Kobe Bryant and Mitch Kupchak hold up a silly trophy (Andrew D. Bernstein/ Getty).
A little more than 11 months ago, the Los Angeles Lakers traded for All-NBA center Dwight Howard in a move that seemed to create a fresh dynasty for one of the two most storied franchises in basketball history. After a season filled with injuries, disappointment, and more than a few tabloid-ready controversies, that dream will have to be deferred. On Friday, free-agent Howard all but officially agreed to join the Houston Rockets, as first reported by Sam Amick of USA Today and clarified further by Yahoo!'s own Adrian Wojnarowski. Now we must wonder what comes next for a Lakers franchise not accustomed to losing out on a big-name player in such a public fashion.
Our Kelly Dwyer has already covered the immediate, general ramifications for Los Angeles. While the loss of Howard will open up gobs of cap space for the Lakers in the summer of 2014 — a quasi-sequel to 2010 in which LeBron James, Kevin Love, and others figure to hit the open market — the team's prospects for 2013-14 look downright depressing. With Kobe Bryant likely sidelined at least a few months with a torn Achilles tendon, Pau Gasol coming off one of his most uneven seasons ever and Steve Nash contending with seemingly every nagging injury imaginable, the team's current core raises many more questions than it answers. As a franchise with no meaningful cap space and a paucity of solid trade chips, the Lakers have few options to add players over the rest of this summer. Their best hope is in nabbing a quality, yet risky player with a short-term midlevel exception contract — like, say, former Laker Andrew Bynum, who played zero games last season for the Philadelphia 76ers — but available free agents may not want to settle for a relatively minor deal.
Regardless, the Lakers are clearly putting a lot of stock in their ability to rebuild a contender next summer, and this is where their predicament becomes tricky. If they are very bad — which is somewhat likely with a sidelined Kobe, a hobbled Nash a questionably effective Gasol, and little else — the Lakers could end up with a budding star in what figures to be a loaded 2014 draft. For that matter, they figure at least to get in the room with any free agent they choose to pursue. Like the New York Knicks in 2010, the Lakers are equipped to remain an enticing destination through a down period simply because their reputation and location carry so much weight around the league. And while the Knicks didn't exactly succeed in all their aims in 2010, the Lakers are much closer to a period of contention now than the Knicks were three years ago. Their history means enough for free agents to listen to what they have to say.
It helps that L.A. has proven their ability to escape the doldrums of non-contention before. In 2007, after several post-Shaq seasons of middling results the Lakers looked on the brink of losing an in-his-prime Bryant in a trade, only to pounce on the opportunity to obtain Pau in a one-sided trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. (The emergence of Pau's brother Marc has made that deal look better in retrospect, but his perceived value was very low at the time.) Although Dr. Jerry Buss's passing has changed the structure of the top of the organization, the brain trust that orchestrated that move (and the Howard trade, which looked like a coup) is still in place. There's enough of a track record there to convince potential free agents that the Lakers are in between successes, not headed on a downward trajectory towards irrelevance.
However, they're going to have to present that evidence in the most compelling way possible, because their current situation does not befit a team on the brink of winning a championship just by adding one more really great player. (Howard is a star, remember, and the 2012-13 team barely made the postseason.) Kobe is undoubtedly one of the best players ever, but he'll turn 35 on Aug. 23 and will have to prove he's recovered from an injury that's proven very difficult to rehabilitate. This roster has a constrained period of relevance, one likely shorter than the three years Bryant says he can play. The Lakers broke out the billboards to keep Howard — an injury risk getting closer to an age at which a big man's impact typically diminishes — because he was their best chance at transitioning into the next era of Lakers' basketball without having to slide into the lottery. That problem has only become more apparent after Friday's reports.
If the Lakers are going to solve it, they're going to have to formulate a coherent plan to figure out how. In the past few weeks, fans and legitimate decision-makers alike have argued that the Lakers were the best team for Howard because their tradition and knowledge of what it takes to win could carry him to amazing heights. But teams don't win due to the afterglow of history — they do so because they put together winning basketball teams. The Rockets were a more attractive destination in part because, in possession of a young roster showing rapid improvement, they presented a more tangibly impressive opportunity to contend.
The Lakers' history does not grant them magical powers. If the organization has proven remarkably resilient to upheaval, it's because the people in charge — Jerry West, Mitch Kupchak, the Buss family, et al. — have never rested on their laurels and always looked to improve the team at any cost. Their past championships are not indicators of future success, but the result of all the hard work (and luck) that went into achieving those goals. The answer here is not to fall back upon the organization's reputation and assume they will prevail. After a season-plus as a sideshow, the Lakers need to realize they're in trouble and get serious.
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