- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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Los Angeles Lakers fans, brace yourselves.
You’re about to experience the basketball equivalent of the well-known lyrics of frequent courtside seat holder, Tom Petty:
“The waiting is the hardest part.”
For a team that has won 16 championships and made it to the NBA Finals 31 times (in a league that’s only been around 67 years, meaning that just about one out of every two seasons, L.A. is within four wins or less of the title), giving up on championship aspirations before training camp even opens up seems sacrilege.
But with Dwight Howard choosing to go to the Houston Rockets and L.A. now sporting an aging roster without the best big man in the game to make up for it, the 2013-14 season is destined to be nothing more than a holding pattern for the Lakers.
All is not lost, however.
The upside is that next summer promises to be a pivotal time in the franchise’s history. And if everything goes according to plan, the Lakers should be able to eventually vault themselves right back on a championship trajectory.
Before we get to the summer of 2014, let’s look at what the Lakers have in store for themselves in the immediate aftermath of Howard’s decision.
Outside of filling out their roster with the limited free-agent tools they have at their disposal (the mini mid-level exception of $3.2 million, as well as veteran minimum deals), the Lakers’ front office brass of general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss must figure out what to do with the players they currently have under contract.
A source familiar with the Lakers’ thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Ramona Shelburne they will not use their one-time amnesty provision on Pau Gasol during the July 10-16 window when the league allows teams to waive one player they signed prior to December 2011 without that money owed counting against their salary cap.
With Gasol back in the fold to slide over to center in Howard’s absence, that means the Lakers will most likely amnesty Metta World Peace.
While World Peace enjoyed a resurgent season last year, he is coming off minor knee surgery and waiving him would save the Lakers close to $25 million in salary and luxury tax fees.
Say Bryant is out until Christmas while his left leg recovers:
Will the Lakers be 10 games under .500 at that point without him? And if they are, would it be better to try to make a run for a low playoff seed at that point or simply join in the “Tank for Andrew Wiggins” movement that several teams -- the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors among them -- already seem to be primed to do in order to increase their odds of drafting the University of Kansas phenom?
The Lakers would never admit it, but bottoming out next season could be the best thing for the franchise in the long run.
As L.A. sent away future first-round draft picks last summer in order to acquire Howard and Nash, they were sure to hang onto their first-rounder in 2014. Wiggins is considered a generational talent along the lines of Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. But even if L.A. doesn’t end up with the No. 1 pick to land Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart are considered can’t-miss prospects, as well.
Maybe the Bryant-Nash-Gasol-led Lakers are still good enough to make the playoffs and maybe Bryant comes back sooner rather than later. That might take them out of the running for Wiggins & Co. But L.A. also has positioned itself to go after the league’s marquee free agents next summer, by carefully coordinating when it would have cap space open up.
Every player but Nash comes off the Lakers’ books after the 2013-14 season. Which means that should Bryant negotiate an extension at a discounted rate (think $10 million range), L.A. would be able to pursue not one, but two max-level free agents and immediately be in the hunt again.
It might seem like a pipe dream, but would you doubt the Lakers’ championship chances if they got Bryant and Gasol to come back on the cheap and were able to lure the likes of James, plus Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or DeMarcus Cousins or Paul George?
However, just like the Lakers' first-rounder in 2014 won't guarantee them a top-three pick if they miss the playoffs, having all that cap space doesn't guarantee a shot at any of these players. Some of them, most notably James and Anthony, would have to exercise an early termination option on their current contracts to hit the market. Others like Cousins and George (you can throw Washington's John Wall into the mix, too) will be restricted free agents, so something would have to go south in their current situations for their respective teams not to match any max offer that came their way.
“Should Dwight leave, we’ll have a Plan B,” Kupchak said the night of the draft, about a week before L.A. learned Howard would indeed be bolting for the Rockets. “It’s not going to be as good as Plan A. But we do have a plan that goes beyond one year.”
“It is a system. It’s not like there are no rules in the NBA,” he said. “There is a system that is in place that provides the team that does the worst [to get] the best picks. If you have good teams with good players, then the players have to be paid well. That puts you into an environment where you don’t have free-agent money and you can’t use exceptions. It’s hard to replenish that team.
“At the same time, the players get older. It’s a natural cycle that you have to live with, but you plan the best for opportunities. That’s not to say there won’t be a two- or three-year [rebuilding] period like there was in the early '90s. But if there was, we feel like it would be short-lived.”
It could be as short-lived as one year’s championship chances all but forgotten even before the season had tipped off.
Then all of the waiting could pay off big in the summer of 2014.
3dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne