If the Lakers are rebuilding, it seems that everyone besides Kobe Bryant has gotten the memo. In an interview this week, the sidelined Mamba went in specifically on how he sees this team next season and what his expectations are:
"How can I be satisfied with it? We're like 100 games under .500," Bryant said. "I can't be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for. This is not what we play for. A lot of times it's hard to understand that message if you're not a diehard Laker fan. It's hard to really understand where we're coming from and what we're accustomed to, which is playing for championships and everything else is a complete failure. That's just how it is. That's how it was explained to me by Jerry (West) and all the other great Lakers who have played here and that's how I grew up thinking. So that's just how it is."
"Oh yeah, let's just play next year and let's just suck again," Bryant said, sarcastically. "No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It's my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. Right? You got to get things done. It's the same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court is the same expectations I have for them up there. You got to be able to figure out a way to do both."
It's clear from Kobe's comments that he expects the team to do whatever is necessary to get back to an elite level as quick as humanly possible. After all, isn't that what he's going to do this summer? He's going to train and train and train, bringing his body back to as close to peak form as humanly possible at age 36. Kobe Bryant is going to do what he has done for 17 of the last 18 years--he is going to work harder than everyone else to make sure he's still one of the best in the game.
For the Lakers? Their timetable isn't nearly on the same spectrum.
With the assets on hand and the salary cap situation being what it is, Los Angeles doesn't look ready to compete immediately. After cap holds and re-signing enough players to field a 15-man roster, a complete rebuild this summer isn't quite possible. As my colleague Ben Rosales pointed out in his piece a of couple weeks ago, the Lakers may have as little as $16 million dollars to spend this summer, depending on where their lottery pick pans out. Furthermore, if Steve Nash isn't waived via the stretch provision and several role players like Xavier Henry, Kent Bazemore, Kendall Marshall, Ryan Kelly and Wesley Johnson are re-signed, the team could be down to just around $12 to $15 million in cap room. That would leave them well below whatever it would take to sign an elite, franchise-changing player like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James or Chris Bosh and barely enough to take on a borderline All-Star like Luol Deng, Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward or Lance Stephenson.
In other words? It'd be very difficult for the Lakers to get better just via free agency.
To make LA better in the short term, the Lakers would have to take drastic steps to compete within Kobe's two year contract window. This would start with dealing the team's first round pick, likely to be a top-6 selection. It remains to be seen whether or not that would be enough for teams to part with All-Stars like Kevin Love, Al Horford or Kyrie Irving. Still, the Lakers would have to start there, waive Nash via the stretch provision and then hope either Anthony, Bosh, Bledsoe, Monroe or (hold your laughter) LeBron to take a $5 to 7 million dollar discount to play in LA with Bryant and All-Star X. Even if all of that were to fall into place, it's still an extremely high-stakes gamble that would rob LA of all future assets and secure the team just a two-year window to truly compete for a title. It's exactly the type of risk the Lakers took last and this year when they sacrificed future flexibility and draft assets to try and win a title with the nucleus of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Bryant. And that turned out fantastic. Right?
Meanwhile, in real life, the Lakers are in a position to build for the long-term while appearing as the 22-44 mess you see losing by 30 points per night to the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. The team has a few young guys who look like they could be role players for seasons to come (Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre and Kendall Marshall), but other than that don't have any pieces that look like they could be impactful at all in three years' time. The Lakers have just one first round draft choice in the next two Junes, which includes a very high lottery pick in just two months. Kobe Bryant's massive cap figure looks to be cleared by the 2016 offseason, but until then there will be at least $25 million dollars on the organization's books. In other words, the prospects for a rebuild will be a protracted process. If the Lakers stick to a long-term rebuild, the chances of a stable future increase. For proof of that, look no further than after Shaquille O'Neal's trade in 2004. The Lakers stuck to their plan, acquired trade assets and young players and with a few trades from February 2008 to February 2009, became a team that went to three consecutive Finals and won at least 57 games four times.
However, if the team is to bend to Bryant's will, that won't be the plan. The franchise would do everything in their power to return to the "winning culture" of the team as soon as possible, prematurely throwing away assets for a quick fix that may or may not work. True, long-term planning doesn't always work either--look at the New York Knicks from 2008 to 2014 for example--but in the case of some of the West's elite, including Portland, Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Houston, it very well could.
Kobe isn't alone in this mindset. Many people, including the season ticket holders who pay five to six figures for season tickets, aren't going to have patience for a long-term rebuild while the star attraction is a dissatisfied Mamba whose skill set is quickly dwindling. Lakers fans aren't used to losing and missing the playoffs, especially in consecutive years. There's really no telling what type of full-fledged freak out the town will have if the Lakers sink to 50 losses yet again next season. The pressures of a quick rebuild may be even more intense than anything the organization has ever seen. Fans, especially (and I can't emphasize this enough) season ticket holders who represent a large chunk of the team's income, will be very vocal about their demands for results.
The Lakers must walk that fine line between Kobe's competitive drive for himself and his organization to be elite right now and the team's wide lens view for the future. This summer, they'll have to sign veteran difference makers only if those players can make LA better in four years rather than just the next two. That throws out guys like Luol Deng, one of the league's leaders in minutes the past several seasons, and brings in guys like Monroe and Bledsoe instead. They'll have to heavily weigh whether or not they'll trade a top-5 lottery pick for a guy like Kevin Love who can bolt town in just 12 months' time. They'll have to decide whether or not burning payroll on players this summer to long-term deals is a smarter way to spend their cap room instead of waiting and gambling the next two off-seasons waiting for guys like Russell Westbrook to decide their future.
Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have to begin the rebuild, but do it in tangible ways that make the team seem like it's taken real steps forward. That means drafting a player who is going to be solid right away, rather than a project that will be solid in the long view. This means paying for Eric Bledsoe, a player who's still getting better. This means sacrificing a guy like Dante Exum, who might not be ready in 2015 for a guy like Kevin Love, who can make All-Star teams in 2015...the same year he could walk.
The Lakers face a rebuilding movement in the coming years, but unfortunately, creating a winning franchise in Los Angeles is extremely different than in most other towns and even different than with other major market franchises. While Kobe's comments might be centered around his unparalleled competitive drive, he also speaks in tones relevant to the only place he's ever played. The Lakers and the front office have to walk a fine line this summer to take steps towards becoming a contender again, with little room for error.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino