As Dex nicely elucidated in his post following Game 6, tonight's game will be a key inflection point in terms of how the Lakers progress in subsequent seasons. The most likely culprit appears to be Mike Brown, but even past that, the very fabric of the Lakers' management strategy will depend on the outcome of Game 7. A key assumption made by the Lakers' front office was that despite the setback in Dallas last year, the Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum nucleus was one that could reasonably compete for a championship while the Lakers downsized and tried to deal with the realities of the new collective bargaining agreement. Should the Lakers lose in the first round against Denver, an ignominious fate for a team with such a large amount of top heavy talent, that assumption falls flat on its face. It was already a given that Pau Gasol is likely on his way out both to help fill the team with young talent and to relieve the Lakers of the need of paying an aging third wheel nearly $20 million a year, but a first round upset might propel the Lakers towards even more drastic measures. The utility of paying Kobe his massive salary comes into question, and while nothing is likely to come of that because of the sheer difficulty in finding a trading partner who can absorb Kobe's contract and send adequate talent back -- the Knicks, anyone? -- it at least will become a topic of discussion among the Laker executives.
The means through which the Lakers can add talent are so limited by the new CBA that if the central components of the Lakers' core aren't championship worthy, the marginal upgrades the Lakers can make on the periphery aren't going to put this team over the top. In that sense, the Lamar Odom trade becomes more and more understandable, as not only did the Lakers jettison salary -- and what now appears to be an incredibly unproductive player, sad as that might be -- they received a large traded player exception ($8.9 million) that gives them far more flexibility to work with than any of the tools and exceptions allotted to the team by the CBA. It still isn't enough, however, to help bring the Lakers over the top if a team with Kobe and Bynum as the top two players can't even dispatch a middling Denver squad in the first round, bad coaching or not, a suspension to Metta World Peace notwithstanding. Mitch Kupchak can only pull rabbits out of his hat for so long with the resources he was given -- and make no doubt, he filched Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill for what looks like a bargain price given that he was able to cut salary while doing so. Yes, we can provide the requisite excuses: Mike Brown had no training camp and limited practices to implement his system, the shortened season was an especially poor for a team with bad depth like the Lakers, and integrating new free agent and trade acquisitions was highly difficult, but all that fails in front of the ironclad fact that the Lakers have no business losing to a team like Denver.
So as you watch tonight's game, know that much more is at stake that simply the playoff prospects of this season. Wholesale change is not necessarily forthcoming should the Lakers lose, but the prospect of it becomes far more likely in that event.
- Kobe Bryant -- All of this syncs nicely into the fact that the Lakers' future is intricately tied into Kobe's legacy. Make no doubt: these are Kobe's twilight years and he has perhaps two or three more years of elite play left in him. Even if he endures after that, he will likely at best be merely a solid contributor rather than the superstar performer who did everything in his power, stomach flu or no stomach flu, to put his team over the top in Game 6. These are the last years during which Kobe can be the first or second option on a championship team, as any rebuilding option for the Lakers would stretch beyond the final stage of Kobe's prime. The Lakers, moreover, gave Kobe his gargantuan, league-leading salary with the confidence that they would continue to be competitive during the duration of that deal. Needless to say, all of these notions will be tested tonight.
- The rest of the team -- When it really comes down it, they are merely subsidiary actors when one compares them to the sheer magnitude of Kobe's career, but there are still legacies to be defined on this team. Pau Gasol has gone from discussions of having his jersey retired in the rafters to the scapegoat for the declining Laker fortunes. Whether he can snap out of a playoff funk that has now spanned two seasons will greatly impact how he is perceived in the Laker pantheon, particularly since he is the most likely of the big three to find himself packing his bags after this year. Andrew Bynum will still have years with which to solidify his place in the team's history, as the possibility of him leaving seems the most remote of the bunch, but people will wonder why the brief confluence of his and Kobe's superstardom didn't produce more tangible results. Metta World Peace, rather than join a long line of beloved Laker role players, might be ultimately considered an acquisition that brought short term benefits but long term pain. And Mike Brown, even though this is his first year on the job, would likely take a big hit as one of the primary architects of the Lakers' fall from contention. The rest of the Lakers have either been with the team for too short of a period or don't have a significant enough role to be considered, but the implications of tonight will impact them as well, notably if someone like Ramon Sessions sticks on the team after this year. The Lakers have always been a franchise that judged results by the number of banners hanging from the rafters, and essentially anything that detracts from that long held legacy is something that inevitably earns derision. Tread carefully gentlemen.