Years from now, long after Kobe Bryant has scored his final points and hung up his Los Angeles Lakers jersey for good, this summer will be looked at as the offseason that salvaged what was left of his career, or the ploy that diverted a pursuit to which there was no end.
Translation: This summer is important.
By extending Bryant for another two years, the Lakers committed to an accelerated rebuilding process. You don’t hand a 35-year-old Bryant nearly $50 million if you plan on lollygagging your way to better days. The turnaround needs to be quick. It needs to be instantaneous.
“This organization is just not going to go [down],” Bryant told Darren Rovell for SportsCenter’s “Sunday Conversation” in March, per ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave McMenamin. “It’s not going to take a nose dive. But I think we need to accelerate it a little bit for selfish reasons, because I want to win and I want to win next season.”
Next season. The path to Bryant’s sixth championship is supposed to begin next season. He has two years to win, two short years until he likely retires. There is no waiting, no delaying. There is only now. And right now, the Lakers are bad. They are tied for the NBA’s fifth-worst record and approaching a draft with more individual meaning than any other draft since 2005 when they selected Andrew Bynum.
Typically, these are onset signs of an abiding rebuilding process. Games are lost and draft picks compiled for seasons at a time. Then, if said team is lucky, its reclamation process eventually yields a polished product capable of contending.
“Process” isn’t a word the Lakers are familiar with, though. They don’t rebuild; they reload.
Contrary to most other transitioning teams, the Lakers are assembled for an immediate return to prominence. Not only do they play in one of the NBA’s biggest markets, but they’re teeming with cap flexibility, financially sound enough to place another superstar alongside Bryant.
That’s the plan. The only plan.
Or maybe not.
While speaking with USA Today’s Sam Amick, general manager Mitch Kupchak downplayed the significance of Bryant’s input, refusing to admit the Lakers were operating on a short-lived timetable. He instead introduced the Lakers and their fans to a foreign concept: patience.
“I’m confident that over time, that we’re going to be able to assemble a team that’s competitive, fun to watch,” he told Amick.
Over time? As in not right now?
“The short answer is that yes, I’m hoping to be very competitive in a year or two, but the key really is over time,” he added.
Well, that’s new. The Lakers don’t have time. Or rather, Bryant doesn’t have time. If he’s going to win, he has to win now, next season. Waiting isn’t an option for him.
But it is for the Lakers.
Quite literally, the Lakers are under no obligation to frantically spend on free agents this summer. Their agreement is a tacit one. They kept Bryant, so their job is to win now. That means making plays for free agents, wooing the Carmelo Anthonys and Luol Dengs and chasing the long shots like LeBron James.
Unless that’s not their job.
If the Lakers prioritize their big picture over Bryant’s fast-closing title window, they’re free to grind this out and preserve cap space. And with each passing day, it looks more and more likely that’s what they’ll do.
Kupchak has already indicated the Lakers are interested in bringing back Pau Gasol, according to the Los Angeles Daily News’ Mark Medina. While that’s bound to please Bryant, Gasol isn’t someone you build a title contender around anymore. Pushing 34, he’s a stopgap, someone who eats up cap space and hopefully provides solid minutes as his team bides its time in anticipation of inevitably moving on to someone better.
Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding also makes it clear the Lakers are unlikely to embark on a free-agent spending spree this offseason, preferring instead to wait for summer 2015, when the superstar pool deepens considerably.
Summer 2015 isn’t far off, but it still demands Bryant wait. The Lakers cannot forge a contender during the offseason while simultaneously looking ahead to 2015. It’s just not possible. And though asking Bryant to wait one more year may not seem like much, it’s a lifetime to him.
For starters, he’s Kobe Bryant, the abrasive, strong-minded, open-mouthed superstar who detests losing and views every ringless season as soul-crushing, life-maiming failures. On top of that, he’s now old and impatient and therefore cranky.
“We might have had the worst season ever or could have the worst season ever for a Lakers team, but now let’s have the greatest comeback that the league has ever seen,” he told Rovell, per McMenamin.
Imagine telling Bryant—that Bryant—his opportunity to legitimately contend for a sixth ring is limited to 2015-16, when the Lakers will presumably come closer to meeting his standards. Then picture explaining to him they cannot even guarantee that one season.
There’s no guarantee Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo or another star joins the Lakers in 2015. If and when they do, there’s no promising it works. And if it does work, there’s no ensuring it’s enough that soon.
Not even the Miami Heat consummated the Big Three’s first season together with a championship. The 2012-13 Lakers also understand how quickly ring-seeking expeditions can morph into hell-raising free falls. Waiting until 2015 to be aggressive essentially means the Lakers are placing stake in becoming the (more) modern version of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, who won a championship immediately upon Kevin Garnett’s and Ray Allen’s arrivals.
In more ways than one, this summer is a test, a measurable assessment of where the Lakers’ loyalties lie—to Bryant and his present-day expectations, or to their future and the need to build something that lasts longer than Bryant.
Answers will be provided in every move they make, from on-court personnel to who’s coaching from the sidelines.
Will they chase superstars and place stock in big names? Or will they let most of this roster roll over into next season?
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News says the Lakers are hoping to part ways with head coach Mike D’Antoni. When they search for a new coach, will they target established sideline-meandering All-Stars who cater to Bryant’s win-now edict? Or will they think big picture, setting their sights on a younger, forward-thinking coach?
All this stuff matters. The Lakers will lean one way or the other, bending to Bryant’s will or advancing their own agenda. Barring James’ sudden desire to sign in Los Angeles or some other form of miraculous recourse, the latter is far more likely.
Luckily for Bryant, things could still change. The Lakers could opt to hunt big game, or the stars could come to them.
Early inclinations could also prove accurate, leaving the Lakers to place the fate of their next five-plus seasons ahead of Bryant’s final two.
Whatever happens this summer, it’s going to set the tone for Bryant’s status during his remaining days.
Retrospectively, his extension will either be seen as an implicit duty the Lakers break their backs pandering to, or hush money meant to soften the blow of Bryant realizing the success he seeks won’t actually be sought for at least another year.