Before the rise of the big three in Miami, one player served as the identity of the NBA. This player was none other than Kobe Bryant, who now after a year off the court is running out of time to win another championship. At 35, it is debatable that it might be too late for the future Hall of Famer.
Recently, while interviewed in Brazil during the World Cup, Bryant said how he is 100 percent and that he is ready to play next season. This is good news for Lakers fans, but at the same time, at 35 years of age and having played only six games last season, nothing is guaranteed. Another championship, in fact, has never been less guaranteed than this upcoming season for the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant nor anyone else currently on the Lakers, player or otherwise, even knows who will be on the team next season.
Starting Over: The reason why no one knows what the makeup of the Lakers will be is that there are only three players guaranteed to be on the squad next season. Coming into the 2014-2015 season only Bryant, 40-year-old Steve Nash and backup center Robert Sacre are currently under contract. Additionally, after firing D’Antoni earlier in the offseason, there is not a coach in place either. In the end, this is a good and bad situation for league’s most famous franchise. On the good side, the Lakers are not stuck with the same struggling team that went 27-55 and missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-2005 season. However, it also means that there is not a whole lot of motivation for anyone to come running to a team with an aging Kobe Bryant and no sense of direction.
Beyond the issue of going to a team with no true sense of direction, the other problem is that of the salary cap the Lakers have crippled themselves with. This starts with the bloated contract extension Bryant received during the season while he was still recovering from injury. Currently, he is set to make $23.5 million next year and $25 million during the 2015-2016. In essence, the five-time champion will be making a little over one-third of the cap limit. This is what is going to make it problematic to bring in quality players to the team. Yes, technically Los Angeles has the funds to bring in a marquee player, but at the same time, they still have to load the roster up to 12-15 guys. Considering also that there is no guarantee that Steve Nash will be playing consistently with an injury rivaling Kobe’s. This is a real problem for the Lakers. In other words, the likelihood of a Carmelo or LeBron joining the Lakers is highly unlikely.
It is still possible to make a quality team to surround Bryant as long as they are able to find players cheap. The team should not be looking at a secondary player beyond the $10 million threshold, if not less. So who should the Lakers go after? First and foremost, they need to find a dominant center or quality big man. If one looks at the history of Kobe Bryant, he is at his best when playing alongside a big man, whether it is Shaquille O’Neal or Pau Gasol. There is an up and coming center who will be entering free agency this summer in that of Greg Monroe, who played for Detroit last year. He averaged 15.2 ppg and 9.3 rpg and is only going to improve. The problem with potentially getting Monroe though is the fact that he is a restricted free agent, and considering the Lakers need to spend less at this time, it may be hard to snatch him from Detroit. If the Lakers are unable to pick up Monroe and they need to go cheap, they should go for Spencer Hawes who averaged 13.2 ppg and 8.3 rpg last season. Granted, those are not spectacular numbers, but they are nothing to dismiss either. Furthermore, he is only 26 years of age with plenty of upside.
The next vital piece that the Lakers need is a point guard. Sure, they have Steve Nash, but no one in their right mind truly thinks he is reliable in his injury-riddled state and being 40 years old. This is where the Lakers need to start looking at going for a mid-level guy as well as a backup point guard. The last piece the Lakers need to look at is by re-signing swingman Nick Young, who was one of the few bright spots on the Lakers last season. Young will be declining his player option of $1.7 million, but he has stated a desire to come back and, likely could be willing to return in the $5-7 million range.
Los Angeles can only afford to pay a few guys at the mid-level, so outside of a couple of decent names out there, the Lakers are either going to have to work with rookies they pick up in the draft, grab developing players coming into free agency or go after older veterans who are willing to take less money. The problem with the latter is that the Lakers are already an older team just between Bryant and Nash. Like Miami, Los Angeles needs players who are young and athletic who can compete with the younger teams of the league like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Who will be coach?: Another aspect in terms of the Lakers’ future championship hopes is also dependant on who they get as coach. As was evident from their last coach, it can make or break a team. It might be beating a dead horse, but D’Antoni was the wrong coach. He coaches a fast game that requires young, athletic players. Having Bryant, Nash, and Dwight Howard run that type of set was a disastrous mistake and very well could have been what destroyed Bryant’s knees. They need someone who knows the team makeup and can coach around that. They need a coach who is a teacher and demands respect from his players as well as that of Kobe Bryant.
In terms of possibilities, Byron Scott seems to be the frontrunner for the Lakers head coaching job. However, if Los Angeles hired him, it would be quite a risk. First off, his record is not the best at 416-521. Secondly, his best days as coach was when he was on the sidelines in New Jersey, a team that had quality veterans such as Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and more. While he did preach defense, and they were one of the best defensive teams of that era, he did not need to be a teacher. On the flip side, he had six and a half seasons in New Orleans. During that time, he only had two winning seasons and only made it out of the first round once. Worse yet is that when he recently coached a young Cleveland team, he garnered a 64-166 record. Yes, he has a close relationship with Bryant. Yes, the nostalgia factor is there as a former Laker player. However, considering Bryant only has two seasons left in him, they need a better coach.
Lionel Hollins has been talked about as well for the Lakers job, and he may very well be the best candidate for the job. He is a blunt, honest coach. He also is someone who is a teacher, as is evident from his time in Memphis, where he advanced a young group of guys into an efficient selfless team on both ends of the floor. This is why he is the best fit. One of the biggest problems with the Lakers the last number of years has been their lack of defense and basically allowing teams to run them off the floor. With an assumed younger squad, he will be able to teach his players a system that works.
Kobe Bryant undoubtedly will be classified as one of the top players to ever play the game; however, his time is running out. It does not help his cause that last season he only played six games. It also does not help that he does not have much of a team to lure a coach or free agents in. One thing that can be said about him though is that he is a true competitor. If there is a will, there will be a way with Bryant. He is arguably one of the most competitive players ever in the game, and probably the most competitive currently playing.
The problem is that the future of the Lakers is anyone’s guess. They could hit it big with a quality rookie, a respected coach like Hollins and, as a result, could pick up essential pieces and construct a solid team. On the other hand, the Lakers could be what they were last season — a team without an identity and consistency. Most importantly, Kobe Bryant could get hurt early on in the season, thus preventing him from winning that last championship or two. It truly is a gamble whether or not the future Hall of Famer will be able to catch Jordan, a mission that he most definitely has been on during his 18-year career, but without a shadow of a doubt, he will try to prove his critics wrong.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey