At The Crossroads

The Los Angeles Lakers are at a crossroads. Dwight is gone, Kobe is injured and that may just be a good thing, if handled correctly.

The NBA punishes mediocrity. It only rewards the great and the terrible. If you can’t compete for a title, you should completely bomb your season to get the highest draft position possible and then compete for a title. No one wants to be the Milwaukee Bucks or Atlanta Hawks or the Denver Nuggets for decades. (My sympathies to those fanbases). But this whole “sucking” business is something that the proud Lakers have never done. They traded up to get Magic, they traded Vlade Divac to get Kobe and they’ve signed every free agent – Dwight, Shaq, Kareem, Wilt – that they wanted since the merger.

Since moving to L.A., the Lakers have missed the playoffs four times, won 11 championships, appeared in 25 Finals and have never won fewer than 30 games in a season. They also haven’t picked higher than 10th in the Draft with their own pick since 1975.

But this is the time for the Lakers to take one season off from being the Lakers. Prepare yourselves, Laker fans. This year may be rough, and it should be. Kobe is old and decrepit and coming off a potentially career-hampering injury. Mike D’Antoni is still the coach and religiously runs a system that would work best at Loyola Marymount or a high school, not with aging NBA players. Pau Gasol has to be one of the most loyal players of all time after the season he just endured, but is paid a small fortune and his contract expires next year. He should be traded. Steve Nash is 40-going-on-50 and can’t stay healthy for longer than 30 games. And the Lakers don’t dare spend the money needed to fill the remaining roster spots with players who can play, due to luxury tax fears.

Steve Nash is currentlythe only player signed through 2014-2015. Hypothetically, the Lakers could just have a team with LeBron James and Steve Nash. They could win 50 games, right?

Losing Dwight is neither a positive nor a negative. It’s a push, really. The Lakers barely squeaked into the playoffs last year with Dwight. Without him, they may miss the playoffs. Not that big of a difference.

The Lakers do have a long-standing history of adding whoever they want, because they’re the Lakers and they play in L.A. But Dwight Howard broke this trend of free agents coming and staying. With the exception of Shaq, who left for Kobe Bryant reasons, Dwight is the first superstar to come to L.A., play here and willingly leave. But the validity of the Lakers’ pull with free agents shouldn’t be defined by Dwight Howard, who should have a weekly show on ESPN called, “The Indecision: I Really Have No Idea.” Dwight Howard shouldn’t worry people, but the risk of losing, or not signing, free agents because of the current Lakers administration – Jim Buss, primarily – could be a major problem.

Also, somebody call Rick Neuheisel because the basketball monopoly in L.A. is officially over. The Clippers are spending money like Donald Sterling is asleep, and signing big-time free agents like the Lakers did before they became more afraid of the luxury tax than the thought of missing the playoffs. This year Los Angeles belongs to the Clippers, and as horrible as that sounds, it may be a necessary evil to instigate change amongst the minds of the Lakers brass.

The 2014 Draft is the best draft in 7 or 11 years, depending on who you ask. The Lakers can trade basically everyone but Kobe – who will certainly sign a 2-3 year extension – for expiring contract guys and first-round picks. Stockpile, stockpile, stockpile and free up space for what will be henceforth known as the “Laker Overhaul of 2014.” The Lakers will have around $50 million in cap space for the 2014 season, but they’ll still have Jim Buss. That much money at the hands of the Lakers five years ago would’ve been terrifying for the NBA, but now it’s only mildly frightening.

The only problem with this plan to sign a ton of high-profile free agents in 2014 is that very few of them are unrestricted.

Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Danny Granger, Luol Deng and Andrew Bogut are the only star(-ish) players who are unrestricted. Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Greg Monroe and DeMarcus Cousins are indeed free agents but are restricted, meaning that their respective team can match any offer levied by a rival franchise and keep them where they are. Finally, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are part of the “Early Termination Option” group. These players can opt in for one more season on their current contract, or opt out and test the waters of free agency. That scenario where the Lakers make a full-fledged push towards LeBron won’t happen if he stays with the Heat for one, or more, years. Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo and Paul Millsap could all become free agents in 2015, so the Lakers could choose to suck for two years and hold out for a Hollywood return for KLove.

The Lakers’ 2014 season should be about three things: playing poorly and getting a good draft position, trading any assets left for high draft picks and expiring contracts and keeping Kobe out “injured” as long as possible, because everyone knows if he’s playing, he’ll kill himself to make the Lakers an 8-seed. Unfortunately, the Lakers won’t do any of this. Jim Buss and the boys will hold onto their assets, say “the Lakers don’t miss the Playoffs, the Lakers are the Lakers” to themselves at night and get bad draft picks.

The NBA hates the 8-seed. I know that Laker fans won’t want to acknowledge this, but this season is over before it even starts. Face facts, tank a little and try to rebuild not only for the next year, but the next 10.

And whatever you do, Jim Buss, don’t sign Carmelo.

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