If writers want to make the case that the Lakers could have used their cap space to put together a potential playoff roster, or at least one that is better than the one they currently have, there’s a strong argument to be made. There’s no denying the Lakers could have improved a 27-win roster with all that cap space. But the blame for their reluctance or inability to do so would fall on the front office, independent of Kobe’s contract. Even with Kobe’s contract, the Lakers could have attempted to give offer sheets to Greg Monroe and/or Eric Bledsoe. Why didn’t they? Probably because they were afraid those teams would match. Regardless, it has nothing to do with Kobe.
The anti-Lakers sentiment is nothing new. I can’t be surprised that there are people who seem overjoyed that the Lakers are a lottery team in a league now designed to force teams to rebuild either through tanking or trading their best players for unknown commodities. Ziller mentions that the Lakers didn’t get “LeBron or Melo — let alone LeBron and Melo” but never mentions why LeBron and Melo signed with Cleveland and New York, respectively.
Verrier wrote that Kobe’s contract “posted a “BEWARE” sign to ward off any player capable of providing the high-caliber help they so desperately need,” but never mentions who exactly Kobe’s contract warded off. Probably because there isn’t one that we can definitively say who wasn’t more swayed by the team he was joining than the teams or players he rejected.
Take Mark Whicker of USA Today affiliate, The Q, who wrote an article entitled, “Love Trade Makes it Official: Lakers’ Luster Is Gone”. Whicker’s premise is that Lakers fans are slowly coming to the agonizing realization that players no longer have to play in New York or L.A. to be rich and famous. According to Whicker, “There are roadblocks, but the trade reaffirms an important point about Tiffany free agents. It is not where they want to play. It is with whom they want to play.”
No disrespect to Whicker, but he leaves out three pretty significant details in his story. First and most importantly, Love was traded to Cleveland. He didn’t sign with them as a free agent. If he was going to change teams this summer, the decision wasn’t going to be his. It was going to be up to the Timberwolves. It is no secret that the Lakers are lacking in trade assets. I even wrote about it. They certainly couldn’t compete with an offer that included the top pick in both of the last two drafts, but how many teams could have?
**Sidenote: In the 25-year history of the Timberwolves, they have never made a trade with the Lakers. Whether that has something to do with owner Glen Taylor holding a grudge against the team that has won 11 titles since leaving Minneapolis for Los Angeles, or because former GM and Celtics lifer Kevin McHale was never going to help his old rival, there has to be an explanation as to why the two teams have never swapped players before.
Secondly, you can’t leave out the role that money played. Love needed to give any team interested in trading for him an assurance that barring a catastrophe, he would re-sign with them next summer. This was the only leverage Love had in deciding where he’d be traded to. No team would give up all of their assets if he told them he planned on leaving after just one season. Obviously, Love’s preference was to be traded to a team that he would re-sign with because that team would own his Bird Rights and be able to offer him $30 million more over the life of the contract. Having LeBron James on their roster was a pretty convincing strategy for getting Love to give the Cavaliers that assurance. But even if the Lakers had LeBron on their roster, they still wouldn’t have had the assets to satisfy Minnesota in a Love trade. Their only hope would have been for Love to play out next season on a bad team and then explore free agency.
Lastly, Whicker failed to mention that after six NBA seasons, Love has yet to play in a single playoff game. Excluding international competitions, the last postseason game he participated in was the 2008 NCAA Final Four. Love not only wants to compete for a title but he wants to do so immediately. He had no interest in joining any team that wouldn’t become an immediate contender just by adding him. That says a lot more about today’s NBA player than it does about today’s Lakers. Regardless, Kevin Love is a Cleveland Cavalier because they have the best player in the world on their roster and a trade package that satisfied the Timberwolves — not because the Lakers lack luster.
If you don’t have the young players on rookie deals because you traded those picks away, and you can’t trade future picks because you’ve already traded two of those, then you not only lack the assets that teams covet in trades but your only chance at improving is through free agency. In today’s NBA, you can’t rely on free agency alone to improve — not when teams can sign their guys on rookie deals to five-year extensions a year before anyone else can attempt to sign them or when they can offer their veterans an additional year and more money than any other team.
With Love unofficially off the list of 2015 free agents, and other big names like LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Tony Parker, and Goran Dragic likely to sign max or near-max extensions with their current teams, the Lakers might have another summer similar to this past one. There are still some free agents like Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis, and Roy Hibbert who the Lakers might attempt to sign.
If the Lakers are stuck in the past and years away from contending for another title, then it has much more to do with organizational philosophy than it does with continuing to make Kobe the league’s highest-paid player. Critics are so busy lazily debating whether it’s his age, his personality, his ball domination or his contract that’s most to blame for the team’s bleak outlook that they have failed to realize that it’s none of those things.
While there is a strong case to be made that absolves Kobe of any blame for this past offseason, he isn’t in the clear just yet. There is still the chance that his contract prevents the front office from drastically improving the roster next summer. I just ask that those critics and fans think twice and dig a little deeper before writing their annual “Blame Kobe” pieces.
I’ve never shied away from criticizing Kobe in the past. So if it turns out he is to blame, I promise I’ll be the first one to admit it.[divide]
Lakers Practice Footage: 5-On 5 Scrimmage, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jeremy Lin