The Los Angeles Lakers need a strong combination of coaching, superstar talent and a consistent culture to fill the massive void that Kobe Bryant will leave when he retires from the NBA. Kobe has been the face of the Lakers for over a decade now, but his departure does not have to mean stormy seas ahead for L.A.
Despite his greatness, the Lakers are a premier professional sports franchise with proven longevity. Their prowess is consistent and undeniable; therefore, rebuilding should take less time and creativity than it would for teams with a weaker brand. And despite many Michael Jordan comparisons, Los Angeles has a significantly brighter immediate future than the Bulls did in 1998.
For starters, let’s assume that Kobe will relent and hang ‘em up once his contract—which will pay him an atrocious $30.453 million for his final season—expires in 2014. Unless Dwight Howard signs a max contract with the Lakers during the upcoming offseason, the Lakers will have incredible cap flexibility come summer ‘14. Not only will Kobe’s salary be off the books, but so too will those of his highest-paid friends in Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.
As you can clearly see, the Lakers are financially prepared for a remodel. And wouldn’t you know it, the free-agent market in 2014 is chalk full of superstars who could re-insert the Lakers into a title hunt. LeBron James tops the list of attractive candidates, but for argument’s sake, let’s say he decides on an alternative location.
In my opinion, the best start would be to ink Dwight to a long-term deal as soon as possible. Despite the drama and media circus that has followed D12 in his short tenure as a Laker, general manager Mitch Kupchak would be hard-pressed to find a comparable replacement at his position.
Let us not forget that just a year ago, Howard was tops at his position in scoring and rebounding while finishing second among centers in blocks. This in a lockout-shortened season that wasn’t his most impressive year. Signing Dwight in 2013 would be a preemptive measure against the potential for a post-Kobe decline.
B/R’s own Ehran Kahn broke down the list of available free agents come 2014 back in December and his opinion is worth a read. From his list, Luol Deng, Kyle Lowry and O.J. Mayo pique my interest most. Andre Iguodala also may be on the market and would be a great sign, but I have a hunch he will receive a max contract offer from Denver.
With over $100 million soon off the books, President of Basketball Operations Jim Buss and the aforementioned Kupchak will have the flexibility and procurable talent to design the team of the future in L.A. My prediction is that they will look to sign the youngest talent—Mayo will be 27, Lowry 28 and Deng 29—after this season’s experience.
Now, who will be the head coach, the front man, the glue? Coach Mike D’Antoni’s contract lasts through 2015 with an option for 2016, but something tells me he won’t be around that long given how this season has played out. It may be time for a fresh start at the helm as soon as Kobe retires.
My ideal man for the job is current Pacers assistant coach and former Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw. Shaw was part of the Lakers team that won three consecutive titles from 2000-2002, and coached with Phil Jackson for two titles in ’09 and ’10.
Simply put, Brian Shaw knows the ins and outs of Lakers culture, what it takes to win a title and was already a candidate for the head coaching position. It wouldn’t take much to persuade Shaw to claim the job that he was spurned in favor of Mike Brown at the start of the 2012-13 campaign.
The final piece of the blueprint that will determine how quickly the Lakers rebound from the loss of their greatest player ever will be the attitude within the franchise. As I’ve detailed above, the Lakers are in a great position to move on quickly and effectively once Bryant retires.
But, events as seismic as Kobe’s departure could seriously shake the spirit of the team. This year, Jim Buss has been at the core of talks about organizational chemistry. After dragging Phil Jackson through the mud—the Lakers couldn't afford him anyway—Buss' leadership has constantly been in question. Luckily, most of Kobe’s on-court comrades—only Nash has guaranteed money in 2015—will be on their way out as well.
Having the right coach makes all the difference at a time like this, and D’Antoni is not the man for the job. Whatever change the Lakers seek to make after Kobe calls it quits needs to reflect a feeling of youth, energy and intestinal fortitude. The team needs someone to absorb all of the media heat, work successfully with the management and understand how best to employ the athletes.
A fresh start will soon be the motto in Los Angeles. Have no fear Lakers fans, the franchise has the resources to make the post-Bryant leap short and painless.