Almost 20 years ago, former Lakers GM Jerry West had his eyes set on the next Lakers dynasty. The first step was clearing a massive amount of cap room, including the salaries of several veteran players, including established guys like George Lynch, Anthony Peeler and double-double threat Vlade Divac. The Serbian center had been a decent player for the Lakers through some of the leanest years in franchise history, enduring several losing seasons after the retirements of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Divac's time with the Lakers was bookended by a similar beginning and ending. When he was dealt in the summer of 1996, Vlade wasn't just a salary dump casualty: he was one of the few instances of the Los Angeles Lakers transacting a veteran player with a lottery pick. Divac was gone, sent away to the Charlotte Hornets. The 13th overall pick, Kobe Bryant, came in. Shortly thereafter, Shaquille O'Neal became a free agent addition. The Hornets never became title contenders. The Lakers, suffice to say, did.
Ten years later, the Lakers were on the other side of the 8-ball. This time, the Lakers and new GM Mitch Kupchak were the ones holding the promising youngster, a big man named Andrew Bynum. The target? New Jersey's Jason Kidd. LA was in year three of rebuilding, with a prime Kobe Bryant becoming more and more frustrated with the team's continuing mediocrity. To hasten his pursuit of his first post-Shaquille championship, the Impatient Mamba demanded that the Lakers "ship [Bynum's] ass out" for a declining, yet still effective and established All-Star like Jason Kidd. But unlike 10 years earlier, the Lakers never consummated a deal. Bynum, a former 10th overall pick, stayed, helping lead the Lakers to two more titles. I'd argue, as would many others, that the Lakers wouldn't have had the inside toughness and D to beat the Boston Celtics nor the Orlando Magic without even a hobbled Andrew Bynum.
Over the past two decades, we've seen two examples of how teams can solidify their future with shrewd trades based around lottery picks. We've also seen how not making those deals and keeping those young players can pave the road towards another dynasty.
Which side are the Lakers on this offseason, as it pertains to Kevin Love? Ready to sell their future for the promise of an established All-Star? Or sticking with a long-term rebuilding plan? Or option C: pursuing one of those two avenues and striking out like it's Mark Reynolds on any given day of the week (20% of the people reading this thought that was MAD funny).
It's been widely reported that Love has told the Minnesota Timberwolves that he doesn't plan on exercising his player option for 2015-2016, meaning he'll become an unrestricted free agent in just over 13 months' time. Moreover, he has also stated he won't be signing a three-year extension, the longest contract extension that he could sign while still under the T-Wolves' employ. Throughout all of this, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor has stated no outward interest in trading his All-Star forward, even amidst the looming threat of losing Love for zero compensation.
Taylor's reluctance is completely understandable. Teams trading superstar players run the gamut of fortunes, from being completely decimated for years to come to...being completely decimated for years to come. Even organizations that make "good" trades with their departing All-Stars aren't exempt from years of painful rebuilding. Look at the Orlando Magic after Dwight Howard, the Utah Jazz after Deron Williams, the New Orleans Hornicans after Chris Paul and yep, the Minnesota Timberwolves after Kevin Garnett. No matter how sunny their outlook may be in the future, these teams have endured losing season after losing season. Rarely, if ever, do teams trade perennial All-Stars and immediately bounce back. The Oklahoma City Thunder look great right now, but it took three seasons after they traded Ray Allen (then of the Seattle Supersonics) to nab just the 8-seed in the postseason.
To be clear, there is no indication that the power forward would even want to come to the Lakers. Love's primary reason for wanting out of Minnesota isn't the city, the media market or the temperature in February (though he's got to be f-king high if that doesn't bother him). It's that in his six seasons, the Timberwolves have finished over .500 once and Love hasn't come close to sniffing the postseason. From bumbling front office management to bad coaches to a nearly endless string of injuries, Love has had everything go wrong in his time with the Wolves. Regardless of whether it's been his fault or not, there's no doubt that he wants to win and win now. If that's the goal, the 2014-2015 Lakers look about as intriguing a destination as, well, Minnesota in February.
But let's put that aside for just a second. Let's say that Love is persuaded by Jimmy Buss's bad haircut and Mitch's hypnotic monotone hum. We can pretend that he'll want to play with an aging Kobe Bryant and free agent X and potential free agent Y. Could the Lakers even get this done?
The answer is yes, but not without some mitigating factors. If this is a two-team trade scenario, the Lakers would have to sign-and-trade several players to add up to Love's roughly $15MM cap figure. This would have to mean, of course, that those players would have to want to go to Minnesota, a scenario that looks less and less likely given how poor the Wolves figure to be without Love and that Minny would want them. Pau Gasol would be the name on the tips of many Lakers' fans tongues, but would the Spaniard really want to spend his last remaining years losing in the Midwest? Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and the draftee could add up to around $12 million easily, but again, would those players really want to go to Minnesota? Only if they were handsomely paid role players, surely.
If there was a trade, it looks like it'd have to be of the three-team variety, with the Lakers surrendering not only their draft selection this season, but also any second round pick at their disposal and drumming up interest in guys like Kent Bazemore and Kendall Marshall (and should that last task be accomplished, no Lakers fan should ever question the front office ever again). Grabbing Love via trade is going to be an onerous task no matter what the team, let alone one bereft of assets like the Lakers are.
That being said, if the Lakers are seriously considering dealing for Love and abandoning their long-term rebuilding plan, they have to believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that...
