Kevin O’Neill, a former front office guy in the NBA (mostly known for his subpar tenure as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors), once said that in professional sports you’re either selling wins or you’re selling hope.
The season the Lakers just had epitomizes that.
The Lakers were ousted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the 2012 playoffs, thus they acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the summer. Hope.
The Lakers fire Mike Brown after a 1-4 start and bring in Mike D’Antoni, who was supposed to bring the team back to respectability. Hope.
The Lakers bottomed out halfway through the season when they sat 12th place as of January 20th; at least Kobe’s still putting up numbers as a 35-year-old. Hope.
The Lakers held a team only meeting after another unconvincing loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. After the meeting they finished the regular season 28-12 to make the playoffs. Wins.
The Lakers get swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round after their top four guards go down with injuries within two and a half weeks, but hey there’s always next season. Once more, hope.
There are a couple issues with selling hope when you’re the Los Angeles Lakers.
1. Time is running out on your franchise player’s career. Kobe Bryant has openly said he will play until his contract runs out in the following summer and fade into the sunset before anyone notices any decline in his game.
2. Dwight Howard may or may not re-sign with the team. With him, the team got blitzed in the first round. Without him, the team might be even worse.
3. This past season, the Lakers paid $29,586,231 in luxury taxes (they were taxed a dollar for every dollar they were over the luxury tax threshold). If you think that’s a lot, when the new collective bargaining agreement kicks in next season, teams will begin paying an incremental tax that increases with every $5 million above the tax threshold ($1.50, $1.75, $2.50, $3.25, etc.). In other words, if this current team is kept intact for another year, the Buss family will have to pay nearly triple that, for another potential early round exit.
What we have here is a team at a “generational crossroads.” As Mark Heisler (another writer on this site) eloquently put it, if you want to put it more bluntly: they’re screwed.
What the Lakers tried to do last summer was commendable. They attempted to reload without rebuilding in an effort to squeeze a couple more championship runs with Bryant and Pau Gasol in tow. Adding Howard, Nash, Jodie Meeks while re-signing Jordan Hill is a hell of a summer for any team.
It’s unfortunate the plan blew up in their face one injury at a time, but that’s the NBA for you. An injury for one team translates into opportunity for another (see: Westbrook, Russell)
What’s important is moving on from that and learning from your mistakes. This year we learned that a team that was already reliant on two aging superstars, yes Pau Gasol is still a superstar, needed to be surrounded with youth, athleticism and pieces that complement them not by another aging star (Nash) and a superstar fresh off major surgery (Howard).
The San Antonio Spurs are a quintessential example of that, as they’ve kept their core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan together by adding pieces like a Kawhi Leonard, like a Danny Green, like a DeJuan Blair, like a Tracy McGrady (sorry, I couldn’t resist). It also helps that Coach Pop is logical at managing his players’ minutes, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.
As we head into this offseason, the options for the Lakers’ brass are limited but not nonexistent. In a time where every elite team in the league has begun gravitating away from the post, sans the Memphis Grizzlies, the Lakers are still banking on past glories with elite centers as hope that their current frontcourt can lead them to the promised land.
Unfortunately. the Lakers only have the veteran’s minimum to offer younger and better free agents this summer, so it looks like the Lakers will have to take the trade route with one of their big men in order to improve the aging roster.
This is where they’re stuck in a Catch 22.
If the Lakers trade Gasol, then they’ll be left with an unhappy Bryant entering, possibly, the last year of his career. That’s no way to send-off Bryant. Plus, Bryant also made it clear in his exit interview yesterday that he feels the team needs Gasol to win championships.
However, if you trade Howard, via a sign-and-trade come July 1, for a package that can hide the deficiencies of Nash, Bryant and Gasol, they’ll be left without a centerpiece to attract other major free agents (cough, LeBron James, cough) in the summer of 2014, when everyone besides Nash comes off the book.
Or Mitch Kupchak could just keep this current group together for one last run, praying to every religious figure that injuries won’t plague them for a second consecutive year, and see if they can carry the momentum from the end of this regular season to the beginning of the next one.
But by not amending any of the mistakes made last summer sooner rather than later, the Lakers could be selling hope with a hefty price tag once again this time next year.