Running Out Of Time

Out since December with a knee injury, Kobe Bryant was finally ruled out for the rest of the season by the Lakers. (Getty Images)

Out since December with a knee injury, Kobe Bryant was finally ruled out for the rest of the season by the Lakers. (Getty Images)

When you have $48.5 million invested in Kobe Bryant’s declining years, why gamble that on what amounts to a declining season? It wouldn’t make any sense, and so, in the least surprising news of the season, the Lakers and Kobe will pull the plug on 2013-14, as if this was a tough decision.

Now comes the bigger issue: How can the Lakers salvage the next two years, and likely the final two years, of Kobe?

That, you see, is the slippery situation facing a proud franchise and proud player who are both facing a very uncertain future together. As long as Kobe is in uniform, the goal is to win now. And yet, the win-now philosophy is clashing with the rebuild-now philosophy, which is why the Lakers are in a bind with Kobe.

He turns 36 in August and is carrying around heavy mileage after 1,465 games, including the playoffs, and undergoing multiple knee procedures and an Achilles surgery. The last we saw of him, which was only a brief tease, showed he’s still capable of going on a scoring binge, but he’s also human, and Father Time is undefeated. That’s why the Lakers are trying to maximize the little time he has left, while at the same time trying to avoid stacking the club with bulky, long-term financial commitments that would hurt the Lakers’ chances of breaking down the roster when Kobe finally calls it quits, which is expected in 2016.

They’re still a destination franchise with lots of pluses in their favor, but they’re facing a tricky transition. They don’t have a first-round pick in 2015 and there isn’t a budding young All-Star currently on a team that’s next-to-last in the West. Any help the Lakers get for Kobe must come from the outside, but that’s not as simple as it sounds.

LeBron James recently said he’d be surprised if he signed anywhere other than Miami this summer. Meanwhile, the Knicks are going all-out in their attempt to keep Carmelo Anthony from fleeing by getting Kobe’s old coach, Phil Jackson, into the front office. Besides, they can pay Melo more than the Lakers, and he appears attached to New York, despite the Knicks’ struggles.

Where does that leave the Lakers? Well, they can re-sign Pau Gasol. And they will have a pick in the upcoming draft lottery. And maybe they can chase a second-tier free agent, someone like Chris Bosh, a solid player who’s not a franchise player. But that’s about the extent of their options this offseason.

Most likely, the Lakers will be forced to burn the first of Kobe’s two remaining seasons and then hope to swing Kevin Love in the summer of 2015 and make a run in Kobe’s swan song. And even that wouldn’t necessarily put the Lakers ahead of the Thunder, Clippers and Rockets, three current title contenders who have relatively young rosters and staying power.

It’s all conjecture right now, in terms of what will happen two years from now. As for a quick fix, that’s a little more clear cut. Unless the Lakers manage to pull a surprise this summer, it doesn’t appear next season will look drastically different than this one.

Well, it might, in one regard: They will have Kobe Bryant for more than six games. Provided his body holds up. And provided he doesn’t lose his mind in the process.

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