Commentary

Don't sell Lakers short

Even in down times, the franchise's star quality has way of attracting top talent

Updated: June 24, 2014, 2:44 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPN.com

Oh yeah, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Outside of a mild rhetorical skirmish between Kobe Bryant and Jurgen Klinsmann and some draft workouts at their training facility in El Segundo, there hasn't been much noise coming from the Lakers in a while. Which, depending on your point of view, is either exactly the kind of respite the franchise needs to help bury last year under the nearest rug, or terrifying in a town where fame is more fleeting than fortune.

It's been all Donald Sterling, all the time in Los Angeles since the Lakers' season ended and coach Mike D'Antoni resigned -- which is a bit of a sad commentary for the Clippers, who have big personalities in Blake Griffin, Doc Rivers and Chris Paul, but hopefully just a temporary phase. Eventually you figure the Clippers will go back to being a basketball team, not a tabloid story.

But what of the Lakers? What do they go back to being? The Lakers?

It's hard to picture much of anything now with just Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Kendall Marshall and whoever the No. 7 pick turns out to be on the roster for next season. They don't even have a coach yet, although Byron Scott has already had three interviews and is considered the front-runner.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
David McNew/Getty ImagesCan the Lakers acquire some top talent to play alongside Kobe Bryant in his final years?
It's hard to have much belief when so many of the Lakers' best-laid plans have gone cosmically awry the last few years. And just to rub those misfortunes in, reminders of them still affect the future: The Lakers owe their 2015 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns as part of the Nash trade and their 2017 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic as part of the Dwight Howard deal. Both are top-five protected.

But at 10,000 feet, without all the drama and pathos, things look a little different.

Let's say you package the No. 7 pick with Nash, who is owed $9.7 million in the final year of his contract, in a trade for: a good young player like Klay Thompson, who is eligible for a lucrative extension on a team that isn't sure it wants to pay him yet. Let's say you hold on to Nash until closer to the trade deadline, when everyone else is clearing out salary to position for what could be an epic free-agent summer of 2015.

It's not a catbird seat like Miami will be in for as long as LeBron James is there, and it's not as strong of a foundation as teams that already have two young stars like Houston, Portland or Chicago are working with. But it's a something. And things could really get interesting if the Lakers can find a way to package Nash with the No. 7 pick in a deal -- likely after July 1 -- that doesn't return any salary (say for a future draft pick or a veteran on a non-guaranteed deal) so they clear between $11 and $12 million in salary for this free-agent summer, giving them over $30 million in cap space to work with.

That's enough so that if two of this year's superstar free agents -- LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, etc. -- each took a little less ($15-16 million each) and wanted to play together and alongside Kobe Bryant, they could form a pretty hellacious threesome. It's also plenty of money with which to woo one superstar on a max deal and a player in the $10-12 million range, like Luol Deng, or re-sign Pau Gasol.

That's a heck of a lot of ifs, of course. One of the biggest being whether younger-generation stars want to play alongside Bryant during his golden years after the experiment with Dwight Howard failed.

But when you're in a spot like the Lakers, and you're still the Lakers, the mere possibility of wooing a LeBron or Carmelo or Bosh is a good enough reason to hold off on hiring a coach. Scott, Alvin Gentry, Lionel Hollins and Mike Dunleavy are the most serious candidates. Scott is the presumed front-runner by virtue of his status as a Laker legend and solid performance in three interviews. Hollins has the bona fides from his Western Conference Finals run in Memphis, and is right behind him. So was Gentry until he signed a three-year deal last week to be the associate head coach in Golden State, a job that will pay him over $800,000 a year. (He made over $500,000 in a similar role with the Clippers this season.)

But the Lakers haven't been in a hurry to hire anyone because, why would they be when hiring someone who could affect the decision of a free agent they might court after July 1? As sweetners go, influence over a coaching hire is a pretty good one.

It's also part of the image the Lakers have been projecting since giving Bryant that thank-you-for-your-service parting gift of a two-year, $48.5 million contract last fall.

They were built by superstars and they know how to treat them. That's the mission statement. This is Hollywood, come get the star treatment.

It's the pitch the Lakers have always made, and it's not changing with Jeanie Buss and Jim Buss running things now. The new CBA makes that more difficult, of course. And this new generation of stars is different from the older one. They don't buy on spec. You have to show them a business plan.

The Lakers will find out soon enough whether they need to retool the pitch that has always worked so well for them. But for now, they're warming it back up.

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