Kevin Love is a franchise player
Unlike some other people, I don't see this as a question. Love's qualifications for "franchise player" are fairly obvious to even the most casual observer, highlighted by this 26/12.5/4.4 stat line and this .457/.376/.821 shooting line. The knocks on him aren't as obvious to me, but nevertheless valid. Love isn't known as a defensive player, though I would argue that he's not a particularly harmful matador defender in the mold of James Harden or a disengaged DeMarcus Cousins. He's also not a fully functional post threat offensively, though he makes up for a lot of that with his superb court vision and precision passing.
Of course there's also the interminable questions about his "inability to get his teams to the postseason", blame which I'd redirect to coaching, injuries and a horrid front office for most of his tenure in Minny. His two best T-Wolves teams came last year when every one of his teammates seemed to come down with an injury and this season when they led the league in unfathomable close game losses. To me, that looks like bad, bad injury luck and bad coaching.
If, indeed, the Lakers are going to pursue Kevin Love hard, I don't think that they should have any doubts of who they're getting.
Even more than with Dwight Howard, the Lakers must be able to secure the player to a multi-year extension past the one (or two) left on his deal.
Entering his seventh season, Love is a player that is entering his prime...much like a 27-year-old Dwight Howard was two years ago. Before they dealt a first round pick and Second Team All-NBA center Andrew Bynum for Howard, LA had no doubt that he would re-sign in the upcoming offseason. After all, the team was supposed to be stacked with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, primed with a two or three year championship window.
Love is coming into a much less fruitful situation, with Kobe Bryant returning from two serious injuries, Nash as a persona non grata and Dwight Howard helplessly watching Damian Lillard game winners as a Rocket (zing!). The only chance the Lakers have of keeping Love is if Kobe, perhaps a re-signed Gasol and a garbage bag of clever cut-rate contracts can get them into the playoffs next season and the team can sign another borderline star in the next two offseasons. The math here is tricky (if not damn near impossible), but that's what would have to happen. The front office needs to believe that they can do this. Even if they're wrong, they have to see what we cannot.
Some uncovered wrinkles:
- This isn't the story of Dwyane Wade, whose strong ties to Chicago nearly lured him away from the Miami Heat to the Bulls during the Summer of 2010. Kevin Love was born in LA, but he grew up in Oregon. He then came back to Westwood for one season and left less than a year later when entered the NBA Draft before he became a sophomore. Kevin Love isn't "connected" to LA like one might think, and he's not going to sacrifice his pursuit of winning for some made up narrative of "coming home".
- Much like Chris Paul did before his trade to the Clippers three seasons ago, Love could punch his player option for 2015-2016 as an incentive for a team to trade for him. Seeing as he'd be coming to a tenuous (to be generous) situation in LA, I don't know if that's going to happen. The Lakers may only have one season to impress Love with their future plans, if they get that chance at all.
- A three-team trade scenario gains traction if Minnesota decides that they're blowing up their team, including their relatively high priced role players. If it becomes a situation where they're trying to unload Corey Brewer (two years, $9.6M), Chase Budinger (two years, $10M), J.J. Barea (one year, $4.5M) and Kevin Martin (three years, $21M), then more teams would be needed to take on these contracts. Combined with multiple draft picks from different organizations, there might just be enough there to put together a deal. Unlikely, but not an impossibility.
- Minnesota might be one of the only teams on the planet that would be even remotely interested in Steve Nash. Why? With only one year left on his deal, maybe Nash could engage the wayward Ricky Rubio in the best one year, one-on-one tutoring session that the NBA has ever seen.
Now that I've spent over 1,500 words describing the various scenarios under a which a trade could be happen: I do not believe that Kevin Love will be a Laker.
The reason? In a two-team deal, the Lakers can't even come close to offering what the other teams in the rumor mill can offer. Phoenix has three first rounders to peddle, as well as a former lottery pick in young center Alex Len. Boston has two first round picks and first round draftees Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley. Chicago has two first rounders, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, while the Golden State Warriors have no picks, but could trade former lottery selection Harrison Barnes, as well as David Lee and Draymond Green. Houston is still lurking as well, with a first round pick, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas on the block. Though the number 7 overall pick is a huge trade chip, I don't see a combination of that selection and Gasol or a pupu platter of Young, Meeks, Hill and Bazemore as anything remotely close to topping those packages.
However, if for some reason the Wolves are most moved by the Lakers's offer, I wouldn't hesitate to swing a deal for Kevin Love. L.A. would have to believe in their ability to use Love as a lure to attract free agents, as well as Kobe coming back and being 60-70% of the player he was before his injury. If that's the case, then trading for a 26-year-old All-Star starting forward in his prime is worth whatever upside Noah Vonleh, Marcus Smart or Aaron Gordon may have.
Going forward, the Lakers absolutely cannot be handicapped by whatever residual burn Dwight Howard's departure left them with. I'm not suggesting they should not have learned a lesson (starting with hiring a coach that best complements the player's style...), but I am suggesting that they can't shy away from being the bold trailblazers that have made the Lakers into the Lakers. If they're going to take a heavy risk in trading for Love, their gambles after he comes to the team have to be just as calculated as the trade itself. In my estimation, it's not the actual Dwight Howard acquisition I'd change--it's the ensuing chain events that I would do differently.
I have no doubt the Lakers will have this opportunity again, but I highly doubt that the superstar they'll be handling differently will be Kevin Love. At this moment, it just doesn't seem meant to be.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino