On the Silver Screen and Rollcast several weeks ago, our guest Emile from Forum Blue & Gold asked an intriguing question that's stuck with me: what is the point of this season?
It seems like kind of an obnoxious question. After all, isn't the point of all competitive sports to win games? Of course. But with the new rules in the CBA that restricts free spending and punishes short-term planning, the point of every NBA season simply can't be to just win games. This league, more than ever, is a longer game than just 48 minutes, 82 times a season.
This Lakers team clearly isn't built to win a title--they may not even make the playoffs. They're not really built for tanking either--with Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and a group of experienced veterans that play hard every single night, they're simply not built to lose 55+ games. They look like a team ready to rebuild, and yet, the $48 million extension for a 35-year-old Mamba simply doesn't look like a team designed to mail it in.
Thus the question: If this team isn't tanking or contending, what is the point of this Lakers season?
Is there a third option to choose from? Given that the Lakers signed Kobe to a two-year extension Monday morning, a deal that pays him $48.5 million over the next two seasons, I'd say the Lakers think that they're planning on contending. They will still have room next summer for a max player, but there is no way a team without the necessary role players and roster depth can contend in today's league. I'm not sure whether my frustration is pointed at the Lakers management for agreeing to a deal like this, or at Kobe for even expecting and demanding it, but I see very little wiggle room on the books now to fill out a championship-worthy roster. I will say, though, that he is clearly worth $50-plus million when you take into account the business opportunities he brings to the franchise. And as Drew Garrison pointed out earlier today on Twitter, we finally have an "end-date" on the Kobe-era.
Just looking at the current season in a vacuum, the Lakers have managed to stay afloat through the first 14 games of the season (7-7). Going into Sunday night's game vs the Sacramento Kings, the Lakers had played the second toughest schedule behind that of Memphis. Only Detroit (and Sacramento last night) have had records below .500. This is all without Kobe, and limited contributions from Steve Nash. The highest paid player after Pau Gasol is Steve Blake at $4 million. They have been playing with pure effort, energy, and best of all, winning and losing as a unit. There aren't press conferences about which player needs to fix their attitude, or player-only meetings where certain issues are confronted - Coach D'Antoni has a group of guys, most of whom are considered average players at best in the league, playing the best ball of their careers. As Jordan Hill pointed out this past weekend, "We don't have a lot of talent [...] but we definitely got a lot of hard workers."
So when asked whether this team is tanking or contending, maybe there's a third option that doesn't seek to place the team's efforts into a certain category. In "The Monk and The Riddle" by Randy Komisar, a Burmese monk asks the author, "Imagine I have an egg and I want to drop this egg three feet without breaking it. How do I do that"? Drop it from four feet above the ground - the egg will then drop three feet without breaking. The deeper meaning is that looking ahead to the end, whether it be tanking or contending, can limit any pure momentum the team has. The Lakers aren't tanking or contending - they're competing. Whether or not that results in a lottery pick or a post-season run isn't something that needs to be planned out. At least not this season.
A week ago, I thought I had a great answer to this question, one that I had been peddling for months. I thought the point of this season was for the Lakers to determine the course of their future by evaluating, in order of importance, 1) What Kobe Bryant would be capable of post-injury? 2) Is Mike D'Antoni the coach with whom they want to court free agents? 3) Are any of the young guys on whom the team took flyers worthy of being retained? Winning games wasn't vital to the team, and neither was losing them. All that mattered was using the season as 82 data points on how to proceed in the future.
Now? I really don't know what to think. With Kobe Bryant locked in to a two-year extension before the public has even seen him lace up the sneakers, the main impetus behind my "data collection" theory has already been removed. With Kobe's contract being significantly higher than what I expected, it removes a great deal of the cap flexibility with which the Lakers were to orchestrate their free agent takeover plan, so a large chunk of point 2 is gone as well. And point 3 isn't really self-sustaining unless you really commit to developing your youth (Code Name: Tanking), which the Lakers clearly are not prepared to do. So now my tune has changed. What's the point of this Lakers season? I can only see one ... put as many butts in the seats as you can, and hope the team wins enough games to keep those folks happy and willing to pay for more in upcoming seasons. I just don't see a grand plan into which this season fits anymore, because the grand plan which had previously been put forward was torched by the team's own volition.
I had a very different answer before Kobe Bryant signed his extension and sent the basketball world into a tizzy, as the paradigm shift that has just occurred more or less invalidated it. Previously, one could argue that the only purpose of this year was evaluation: a search for the cheap, affordable options the team needed to supplement a core that would be built over the next two seasons from big free agent signings and the draft. Thus far, they were doing a pretty decent job. Jordan Hill emerged as an interesting two-way force with an expanded offensive game and no diminishing of his trademark aggressiveness on the boards; Wesley Johnson has shown signs of being a potential glue guy who does a little bit of everything on both ends; and Xavier Henry has offered a good source of bench scoring on his better nights. Combined with huge bounce back years from Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks and it seems that a lot of those pieces have been assembled, as they have taken to Mike D'Antoni's system and developed a chemistry sufficient enough to get them a .500 record thought almost unthinkable before the year started.
