Going into this summer, Los Angeles Lakers fans were skeptical, to say the least. There were just four players under contract, including a $33 million dollar backcourt that played less than 20 combined games last season. The team had over $20 million dollars worth of cap room, more than enough for LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh, but very few building blocks in which to attract those players to L.A.. Even after an excellent draft night including acquiring Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the prospects of the Lakers transforming back into a contender were slim.
Carmelo seemed to be changing his mind after a "very convincing" presentation from Lakers brass. There were rumors that LeBron James felt the same way. Kyle Lowry seemed interested in signing. Pau Gasol, for all the trade rumors swirling around him the previous three seasons, was locked in to re-sign in the event that the Lakers made positive strides with any other free agents. Despite what some felt would be a bleak summer, as always, the sunlight was peering through the clouds in Southern California.
This is what I called "Plan A" in a piece I penned right here on Silver Screen & Roll weeks ago. The Lakers, despite Kobe's massive contract and all the mistakes made with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, would rise from the ashes and begin the latest championship era of Los Angeles basketball. With either James, Anthony or both in the fold and Bryant's deal coming off the books in two seasons, the Show would be locked and loaded for years to come.
Plan A, it seems, has been a massive failure. What now?
Plan B is well underway.
With the news that Anthony has ruled out L.A. as a potential destination this off-season, James signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Bosh electing to stay in Miami for the maximum, Plan A has been haphazardly jettisoned, like one of these Kendall Marshall Summer League jumpers I'm watching right now. The Lakers have swung and missed, with the lure of playing with a recovering 35-year-old Kobe Bryant, an unproven Randle and a declining Gasol not nearly enough to pull one of these All-Stars from their comfort zones.
The Lakers, as business-like as ever, moved quickly and have carried on as if this was the strategy all along. As soon as their prime targets were off the board, L.A. moved onward with their contingency plan: Waiting.
So what does waiting look like? It looks like:
- Allowing Jodie Meeks to leave via free agency to the Detroit Pistons for a three year, $19 million dollar deal.
- Trading for Houston Rockets.
- Re-signing Nick Young to a four year, $21.5 million dollar contract.
- Re-signing Jordan Hill to a two year, $18 million dollar contract, with the second year as a team option.
- Reportedly offering Pau Gasol a two year, $22 million dollar contract, which the two time NBA champion has turned down.
Pardon my French, if this is Plan B, then Plan B, on the outside, looks like shit. The Lakers don't have very much cap room left this summer, as the additions of Lin, Hill and Young have sapped most of the team's spending power. L.A. will have to use the remaining money to fill out a roster that's only half full, a task which may include re-signing Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson. This would mean largely bringing back last year's team, sans Pau Gasol, that won just 27 games en route to one of the franchise's worst seasons ever. It's a strategy that makes my heart sad, and then even sadder knowing that the organization will only keep their draft pick if it's in the top-5 (the selection belongs to Phoenix, as a part of the Nash deal. It's the gift that keeps on giving!). While this is entirely possible, the crapshoot of a season full of teams trying to lose and a team of prideful Lakers could completely throw this scenario out the window. After all, the worst season in Los Angeles Lakers history this past year only netted the seventh pick.
But looking deeper, the Lakers are indeed loading up to play the waiting game. With the exception of Young's somewhat puzzling deal, the front office is importing expiring contracts and draft picks in order to set them up for next summer's free agency and then, the summer after that.
With yesterday's signings, the Lakers have maintained a great deal of flexibility for 2015, with potentially $35 million dollars of spending power available at that point. They've also grabbed back a pair of draft picks with more perhaps on the way, as Pau Gasol may be sign-and-traded to the Chicago Bulls today. The Lakers look like they're not going to commit to many long-term deals, similar to the strategy they deployed last summer, and instead will go with short-term fixes, reclamation projects and busted lottery draftees to fill out the roster. It remains to be seen how Kobe Bryant will react to all this, but I can only guess that he's super duper excited.
Plan B-ish has also gone by the wayside. Borderline All-Stars like Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward and Kyle Lowry are already off the board and other restricted free agents such as Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe are almost assuredly going back to their former teams. Lance Stephenson is still on the table, but it remains to be seen whether or not he'll be willing to come to Los Angeles. This is a discouraging sign to me, as teams rarely build themselves up over one singular summer, with the recent exception of the 2010 Miami Heat and 2008 Boston Celtics. Organizations build contenders over time, grabbing very good players via free agency, drafting well and then punching their Finals ticket with a superstar player. The Lakers have some of those pieces intact, but their future road map would look much more stable with a young budding prospect in Randle, in addition to an All-Star-caliber young player like Lowry, Parsons, Bledsoe or Hayward in the fold.
This, it seems, isn't in the cards right now.
The team is going full-on for the Plan B that I outlined, which means rolling over cap room to next summer in order to entice one of either Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo or Goran Dragic to come to the Lakers to play with an emerging Randle. This would be the just the appetizer to summer 2016's entree, in which the Lakers are expected to go hard after free agent Kevin Durant.
The name of the game is patience, not something the Lakers or their fans are used to. Regardless of what you think of LA's contingency plan, there's no doubt that GM Mitch Kupchak and VP of Player Personnel Jim Buss have executed it masterfully. The organization will have enough cap room to make a run at a premium free agent next summer, as well as another very good player, and then a superstar in 2016. In the meantime, they'll see how Julius Randle develops, and to a lesser extent, Jordan Clarkson and potentially Xavier Henry.
For the time being, the Lakers's strategy is to wait. Make no mistake, Plan B is a massive, massive gamble. But at the moment, it seems like that they no other choice.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino