How do you appease a fan base that's unaccustomed to losing, keep a Black Mamba from annihilating any front office official within striking distance and at the same time, keep a 2014 draft choice in the high lottery?
You take a lesson from Mitch Kupchak and Jimmy Buss. A master course, even. Class is in session.
The Lakers have just finished a wild 12-day span in which they saw all three players from last August's mega-deal depart in one way or another (Chris Duhon, Earl Clark and some other guy), one post-season hero (and amazing post-Finals press conference giver) being waived for luxury tax reasons (Metta World Peace, née Ron Artest), while adding three veterans for less than $7 million (Chris Kaman, Nick Young and possibly Jordan Farmar).
With a 27-year-old franchise center leaving more money, an extra contract year and the lure of Southern California for a younger team with greater immediate promise in Houston, there have been calls--with loud, booming echoes--for the Lakers to completely rebuild. The reasons are multifaceted:
The team's three primary pieces, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, are all 33 years old and up, with each of them undergoing different surgeries over the past year. The asset cupboard besides them looks barren, as the Lakers will not have their 2015 first round draft selection (given up to the Phoenix Suns to acquire Nash), and the team doesn't have a single blue chip prospect on board. The new collective bargaining agreement has almost completely restricted the team's ability to find more help through sign-and-trade agreements or free agency, leaving several massive holes with cheap half-measure solutions. Even the small personnel maneuvers the Lakers can make come with the consequences of massive luxury tax penalties that affect the team exponentially if they remain over the limit three out of the next four seasons. The most resounding reason to rebuild may be revolving around the help that could be coming in just 11 months: the Lakers have their first round pick in seemingly decades (it's been decades, right?) in the loaded 2014 draft.
As our own Ben Rosales has pointed out time and time again, next year's draft could contain up to seven All-Star caliber prospects, including Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and Jabari Parker. All of these players should be available to teams in the lottery, which the Lakers could easily be a part of...if they should decide to strip the team and rebuild. But at the moment, it doesn't seem that that's in the cards.
On first glance, you've got to laud Buss and Kupchak for grabbing so much experience with so little assets. All four recently signed free agents are still effective players to varying degrees, with skill sets all over the map. Young is just 27 years old with the ability to score 28 on any given night. He's just two years removed from averaging 17 ppg for the Wizards on a .441/.387/.816 shooting slash line. His production has tapered off in the past two seasons (14 ppg and 10.4 ppg respectively) along with his three-point accuracy (.365 to .357 last year), though he should be able to play well off of Pau Gasol's post game and Steve Nash's on-ball wizardry. Kaman is 31, an All-Star just three seasons ago in 2010 and played well in 66 games for the Mavs last year, averaging 10 points and over 5 boards a game. Farmar played in Israel and Turkey the last two seasons, though he was last seen in New Jersey after bolting the Lakers in July 2010. Still, he's a change of pace guard who's remarkably just 26 years old, can play a bit of defense and at his peak, was a solid three-point marksman (.367 career average). Wesley Johnson has been a massive bust since being drafted with the fourth overall pick in 2010, and though he looks like the prototypical three point shooting defensive wing the Lakers need, he hasn't proved to be consistently capable doing either in his three seasons in the league. Largely, he's been a zero value add player that fans should consider more of a pedigree-based flyer than anything else.
The Lakers made these moves at the expense of 2010 Finals savior World Peace, whose waived $7.7 million dollar expiring deal will save the Lakers somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 million. It simply didn't make sense to keep a 33-year-old even with no natural SF on the roster, as his athleticism is rapidly declining and affecting his once vaunted defensive presence. MWP has been floating closer and closer to a replacement-level player the past couple seasons, and with his body finally breaking down late last year (with a torn meniscus), it was simply time to make the change. The surprise of the '12-'13 season, Earl Clark, could have been a pre-packaged replacement if he weren't priced out of the Lakers' bidding range with a somewhat irresponsible (only somewhat) two year, $9 million dollar deal given to him by the Cleveland Cavaliers. LA was right to let Clark go, even as they were planning to amnesty World Peace and thus creating a giant hole at the 3. The solution appears to be Young (certainly not Johnson), whose performance (I suspect) will be wholly representative of what this off-season leaves the team lacking.
Since July 1st, the Lakers have seen three of their best four defensive players slip off the roster (including Darius Morris, who might not be re-signed if Farmar returns as planned) and replaced with two players who are net minuses when defense is put into consideration. Young is many things, including a streak shooter and sometimes offensive energizer, but a lock down swing man he is not. As has been his problem for his entire collegiate and professional career, the erstwhile Swaggy P simply floats to and fro in caring about defensive assignments (which can be said about his offensive decision-making as well). He's a gunner, pure and simple, and has yet shown that he can use his massive 6'7" frame and dynamic athleticism to the fullest extent of his capabilities. Kaman certainly doesn't have the same loafing presence on D that Young has, but he's a much better weakside help defender in the paint, rather than the first line of defense. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if his future front court partner Pau Gasol wasn't the same type of player. The Kaveman's athleticism is slipping as he gets into his early thirties, though he should remain mobile enough to be adequate, though not anything remotely close to the complete game-changer Houston's new center is on that side of the floor.
