When was the last time the Los Angeles Lakers had to suffer through a season this mediocre? We'd have to go back to the 2004-05 Lakers and all the way back to 1993 for their last two years without playoff appearances.
But that's a different story because with such great expectations and players comes the intense scrutiny that is the L.A. microscope. Ask Mike Brown how it works.
With only a week or so left to determine the playoff structure, it's about time we discuss the tenuous future of a Kobe Bryant-led team—again.
As harsh as it may sound, there isn't much of a chance the Lakers will head to the Western Conference Finals or even get out of the first round. What's likely to happen is they save their franchise from absolute embarrassment by sneaking into the playoffs and lose in a quick series to the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.
An injury-marred season with aging stars isn't the sole reason the Lakers need to go young for the future. It's the cap concerns, institutional structure and the age factor that will dictate the Lakers heading in a different direction, sooner than later.
The Lakers are in a rare position where stability isn't a sure thing for the future. They have one player, Steve Nash, signed through the 2014-15 season, according to Hoopsworld. The future also hinges on the fact that Dwight Howard becomes a free agent after this season, and who knows where he will go.
After Kobe makes an astounding $30.45 million next year, the Lakers will have to decide what to do. What if Bryant wants another big contract? Do they want to go over the cap to sign Kobe, Dwight and other free agents (think someone like Chris Bosh)?
The big decisions come with the injuries to Pau Gasol, Kobe, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash this season, all well over the age of 32 except for Howard. With so much free money, why would the Lakers choose to keep their old team that isn't playing well together when they can build around a younger player like Howard?
So this issue isn't so much a cap crunch, but the freedom to do pretty much anything they want for this season and the next without worrying too much about where the money comes from. Rather, they have to deliberate on where the money will go.
Even the most delirious—and there are many—Kobe fans, have to admit his defensive play is slowly counterbalancing his offensive play. They cannot build around him the way they used to. If they do keep him, he has to play a peripheral role.
But that isn't how Kobe has succeeded and therein lies a hard dilemma for Lakers' management.
Stacked Free-Agent Class
The next issue is the play of Gasol, Nash and the rest of the aging Lakers. The next two free-agent classes own several big-name players along with some crucial role players.
In the summer of 2013, the restricted free agents include Brandon Jennings, Jeff Teague and Nikola Pekovic, while the unrestricted free agents include David West, Al Jefferson, Andre Iguodala and Chris Paul (whom they should have gotten two years ago).
Sorry for that last comment, Lakers fans.
In the summer of 2014, some notable restricted free agents are Larry Sanders, Derrick Favors and John Wall, while the unrestricted free agents are loaded: Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani.
There are players like Melo, Gay, James and Wall who will probably stay on their respective teams, but the rest are fair game.
The Lakers can pick up some players this summer knowing that so many expiring contracts will come off the books in 2014.
The two big questions come down to how much will they pay Kobe Bryant to stay on the team and will they max contract Howard?
Don't look for anyone else on this team besides Kobe to remain on the roster through 2014.
This ties into the first two things and is ultimately the one phase of the game that will direct how the Lakers change the way they view their players.
Since no one is sure how long Mike D'Antoni is going to stay beyond this year, or what offensive system they'll play, the pragmatic way to go about their process is to get younger. Do they keep running the spread pick-and-roll system that D'Antonio so loves or the ball-centric Kobe offense that they've been mixed up in since Phil Jackson retired?
If they keep Howard, they can theoretically surround him with playmakers. The question becomes: How does Kobe fit and how do other players fit when the Lakers won't be able to afford enough adequate players due to his contract (if that is the case)?
Kobe can still score, as evidenced by his overall offensive excellence this year, but he is taking plays off on defense, and that counteracts his overall production. Surrounding the team with better, younger players is necessary.
The Lakers are faced with the reality that they can't simply reload with aging veterans and make sustained runs at the championship year in and year out.
They need to figure out what to do with Kobe's next contract, re-sign Howard and ultimately get younger while simultaneously contending. A tall task, but plenty feasible for one of the better GMs in the league, Mitch Kupchak.
The Lakers have been a model of consistency with Kobe at the helm for the past two decades. But if they want to get better, they'll need to veer away from their current construction and rebuild toward the future.
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