Commentary

Lakers face major questions in '14

Pau Gasol dilemma is just one of many issues facing franchise in new year

Updated: January 2, 2014, 5:01 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

The Los Angeles Lakers started off 2013 with six straight losses in January and ended it with six straight losses in December. Fitting bookends for the worst year in franchise history.

From the death of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, to the most gruesome injury of Kobe Bryant's career, to Dwight Howard bolting to become the first major free agent the Lakers have ever lost, to the coach they chose to replace Phil Jackson being fired just five games into his second season, to more injuries than any team should have to deal with, it was a year Lakers fans would rather forget.

Or, as Nick Young put it on New Year's Eve: "I'm glad 2013 is over, and I'm looking forward to the future."

The future always brings the promise of a brighter day, but everything the Lakers have been through in the past year leaves them in a state of disarray that won't be so easy to get out of.

Here are four major questions facing the Lakers as they jump into 2014:

1. What will they do with Gasol?

Coming into the season, there were seemingly two directions the Lakers could go with Pau Gasol: He has a bounce-back year, prompting L.A. to feel compelled to want to keep him around with a contract extension if Gasol is willing to take a significant pay cut; or, Gasol continues to be the second-rate version of himself on the court that he's been the past several seasons. But in that scenario, he is still a good locker room guy and a global ambassador for the Lakers brand, so they let Gasol play out his contract and walk as a free agent in the summer of 2014.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsThe Lakers have shopped Pau Gasol, but will he stay or will he go?
Then the season actually unfolded, with Bryant getting a $48.5 million mega-extension (eating up what little cap space that would be left for Gasol if L.A. went all-in on a max-level free agent), Gasol's on-court game struggling (shooting a career-low 44.3 percent from the floor) and his off-court intangibles not even adding up the way they have before (Gasol got in a public spat with coach Mike D'Antoni about his role in the offense). Suddenly a midseason trade -- once thought unlikely because the odds of finding a suitor who would swap expiring contracts back in the deal seemed remote -- presented a third direction.

The Lakers have shopped Gasol for the better part of a month now, speaking to Brooklyn, Chicago, Houston and currently Cleveland about a deal that would save L.A. in the neighborhood of $20 million if they swap Gasol for Andrew Bynum and then waive Bynum before Jan. 7 when the other half of his $12.5 million contract becomes guaranteed. The team's recent nosedive and a brutal January schedule with 10 of its 15 games on the road made it clear that this isn't the Lakers' season. The best move is to start setting themselves up for the future, and that means unloading Gasol in the proposed Bynum trade and getting under the luxury tax line (they have do so two out of every five years to avoid the highly punitive "repeater tax"). In the process, not winning a lot of games this season would give their upcoming pick in the first round a better chance of becoming a higher selection in the lottery.

2. W.W.K.D. -- What will Kobe do?

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsKobe Bryant might not be so quick to return from his latest injury.
With hope for success this season already just a memory, Bryant's return from a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee won't make or break a playoff berth for the Lakers whenever he does decide to return. Bryant, who lamented not having a training camp when he made his initial foray back into game action following an eight-month hiatus because of an Achilles tear, can use the rest of the 2013-14 season as a glorified preseason to get himself right for 2014-15 and 2015-16 -- the final two years on his contract. That might mean not pushing himself quite so hard to get back within the six-week timeline the team initially laid out. Instead, he should take a more cautious approach to prevent another injury in his left leg, an injury that would hamper him even further when he gets back into the swing of things.

3. Is D'Antoni's job in jeopardy?

D'Antoni
D'Antoni
In a word, no. Lakers management stands behind him. The downward spiral that the Lakers have found themselves in should be pegged to injuries to Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, etc. -- not to anything lacking from their coach. If anything, D'Antoni should be commended for getting this team to a .500 record (13-13) nearly one-third of the way through the season. Besides, D'Antoni is under contract for next season for a guaranteed $4 million, and don't underestimate how much a financial incentive that is to keep him around. Something unforeseen would have to occur --a historic losing streak, a caustic locker room incident, etc. -- in order for D'Antoni to be fired.

4. Who will be around from this team next season?

Bryant, definitely. And also Robert Sacre, who is under contract already for about $1 million. After that? It's conceivable that not one other player on the team will be wearing purple and gold next season. Nash will assuredly be waived via the stretch provision that will allow the Lakers to pay the nearly $10 million they owe to the former two-time MVP for next season over a three-year period with only about $3 million of that money counting against the cap annually. Nick Young would be welcomed back, should he exercise his player option worth about $1.2 million, but Young is playing so well this season he should be setting himself up for multiyear offers from around the league.

Everyone else -- Blake, Farmar, Henry, Jordan Hill, Wes Johnson, Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks, Shawne Williams, Ryan Kelly and Kendall Marshall -- has expiring contracts. And even if L.A. has been impressed by the growth of some of these players, it won't be looking to dole out long-term deals to this group with so much left to be determined by the free-agency market in the next two summers. Plus, if the Lakers end up tanking, why would they want to commit long-term dollars to players who came off such a bad year collectively?

Depending on which free agent the Lakers can lure this summer, next season could be another year to load up on one-year contracts to retain max flexibility for the summer of 2015, when the team really decides to make a splash with better (or more realistic) top-tier talent available.

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