Did the franchise conclude from this that simply inserting Kobe into this framework is sufficient enough to make the team genuinely competitive? Because it appears that that is the case, offering an incredible statement of their faith in Kobe and his ability to return to form despite not setting foot into a real NBA game this season. If the team was still in evaluation mode, they could have waited until Kobe came back onto the court and actually proved, you know, that he still can play at a high level before investing a considerable part of their cap into him. Instead, they have put all their chips in on not only Kobe coming back at something resembling full strength, but that wins and losses actually matter this year. It's an ironic sentiment considering that they more or less killed their ability to bring back the subsidiary parts of this current team and sign a max free agent in the offseason, kind of defeating the purpose of the evaluation process in the first place. We will have more on this later in the week, but if the Lakers have any illusions about seeing most of these players, especially Hill, in a Laker uniform next year, they better know that Steve Nash's body is so broken by age and injury that medical retirement and the cap savings it would engender are around the corner.
In the interim, this year clearly changed its tone from a happy-go-lucky experience of watching a plucky team overcome its talent deficiency to a much more serious one in which the results matter and the team is expected to be competitive. The fact that a lot of these guys might not be here next season as a result of Kobe's extension just puts way more of an impetus on getting wins now while they have their current level of play and chemistry. It's not an ideal approach because frankly, this level of play from several different quarters appears rather unsustainable, but it is what the Lakers' front office has concluded is how this year is going to go. Let's just hope it doesn't bite them in the rear if it turns out that fourteen games isn't a sufficient amount of time to really evaluate a roster and everyone plunges back to their career averages in the process.
In the short term not much has changed. The Lakers are reheating leftover lasagna in the microwave and hoping there's some salvageable pasta once it's done revolving. Maybe Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar are good enough to get by when the fridge is otherwise empty. The importance of the 2014 first-round draft pick has been raised, however. It was high to begin with, but with even more limited resources (read: cap space) after Kobe's extension, they have to find a player who can contribute almost immediately.
Of course, the Lakers are playing .500 ball and that's without Kobe. Who knows if it's sustainable and how an eventual return of the Mamba will alter that, though we took our roundtable to task about that last week.
If this group of players continues to perform, if Pau Gasol builds on his back-to-back solid performances as he rounds into shape, if Jordan Hill continues to refine his game then it's in the team's best interest to try and ship out some of these players for low-cost assets. Whether that's draft picks or players on rookie contracts is an unknown, but forgive me for not buying into the next Lakers' dynasty being built around Henry and Johnson being the Lakers leading role players. The Lakers are low on assets and Mitch Kupchak went out and invested on run down properties. Welcome to the NBA's version of house flipping.
In the long term there's really one thing this team needs to establish -- that Kobe Bryant isn't broken. This isn't about whether or not Xavier Henry can be the next Sixth Man of the Year in 2016, this is about proving to potential free agents targets this summer and beyond that Kobe Bryant is going to hold up his end of the $48.5 million deal through 2016. He has to come back, not shake up chemistry, not aggravate his injury, not have further injuries at 36 and prove that the Achilles injury hasn't bested him. That's not going to be the easiest thing to do, and one can't help to think that the Lakers are taking their time bringing him into full action to make sure he's fully recovered and limit the possibility of a worst-case scenario.
The Great Mambino
Truth be told, this question was sent out before Kobe Bryant and his extension, so it seems that Bean has quite literally taken the phrase "just when you think you know the answers, I keep on changing the questions".
For me, Kobe's new contract doesn't change my perception of what this season's "point" is: finding out who exactly can contribute to the new era of Los Angeles Lakers basketball. Say what you will about the Lakers front office, but for all of their missteps and kerfluffled plans, they're not downright ignorant. There is no way that anyone, not even Kobe, views this team as a championship contender this year. Between the very recent injury history of their three on-paper best players (Bryant, Gasol and Nash), as well as the unproven play of just about half the remainder of the roster, this Lakers team looks (and still looks) like a fringe playoff squad. As I've noted several times, the NBA is not a plug and play league--just because the team looks solid now, doesn't mean that adding Kobe to the mix will make them that much better because he is (and maybe was) a great player. The calculus doesn't work that way. Adding Kobe isn't a topping to the cake--it's adding an entire new ingredient to the recipe. More sugar isn't going to make a bigger or better cake--the different parts need to be mixed, matched and compensated for, and then maybe your end product will be great. That being said, this team isn't winning a title this year. But if their effort level is any indication, they aren't tanking either. This team is full of proud, experienced veterans who might get this team to 37-40 wins, health permitting. I suppose that making the playoffs at all is a goal, but as is ever the "Laker way", making the playoffs is meaningless unless a title shot is involved.
Thus the goal for the 2013-2014 season has to be to find out who can contribute going forward. Can Xavier Henry, Shawne Williams and Wesley Johnson emerge from obscurity and reclaim the mantles that their first round status once bestowed on them? Yes, Steve Blake and Chris Kaman are contributing now, but how will these thirty-somethings look in two years? How much should the team pay to keep Pau Gasol, if at all? Should he be kept at the expense of Jordan Hill? Or will it be the other way around? Can Nash improve to the point where he won't be waived via the stretch provision?
The first question originally should have been "What is Kobe worth going forth?" Right or wrong, the Lakers have answered that question. The point then will be to identify the contributors going forward, gauging how much they are worth and then making some tough, tough decisions.