For nearly two decades, Kobe Bryant has been the Los Angeles Lakers security blanket, providing comfort in the darkest moments. When Shaquille O’Neal fouled out in Game 4 of the 2000 Finals, a 22 year old Kobe took over and landed the victory plane. When Shaq was dealt to Miami, there was Kobe-prime, hauling the likes of Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the playoffs. And when the Steve Nash/Dwight Howard era imploded on creaky legs and petulance, Bryant was there, giving everything he had, Achilles included.
Unfortunately, those days are over. A diminished Mamba can no longer carry the team on his back, and the announcement that he will retire at the conclusion of the season means that the light at the end of the tunnel is now glowing brighter than ever. It’s no longer appropriate to expect Kobe to save the day; instead, now is the time for admiring what has been done.
Even though Bryant said he didn’t want a farewell tour, his early retirement announcement has created one. Every away game will now be an opportunity for opposing fans, long antagonized by Bryant’s greatness, to show their respect. Philadelphia set the bar high, with an emotional video package and a framed Lower Merion High School jersey that harkened back to Bryant’s days as a youth in Philly. Washington booed local hero John Wall at the free throw line while cheering for Kobe, Atlanta named the local zoo’s Black Mamba “Kobe” in No. 24’s honor. We can only imagine what Boston will do.
However, in the midst of these celebrations, it’s of the utmost importance that the Lakers not find their vision for the future obscured by the fog of nostalgia. As crucial as it is to appreciate Bryant’s final season, hard work and a keen eye will be needed to build the future.
With D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle on board, the Lakers potentially have a foundation in place, although the passing of the torch won’t come easily. Since announcing his retirement, Bryant has gone into All-Star game mode, taking an average of 22.3 shots, by far the most on the team. It’s going to be on head coach Byron Scott to juggle the growth of the young core while appeasing Bryant’s last hurrah. No small feat, and Scott has already taken plenty of criticism for Kobe’s high minutes and usage rate.
Scott knows, just as Lakers management knows, that it’s imperative that they find out exactly what they have in their young trio. Are they All-Stars? Superstars? Role players? Making that judgement call will ultimately guide their strategy as they move into the post-Kobe era.
Of course, while Bryant’s retirement announcement and the resulting conscience-free gunning it produced may create an even more delicate balancing act for Scott, for the Lakers front office, it provides the certainty of an uncertain future. Next year, with Kobe (presumably) sipping drinks adorned with umbrellas and frequenting golf courses, the team will need to make some very calculated decisions if it hopes to keep the casual fans tuning in.
Fortunately, when the summer of 2016 rolls around, the Lakers will have a mountain of cap space to work with and a roster consisting of just Russell, Randle, Young, Anthony Brown, Larry Nance Jr., and Lou Williams. Jordan Clarkson will need to be re-signed, but he will be a restricted free agent and thanks to the Arenas rule, will still be a bargain relative to his production. With money to burn and plenty of roster space available, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak will have some enormous decisions to make about how the team will attempt to return from the abyss.
Essentially, he will have to determine whether they want to continue the youth movement or if they want to cash in some (or all) of their young pieces for players who are ready to win now. There are pros and cons for either approach, and Kupchak will have to carefully weigh the opportunities that he is presented with and then decide which path to take.
The current trend in the NBA would demand that the Lakers continue to accumulate assets and develop young players. If they are successful at doing so, an opportunity will eventually present itself that will allow them to make the leap to the playoffs and championship contention. As this season wears on and the playoffs drift farther away, Scott can further shift his attention to the young players, just as he did last season when veterans like Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill found themselves benched in favor of their younger counterparts.
At the trade deadline, the team can explore moving proven players like Williams, Young, or Brandon Bass for whatever assets they can extract. Should they decide Roy Hibbert’s lumbering rim protection isn’t part of the future, they may also find a market for his enormous ($16 million) expiring contract. Kobe’s farewell tour can roll on, with the focus on the young core using any possessions that Bryant doesn’t while learning as much as they can from the long-toothed Mamba. The Lakers will rack up plenty of losses, and then pray for luck in the draft lottery, where they will retain their pick if it falls in the top three. Should fortune smile on the purple and gold once again, they could head into the 2016-2017 season with a bright future and a talented young core of Russell, Randle, Clarkson, and a blue chip prospect like Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, or Skal Labissiere.
Unfortunately, that lineup isn’t likely to attract any of the top-flight free agents next summer, and unless one of the young players has a Porzingis-level breakout, it might be tough for the Lakers to keep the eyes of the league on them. Making the playoffs would likely be a few seasons away, and contending for a title would be even farther down the road.
And it’s entirely possible that the Lakers aren’t willing to wait that long.
The other path, cashing in some of the young players for win-now pieces, is less popular within the Lakers fan base, who are eager for a true rebuild around exciting young players. However, when one reads between the lines, it appears as though this is the route the Lakers are most likely to take.
Without Bryant in the fold, the Lakers need a sure thing on their roster to bring them back to respectability and keep the TV ratings high, and young players can be a crap shoot. For the past few years, the plan has been to find a ready-made heir-apparent to take up the mantle from Kobe, and then use said player along with the LA weather and lifestyle to lure other stars. That was part of the appeal of landing Dwight Howard, and why the team chased Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge in consecutive offseasons even though it appeared unlikely that either would sign.
This past summer, the team also pursued Sacramento’s Demarcus Cousins via trade, and were reportedly willing to part with the No. 2 pick in the draft and possibly Jordan Clarkson in order to land him, with Julius Randle being the only deal breaker. They even attempted to acquire troubled guard Ty Lawson, hoping he would give them a little extra oomph as a playmaker.
If the Lakers truly are considering cashing in their chips, we could see a lot of activity from them as soon as the trade deadline. It’s now a certainty that Kobe will retire at the end of the season, and luring any free agent this summer, Kevin Durant or otherwise, will be difficult without a roster that is ready to win in place. If a deal presents itself that could provide a star player to begin putting pieces around, the way Houston did when they landed James Harden, the Lakers will have to strongly consider taking it, even if it means parting with a young talent like Russell.
Making such a move mid-season would almost certainly result in the 2016 draft pick ending up in Philadelphia’s hands, but there is a solid chance of that happening regardless. Giving up some of the young core, which has been the silver lining for enduring these past few seasons of losing, would be difficult and painful, but a sure-thing in the mold of a Cousins-type player has to sound appealing to a team with so much of its future up in the air.
Unless the Lakers are convinced that Russell, Randle, and/or Clarkson are going to eventually lead the team to championships, it wouldn’t be shocking to see any or all of them dealt in order to give the Lakers a post-Kobe product worth watching. This is especially true given Jim Buss’ self-imposed deadline of the summer of 2017 for the team to be contending once again, which is quickly approaching and doesn’t appear to be within reach without major changes.
Fans will rightly point to the fact that the Lakers lack of patience cost them dearly in the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard deals, and they still aren’t finished paying the price for it. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be shy about swinging for the fences again should the opportunity present itself.
The Lakers have had Kobe Bryant up their sleeve for the past 20 years, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the club moves forward this season and next summer now that they know he is retiring. The smart play may be to develop the young players and pray for lottery luck once again, but with patience running thin in Los Angeles and no new star rising (yet), the temptation will be strong to go with a sure thing and push the chips to the center of the table. The roster currently doesn’t have anyone ready for Bryant to pass the torch to, and that’s a scary thought for a franchise that isn’t used to being out of the limelight.
Without the security and viewers that Kobe Bryant brings, the Lakers will need to tread carefully going forward, and pick the correct path to lead them out of the mire.