Accustomed as they are to almost absurd levels of star-driven, death-and-taxes, "Hey, another eastern sunrise!" success, Lakers fans aren't shy about looking to the future. They want assurances of continued success in a post-Kobe Bryant era. A little presumptuous? Annoying to, say, Pacers or Wizards fans? Yes, and yes, but this is what making the Finals every other year does to a city. Except here's the deal: The NBA's rank and file will soon have their revenge. Whenever the new CBA arrives, the landscape for the Lakers is virtually guaranteed to change, and not for the better.
Even more than the kind on the morning news, basketball meteorology is at best an inexact science, but the long range forecast for the Lakers hints at stormy skies. Among the reasons to keep an umbrella handy:
Assuming some form of hard cap, the Lakers will likely be faced with some tough personnel decisions in the next few years.
The existing roster is aging quickly, arguably their most appealing chip available to help alleviate the problem is 23 years old, and the draft is unlikely to provide a boost.
Between a hard cap and extended revenue sharing, the Lakers' ability not simply to get stars but also keep them will also be diminished, and meanwhile they'll be subsidizing the competitive efforts of other teams.
Kobe is nearly 33 years old, and has played more regular season and playoff minutes than all but 15 players in the history of the league. I don't care what super cool platelet therapy he's undergone, how many 360 dunks he's dropped at his camp, or whether Derek Fisher thinks he's spry. If I learned anything from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," mileage can't be peeled off the odometer. For Bryant, it's all about slowing the run towards basketball mortality, not moving away from it.
The Lakers will always be a money-making machine and L.A. a choice destination for NBA players, but as it relates to their current roster and the impending labor deal the purple and gold are a little like the boys of the Delta House after Dean Wormer revokes their charter. The future may look bleak, but in the here and now the Lakers are absolutely capable of laying waste to the homecoming parade. For all the hand-wringing over how last season ended- I was there, and it wasn't pretty- it's also easy to overreact. The Lakers were exhausted mentally and physically after three Finals runs, had a totally diminished Pau Gasol, comically bad outside shooting, and almost no production from their point guards and small forwards. They were scrambling just to look like a shell of themselves, yet still could (probably should) have won two of the first four games against Dallas.
Would the Lakers have eventually won the series? No clue. Probably not, given the way Dallas played through the postseason. But if they lose in six or seven to the eventual champs, we're having a different offseason conversation. Many NBA executives are still very, very frightened of the Lakers, and with a recharged, rested, and motivated see them as the team to beat out West. A core of Bryant, Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom is still as good as any foursome in the league. Augment them accordingly and good things can happen.
Wherever the cap falls- for what it's worth I think it'll end up some type of flex system in which top end teams can go into the $80 million range (obviously the lower the number, the worse it is for L.A.)- it won't be instant. The NBA won't eviscerate its highest spending teams by forcing them to shed tens of millions in payroll over one offseason. Too many of those teams drive interest in the league. More likely is a scenario in which two, maybe three summers pass before Capmageddon strikes. Well, guess what? Realistically speaking, this Lakers team has about two years left in their window, and only four players are under contract for 2013-14.
Yes, one of those is Kobe, for about $30 mil. Yes, that's going to be a serious, potentially ugly problem, even if the new CBA lets the Lakers shave 20 percent off his salary.
It's also a can to be kicked down the road, one that should, like most every problem related to their long term success, be tabled in the interest of the now. As soon as they're allowed, the Lakers need to begin a full frontal assault on Today. Their means may be limited, but even in that context everything should be done in the context of winning immediately*, of building a team capable of taking a title this season and next. Basically, the Lakers should be out buying 10,000 marbles and turning the family car into a Deathmobile.
And in the meantime, they should be leading the charge to make sure there is a 2011-12 season, because competitively the Lakers can't afford to give it away.
*This is not a license to do something monumentally stupid financially. My point is the Lakers can't sacrifice winning today to help preserve a more stable future, and would be wise to aggressively pursue a title caliber team today, even if it could hamstring them a little down the road.