Yesterday afternoon we learned that Kobe Bryant, with just six games of the 2013-2014 season under his belt, will miss six weeks with a fractured lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. The injury occurred in the very same leg that his tore his Achilles tendon back in April, fueling the rampant speculation that the two problems are related to one another. Regardless of the chain of events, one thing is for certain: the Lakers will be missing their franchise player for at least half of the season, if not more because of the ramp-up time his mileage-wracked, 35 year-old body needs in his 18th season.
For Kobe, this could very well be just a lost season. He's certain to play in less than 45 games, which would incredibly be just a fraction of his previous career low even in strike-shortened years (58 games). Whether he returns in February or later, there's speculation that he simply won't have the time to round into shape and become the elite player he's vowed to return to. As I've written before, I firmly believe the Kobe Bryant we've enjoyed for the previous 17 seasons is gone forever. That guy--the killer Mamba playing a merciless 42 minutes a night, dunking on multiple defenders and blocking shots on breakaways--won't ever be coming back. In his place will be someone else who will most likely be very good, but very, very different.
But for the moment, an exposition on Kobe's past and future is premature. He'll come back, he'll fight against the odds and he'll find a way to return to effectiveness one way or another, one year or another. I'm not worried about that. The more compelling argument I'm hearing revolves around a more pertinent question: what do the Lakers do now?
At 12-13, in 11th place in the Western Conference and having played one of the league's toughest schedules up until this point, Los Angeles is in a position completely foreign to them. They're a better team than their record would indicate, but certainly not much better. Guys like Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson have performed beyond all reasonable expectations and hustled the Lakers into the welcome sight of mediocrity. What they've done this season is nothing short of amazing, especially without the services of Kobe and Steve Nash for large parts of the season, and a Pau Gasol that was oddly missing in action, despite being in front of our eyes the entire time. If the Lakers were within striking distance from the playoffs up until Bryant's grand return, couldn't they maintain the same pace going forward? Can they hold serve until Kobe comes back yet again on the back of Gasol? What do the Lakers do here?
The stark reality that Kobe's injury paints is that the Lakers are not in a position to compete for championships and potentially not even a postseason berth. When Bryant signed a massive two year, $48.5 million dollar deal three weeks ago, the thought was that with his declining, but still potent talent, he'd be able to help scoot the franchise along until 2016 when real help could be bought. Though they most likely wouldn't be vying for titles, a revamped Kobe could still be enough of a franchise player to get them to the playoffs and break some records to stave off the sometimes merciless Lakers fanbas.
With this injury, it's very clear to me that Kobe, like other premier athletes in their latter years, cannot afford major debilitations that will compound further injury going forward and/or prevents them from the very fine offseason tuning needed to keep them elite players. In my mind, another leg issue reinforces the notion that even for the next two seasons, the Lakers can still count on Kobe being a ticket-selling nostalgia act. But a franchise player? That might go right out the window.
That being said, it's more imperative than ever that the Lakers maximize their draft position as much as humanly possible. As my colleague Ben Rosales has points out to me on a daily basis, this upcoming draft is stacked higher with elite prospects than any in NBA history. The franchise player the Lakers are looking for isn't on the team now, as some suspected there would be until at least 2016. He's waiting patiently in a suit at the Barclays Center in June. Tanking, as many would say, is the optimal word here.
The problem is, I'm not sure what exactly moves the needle in that direction for the Lakers. The most common notion would be to sell off as many players as GM Mitch Kupchak can use his spindly little fingers to move. The obvious candidates are veterans on expiring contracts, such as Blake, Meeks, Farmar, Young and Jordan Hill, whose limited, but sometimes elite skill sets, could be useful and easily integrated on a playoff team. However, the return for those men could very well be minimal--after all, few teams are paying first round picks for spot-up shooters, offensive rebounders and points guards coming off of serious injuries. Pau Gasol, he who the Lakers have been "taken off the market" as of late, is another candidate, though as I've discussed before, the hurdles facing a deal for the Spaniard might make him too difficult to trade. More importantly, he may have more value to the team as an expiring contract han whatever paltry and potentially financially limiting return he'd nab.
Barring a no-brainer trade return from another GM with no brain, the answer here is for the Lakers to keep the team as is. The reason is simple: because this team as currently constituted will do all the tanking you can ask for, and more.
This isn't the scrappy team of "can-do's" that nobly dog paddled through the early season schedule with Kobe recovering from offseason surgery. That team had several advantages going for them: they outhustled every squad they faced, most of which were unprepared for a brand-new Lakers team and had three point guards that fit Mike D'Antoni's system like a glove. Now? Every team in the league knows what the 2013-2014 Lakers are capable of. Their main motors are all injured, with Nash ever successfully returning to the court looking more and more unlikely with every medical update. Blake's return is still over a month away from a fairly severely injured elbow and though Farmar is set to be activated in a week or so, the nature of hamstring tears leaves me skeptical that the injury won't reemerge throughout the year. The Lakers reportedly signed Kendall Marshall from the D-League last night, though after one horrible year in Phoenix, it remains to be seen whether or not he can flourish even under Mike D’Antoni.
The rest of the team looks like Tom Hanks' ship in Castaway--constituted with scrap heap pick-ups crudely put together with twine. As currently assembled, Xavier Henry is the starting point guard. Jodie Meeks and unfathomably, Nick Young will serve as his back-ups. Chris Kaman might be pressed into service as Shawne Williams takes up Young's minutes at the small forward position. The defense certainly won't improve, which remains a huge problem in spite of scoring droughts from the offensively anemic Mike Conley-less Memphis Grizzlies and the ever-struggling Charlotte Bobcats. D'Antoni puts the fates of his teams in the hands of his point guards, which was LA's strength early on in the year. The reason why this team was going to ultimately fail with or without Kobe Bryant was because they could not stop anyone. However, without able, experienced point guards to drive the MDA wagon, I expect the Lakers to be adrift on both ends of the court.
The Lakers need to grab that high lottery pick next season that much is apparent to nearly everyone observing the team. But trading pieces on hand to make the team worse isn't necessarily the answer. The pieces that LA has on hand aren't palatable enough to acquire useful rebuilding resources. In some ways, Kupchak is a little bit too good of a front office executive--for example, I'm secretly worried that if he were to ever deal Gasol, whatever return he'd get would make the team too competitive in the interim. Kobe should be out until the All-Star break, which leaves them plenty of time to sop up plenty of requisite losses to get high up into the lottery.
The best thing this Lakers front office can do is stand pat and watch them honorably go down with their purple and gold ship. This team won’t let down the fans with their hustle and grit, but simply doesn’t have the talent to win night to night. And that, more than anything, is exactly what this Lakers organization needs now and into the future.
Losing Kobe Bryant is horrible, especially thinking about what this could mean for the last couple years of his career. But for the Lakers, this gives them the utmost clarity on what to do this season. And that’s absolutely nothing.