They’re a storied franchise, and a proud one too, with 16 championships and four statues standing outside of the arena. The Lakers aren’t too familiar with failure, and when it happens, they recover and recapture, their basketball healing powers almost holistic.
They believe they’ll re-sign free agent Dwight Howard this summer and keep order in the Laker World. But if they don’t? Is that disaster? Will it mean Kobe Bryant will ride out his sunset years being stuck with a few more Smush Parkers?
Not necessarily. Actually, the Lakers minus Howard would be far from done, and depending on whom you ask, perhaps better off. Though you can never be sure about the direction of the franchise under Jim Buss, who has yet to demonstrate the same ownership touch of his father, the Lakers are well positioned to deal with almost any fallout from being rejected by Howard.
Here’s what they have in their favor: Mitch Kupchak, oodles of salary cap room, Lakers tradition, L.A. lifestyle, an aging but more determined than ever Kobe and the best chance to grab the best player in the world.
No, not Dwight. That would be LeBron James.
Next summer, the Lakers’ payroll is only $9 million, money owed to Steve Nash. That’s it. When you think about it, how solid is their cap situation? The free agent pool in 2014 will be twice as attractive as it is now, with LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki all eligible. And there’s also the chance other players will be shopped for various reasons: Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo come to mind. Also, Paul George will be a restricted free agent, as will Larry Sanders.
The Lakers will be required to place a cap hold for Kobe, which will limit their flexibility to a degree, but Kobe will likely come down from his 2013-14 salary of $30 million. He knows that’s not much help for a team that will be essentially building from scratch. He badly wants a sixth championship and will realize he’ll need a worthy co-star, perhaps someone better than him. Yes, can you imagine Kobe and LeBron together? Not entirely far-fetched at all.
Kobe will have to demonstrate an ability to rebound from Achilles surgery, but he insists he has at least three good years left. Last season before he felt a pop, Kobe averaged 27 points and made the All-Star team. At one stretch, he carried the Lakers. Judging by how he takes care of himself, who’s to doubt him? Besides, Kobe, who turns 35 next month, would never allow himself to play at a substantially lower level; his ego and standards are too big for that. He’d kill himself trying to stay an All-Star, or retire first.
The blueprint will be handled by Kupchak, an effective GM as long as he’s free to call the shots. Certainly humbled by last year’s epic collapse, Buss will likely give Kupchak space to work with and only step in once the payroll ventures into luxury-tax area. At least you’d think.
The Lakers could sign a max player, add another All-Star, re-sign Kobe, fill out the roster with useful role players and suddenly be back in the game. They can do this because they’re not the Sacramento Kings. They’re the Lakers and there are some built-in advantages that come with that.
They’re a destination team, which means they’ll always be on the list for any top free agent. They generate enough money, from a sublimely ridiculous TV contract and the highest ticket prices around, to deal with luxury tax issues (though not to the extent of the Knicks or Nets, whose owners are far more richer than the Busses). And they’ll have Kobe, perhaps for at least another two years, to serve as an ambassador.
The Lakers always seem to find a way to reinvent themselves. Most of this had to do with the genius of the Jerrys, Buss and West. That allowed them to draft Magic Johnson and James Worthy, swing a trade for the rights to Kobe and seduce Shaquille O’Neal. And that’s the trick for these Lakers, to keep that tradition alive.
The best way is to sign Howard, who’s not in the class of the above players but not the vastly overrated center he’s often portrayed as, either. In a league that values big men, unless your team has LeBron, Howard carries weight. That’s why six teams are fighting for him right now. But if he leaves, the Lakers will turn to their Plan R, for Rebirth.
This isn’t a franchise that’s accustomed to staying down for very long. With cap room and Kobe, next summer looks splendid. Ultimately, the length of their pain will be determined by Jim Buss, which isn’t such a bad thing. Is it?