After the team fills out the roster with Summer League additions, training camp invitees and second round pick PF Ryan Kelly, the 2013-2014 Lakers look decent on paper. Better than some other teams can say with anonymous additions, undrafted free agents and second round picks that will never see the light of the NBA floor, the Show will open October camp with a roster consisting of four former All-Stars (Kobe Bryant, Gasol, Nash and Kaman), as well as four (perhaps five, if Lamar Odom is signed) experienced role players who have spent years in NBA rotations (Young, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Farmar). This team won't necessarily have the same growing pains as a young team acclimating to the NBA and with this veteran leadership, the '13-'14 Lakers should feel like they can compete with any team, any night, anywhere.
I'd peg a large part of those expectations on what should be a good offensive attack. If most of the players manage to come through the season relatively unscathed, this could be a fun squad to watch. Nash, even at 39, is such a deadly pick and roll operator that could destroy teams with Gasol and Hill at the high post. With Young, Farmar and eventually Kobe at the wings, the team should be able to have a solid perimeter-based attack predicated on solid and willing jump shooters that can hit from mid-range on a moment's notice. If they stay healthy (the most important caveat for the team next year), this won't be a terrible team to look at. Well, basketball-wise. Chris Kaman will be on the team, after all.
The problem is that this team might be the most horrendous Lakers defense in nearly a decade. Without a former Defensive Player of the Year standing in the lane, the Lake Show's most dependable "stopper" is the oft-injured Jordan Hill and then perhaps a two-way "tie" between Farmar and Kaman. The Lakers do not have a dependable shot blocker in the paint, nor do they have a lock down perimeter man in any sense of the word. Their defensive rotations should be atrocious, with 30-somethings Nash, Blake and Kobe struggling to get back off of help assignments that they'll surely get as opposing teams blow by Young and Kelly on the perimeter.
And this rosy scenario is in the case that the Lakers are healthy. That statement has already been punted. Kobe Bryant should miss games into late November coming off his Achilles injury, while Gasol, Nash, Kaman, Blake and Hill are coming off of problem-laced seasons themselves. If given the case where any of those players miss time, I can't imagine a scenario where D-League replacements do that much better on defense without negatively affecting the offense. No one should be using the phrase "if they're healthy" anyway--the team is already banged up, with the most important player already set to miss games to start the year. An important lesson from last season is to note how poorly the Lakers (or any team, for that matter) plays when having to recalibrate their offensive and defensive schemes with injury after injury. It seemed that every time the team got back one contributor, they'd lose another on the same day, in which both addition and subtraction of personnel would completely disrupt the positive traction LA was gaining. This roster is ripe for a rash of injuries similar to last season--it'd take a massive lump sum of good luck for them to stay on the court for a majority of the year.
Again, look at this team on paper: serviceable, no? Savvy veterans whose time with Pacific Division rivals keep them familiar, longtime Lakers who have won titles and a multitude of players who have had very good (though perhaps superficially so) offensive statistics. To the naked eye and ear, this looks like a team that could beat any given NBA team on any night simply by being around the game for so long. In many ways, this will appease the veterans on the team, season ticket holders, a vocal fan base who insist that the "Lakers don't tank or rebuild" and casual viewers who will know most names on the squad. The front office has built up a very deceiving squad that will be able to compete, but is worlds away from competing for home court advantage in the playoffs, let alone a championship.
With the new CBA as a legitimate excuse and mounting luxury taxes compounding those restrictions, Kupchak and Buss have cobbled together a team of vets who could help win games based on their experience, but is ultimately doomed to fail based on their defensive shortcomings. The Lakers can't be accused of trying to intentionally lose next season, not by their current players or the fan base, seeing as they have done their best to bring in guys with tangible skills. However, with a team built on injury-prone veterans and matador defense, they also look set up to fail.
Ultimately, I see this Lakers team losing around 50 games, missing the playoffs and nabbing a chance to end up a top 3 pick with a lucky bounce of a lottery ball. The organization will have a staggering $65 million coming off the books next summer, with just Nash, Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly being under contract in 2014-2015. Thus, in addition to a probable lottery pick, the Lakers will also have the ability to bid for a max salary free agent, as well as re-sign Gasol and Bryant to new, lower value contracts if they so please. In the intertim, the front office has to be given credit for this gentle balancing act of appeasing folks in the present but preparing for a rebuilding future, as difficult as it may be to see.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino