As Kobe Bryant recuperates from an Achilles tear with his illustrious NBA career winding to a close, the Los Angeles Lakers need to be thinking of a plan to guarantee the Black Mamba another shot at a title before he retires.
This will be no easy task.
Last season, the Lakers reloaded around the core of Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace by trading for two-time MVP Steve Nash and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. The results were disastrous.
Mike Brown was fired after an inconceivable 1-4 start. Interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff had some success, leading the Lakers back to .500 with a 4-1 mark, but Mike D’Antoni soon replaced him (not Phil Jackson).
D’Antoni headlined a 40-32 record, which got the Lakers into the playoffs by the slimmest of margins. The San Antonio Spurs promptly swept them out of the first round.
Despite all the talent on paper, the Lakers had no team chemistry, no bench depth, a revolving door at head coach and a slew of key injuries. It will take more than a few tweaks for the Lakers to provide Bryant with another championship run.
As luck would have it, the Lakers only have one contract on the books for the 2014-15 season: Nash at approximately $9.7 million. Instead of spending millions of dollars in luxury taxes, the Lakers will essentially have the opportunity to start a new roster from scratch.
Bryant won’t earn more than $30.4 million, nor will Gasol net more than $19.2 million. Los Angeles will truly have a clean slate in 2014.
So what will the Lakers choose to do with all that cap space? According to Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, the Lakers front office plans to target huge stars in 2014. Namely, four-time MVP LeBron James and reigning scoring champion Carmelo Anthony.
This certainly wouldn’t be the first “superteam” we’ve seen in the NBA. And, unless the league changes its outlook on teams stacking the deck for championships, it won’t be the last. Regardless, a starting lineup that includes Bryant, James and Anthony could easily be confused with the USA Olympic basketball squad. Those three players were integral members in winning gold medals after all.
In order to bring in both superstars, however, there’s a chance Bryant would have to take a gigantic pay cut. Considering that the heart and soul of the Lakers made an estimated $32 million last season on endorsements alone, according to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes, taking an on-court pay cut for a shot at a sixth championship shouldn’t be a big deal. But in the NBA, egos reign supreme.
If the Lakers bring in James and Anthony, a long shot for now, each player would make approximately $20 million in year one (assuming both sign max deals, which is pretty much a given). Add Nash’s salary to the superstars', and the Lakers would already be at about $50 million toward a $58 million salary cap.
Unless Kobe takes considerably less money on his next contract, the Lakers will exceed the salary cap with just four players. If you’re keeping score at home, though, you’re aware that the Lakers are over the cap in 2013-14 with Bryant, Gasol, Nash and any other player you want to add as the fourth. Overpaying for Nash, Bryant, James and Anthony is a no-brainer by comparison.
Nevertheless, winning championships doesn’t just happen with a core of superstars. Ask Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen or Ray Allen why.
The Lakers would still need solid role players and great depth to get by, especially considering the age and injury woes of the Bryant-Nash tandem.
Veterans and young role players alike would jump at the chance to play with a lineup that features Bryant, James and Anthony if they intend to win rings. But would the mystique be enough to fill eight to nine roster spots at the veteran's minimum or "mini" mid-level exception?
The other, more realistic option for the Lakers would be to target and land one superstar to place beside Bryant. Considering that James won back-to-back championships with the Miami Heat under Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra, there should be some loyalty there. (Yes, I just used LeBron James and loyalty in the same sentence...Sorry, Cleveland.)
Because prying James away from South Beach doesn’t seem feasible (especially to place him in Bryant’s shadow in Los Angeles), the 2014 target will likely be Anthony. Even though his offensive game is nearly identical to Bryant in that they both isolate and score without passing, the Lakers could have dueling banjos that are virtually unstoppable on offense.
Also, with the added cap room from only adding 'Melo, the Lakers would have plenty of options as far as role players are concerned.
At the end of the day, those are the Lakers' options. Either they win big in free agency by signing superstar talents to place beside Bryant, or they’re left high and dry.
Tanking for a draft pick this season shouldn’t be in the thought process of fans, because there’s no way Nash, Gasol, Bryant and Chris Kaman will roll over (let alone lose enough games for a top-five or even top-10 pick). The Lakers can get a piece for the future in the 2014 draft, but the chances they land a superstar are slim. Simply put, there are too many bad teams in the league “competing” for draft lottery position.
The 2014 offseason is the light at the end of the tunnel. If the Lakers fail to deliver by bringing in difference-making free agents, Bryant will ride into the sunset with five rings to his name. All things considered, that’s still evidence of a fabulous career.