard to trust the Lakers to rebuild. They fired Mike Brown 14 games into a season and then hired Mike D’Antoni, both of which are forced fits with this current Lakers team. If the Lakers want to contend again soon, a change needs to be made.
A rebuilding year or two doesn’t seem to mesh with LA, but it’s for the best in the long term. And as the Dodgers have proved, a little rebuilding can go a long way, especially when you have the right owners in place.