INSIDE STORY: Lakers to do without Kobe

Jay Asser 11:25 21/12/2015
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Icon: Kobe Bryant,

The biggest box office flop in Hollywood over the past three years hasn’t been a motion picture, but rather a sporting franchise that’s more often than not been a smash hit.

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The Los Angeles Lakers, arguably the most glamorous team in the world of sport, are in the midst of an unprecedented stretch for the organisation as bottom dwellers in the NBA.

When people think of the Lakers, they think of star power, Showtime, courtside celebrities, Jerry West’ silhouette as the NBA logo, 16 titles and 31 Finals appearances. But while the glitz remains, the substance has gone missing.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Lakers’ winning percentage currently stands at .272. with little reason to think it will improve in the immediate future. The last time they were in the Championship conversation was briefly at the start of the 2012-13 season with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Moves that ended in disaster due to injuries, age and an ill fit.

This season’s team hold a 4-23 record, putting them on pace to once again come well short of the playoffs and a date with the lottery.

As always, Kobe Bryant has been at the centre of everything. The superstar announced on November 29 this will be the final season of his storied career, with his exit from the game set to bring an end to an era for the Lakers.

To comprehend their decline, it’s important to understand just how rare a species Bryant is and how much he’s carried the weight of the franchise on his shoulders for much of his career.

He’s earned MVP honours, been named Finals MVP twice, an NBA All-Star 17 times, All-NBA First Team 11 times, NBA AllDefensive First Team nine times and helped Los Angeles win five titles. Regardless of where your own subjective ranking of Bryant is in the NBA’s all-time pantheon, his impact on the game is matched by very few.

“It’s almost impossible to find a Kobe Bryant in the NBA – guys like him come around once every three or four NBA generations, if that,” said Eric Pincus of Lakers Now blog at the Los Angeles Times and senior writer at website Basketball Insiders.

It’s no coincidence that the Lakers’ recent struggles began when Bryant’s body began to deteriorate. The 37-year-old has dealt with a number of injuries during his days, but the Jenga block that essentially toppled the tower was the Achilles tear he suffered in April, 2013.

At the time, Bryant was averaging 27.3 points on 46.3 per cent shooting from the field to go with 5.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists. The surgery to repair the tear kept Bryant out until November the following season, when he signed a two-year extension that would pay him a total of $48.5 million – keeping him the league’s highest paid player but nowhere near the $32m a year he was eligible for.

The contract appears even more damaging in hindsight as Bryant would go on to play just six games in 2013-14 and 35 the following campaign due to a fractured knee and then a rotator cuff tear.

“I think with that, it’s a chicken or the egg argument,” said Mark Medina, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Daily News. “Obviously there’s no doubt his injuries have played a large factor in their struggles. That’s no one’s fault, Father Time is pretty tough.

“As far as his contract situation, it was a gamble that didn’t work out for the Lakers, but you can kind of see both sides of the coin. He took a relative pay cut but by still being the highest-paid player in the NBA, you can argue that hindered the Lakers’ ability to build a competitive roster around him. At the same token, they still had enough cap space to get a marquee free agent and build role players after that.”

Attracting those marquee stars is something that the Lakers have been able to do for a long time, but it hasn’t been the case as of late. Since Howard decided to leave LA for Houston via free agency in 2013, the Lakers have been spinning their wheels trying to bring in top players to surround Bryant with.

They’ve landed meetings with the best free agents, whether it was LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2014, or LaMarcus Aldridge this past summer, which shows the pull they still have in getting players to the table. But when it’s come down to delivering signatures, it’s been another story. The reality is, the franchise just isn’t in a state to win in the short term and stars aren’t clamouring for the opportunity to drag a team out of the depths of the league.

“They can’t just depend on being in a large market anymore. It’s a new competitive landscape, where because of the new salary cap situation and labour deal, you don’t need to be in a large market to be able to get a lot of exposure,” Medina added. “To some degree, they’re hanging on to their history too much.” 

An already-established winning atmosphere is something the team doesn’t have, but they do possess other factors working in their favour. For one, Bryant’s pending retirement will open up a plethora of cap space this coming summer, allowing the Lakers to pitch the idea of stars joining as a group, similar to what the Miami Heat pulled off by adding James and Chris Bosh to their core of Dwyane Wade in 2010.

“It’s best to look at cap space blocks – one max slot, two max slots, two max slots plus a half max. Lakers are potentially in the last group, which gives them more of an opportunity to bring in free agents together,” said Pincus.

“The Lakers have a big advantage still on market – other teams have other advantages, like those in states with low or no state income tax. Those advantages by themselves are not enough to land top free agents, but when coupled with the team being in a good place as far as contending again, then all things being equal, the Lakers have an edge over smaller markets.”

Boasting a massive amount of cap space makes the Lakers dangerous, but the problem of turning that into a star is two-fold for the franchise.

Firstly, many teams are expected to have copious space as the salary cap continues to balloon from $70m this year to a projected $90m next season and $108m the following one, thanks to an influx of money from the league’s new national television deal.

The Lakers will have plenty of competition in their pursuit of the free agent class, which, aside from Kevin Durant, isn’t too exciting when it comes to unrestricted free agents and players who could conceivably be on the move. Durant is the pie in the sky, but the more realistic option right now is for the Lakers to continue developing their young players, namely D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle.

Having a foundation of young talent would allow the Lakers much more flexibility to either grow the team together for the long term, trade them for win-now veterans, or even entice free agents.

Los Angeles are working their way through a new landscape, not just for them, but for the entire NBA. A return to prominence isn’t out of reach. It may just come at the end of a less-travelled path.

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