THE CLOCK IS TICKING ON THE KOBE BRYANT ERA (A TRAGEDY IN FOUR PARTS)

And believe me, Kobe is well aware of it. At this point, it’s not a question of how long he can continue to play at this level because honestly speaking, he might just go on forever. No, this is about the mess the Lakers’ front office has made in recent months, and the rapidly shrinking window for this team to win another championship anytime soon.

How did all of this come to be though, and what exactly happens next? Good question, complicated answer. Here it is, in four parts.

CHAPTER I: THE TRUSTAFARIAN 

It’s been building for years.

Ever since the mid 2000’s, Jim Buss has had a growing voice in his fathers’ organization, starting with his insistence upon drafting a 17 year old high school kid named Andrew Bynum with the 10th pick in the 2005 Draft.

Since then, his influence has grown to the point where most insiders would say he is essentially running the franchise or is at the very least the final say in all Basketball matters. Much of this was made clear to Brian Shaw when he interviewed for the head coaching job last summer and was advised by outgoing coach Phil Jackson to attempt to distance himself from the jackson regime if he wanted to be the new Laker coach, with the idea that the younger Buss was threatened enough by Jackson’s legacy of success that he wanted to divest the team of all ties to it. Shaw refused, and essentially eliminated himself from consideration, but not before sitting through and interview that consisted largely of Buss making snarky and derrogatory remarks about Jackson.

From there, it was clear that this story was following a pattern similar to the one that went down in Chicago, when Gm Jerry Krause’s similar desire to succeed outside of Jackson’s shadow led to him running off the nucleus of a three-time defending NBA champion, only to complete wreck the franchise and be fired a few short years later when his rebuilding effort went bust.

Well, you know what they say about those who don’t learn from history, right?

As it it stands now, you have a team that is stuck in the most delicate of situations: talented enough to compete but not good enough to win a title, featuring a sky-high payroll, a brand new coach and a short window to do any serious damage. In other words, they’re doomed unless someone can find a way to improve this team soon, and the league-wide consensus is that Jim Buss is not the man for the job and Mitch Kupchak has been essentially stripped of any real decision-making powers.

Oh, and did I mention that the owners’ son is building his master plan for the future around the coaching prowess of Mike Brown and the surgically reparied knees of Andrew Bynum?

So yeah, it’s safe to say that whatever becomes of this team, it will most likely belong on the resume of the Trustafarian, and the chances of it having a happy ending are decreasing by the day.

CHAPTER II: THE TANTRUM


Sometimes life is all about plan B. As in, you better have one in case plan A goes bust. In this case, plan A was making a blockbuster deal for Chris Paul, so that the Lakers would likely re-assert themselves as title contenders with a nucleus of Bryant, Paul and Andrew Bynum. Even if the supporting cast looked a little thin, this still seemed like a smart move, bringing in arguably the best point guard in the game and getting younger in the process.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way, as Commissioner David Stern stepped in and squashed it like a bug, claiming (correctly, I might add) that the league-owned Hornets needed to receive a package that would bolster their future rather than their present so that they might have something to sell to a perspective buyer. Whatever the reason, it was Stern’s call to make and he made it.

And just like that, the Lakers’ plan A went up in smoke.

And there they were, left with two emotionally fragile stars who were blindsided by the teams’ attempt to ship them out. Lamar Odom in particular had a pretty strong reaction to the news. And then, for reasons that may never be adequately explained, the Lakers immediately dumped Odom off to the Mavericks for nothing more than a late draft pick and a trade exception they may never use. Regardless of whether they did it to spite him, to appease him or merely because Jimmy Buss threw a tantrum at the idea that Odom was so disturbed by the teams’ actions, the Lakers made a snap decision that did immeasurable harm to not only the current roster, but the teams’ ability to make a significant trade in the near future. Giving away a player with Odom’s value for nothing on a moments’ notice is a bad idea, period.

No matter how you cut it, they’ll never get that one back.

CHAPTER III: THE LUXURY TAX LOOMS LIKE THE GRIM REAPER (THE GREAT PAU DILEMMA)

As if they didn’t have enough problems…

Seriously though, this is the big one. As a result of the new labor deal, the league has put new restrictions on the kind of carefree spending that the big market teams were doing, lest the NBA turn into major league baseball. Step one was to make it practically impossible for a team like the Lakers to maintain their 95 million dollar payroll without being taxed into oblivion.

Sure, the teams were given two years to acclimate to the new world order, but come 2013, everyone better be lean and mean or suffer dire consequences. Here’s a look at the new plan.

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Suffice to say, the league isn’t screwing around with this “soft-cap” business anymore.

As it stands, the league’s luxury tax threshold stands at 71 million per team now, which means it will be around 75 by the time the new tax kicks in. As of today, the Lakers’ payroll is at 85 million for a team that by all accounts isn’t a serious title contender. By the 2014 math, this team would be paying another 20 million or so in penalties alone for a team that isn’t that great.

Not gonna happen, in other words.

That said, the challenge now is to get the payroll down as much as possible while still retaining a team that can make serious noise, and to do so before Kobe is past his time as an elite player.

The most critical component here is Pau Gasol, and there isn’t even a close second.

Now 31 and likely on the downside of his career, Gasol is still a widely celebrated player and a guy coveted by a great many teams. Of course, he is still due 57 million dollars over the next three years, and given the future of the salary cap it’s tough for any team to pay that kind of money to their #2 player and still remain competitive, and it’s going to get more difficult with each passing year. And since nobody in their right mind (or even their wrong one) is going to trade Kobe at this stage of the game, that leaves Gasol as the most likely and practical trade candidate. All that’s left is to figure out if the team is better off with or without him.

Problem is, this is only going to work if you have a solid strategy in place. There are only a few ways to go with this that make any sense, and they are as follows.

-Go all-in for the next two years, then blow it up in the summer of ’13

In this scenario, you keep Pau Gasol,  take what you can get for Lamar’s 9 million dollar trade exception and try to swing another move or two to give this team another body or two. Ideally, you find a player who can score and make a difference with the first unit and an upgrade at the point. The recent rumors of the Lakers’ interest in the talented-but-wacky Michael Beasley and Cavs’ PG Ramon Sessions seem to indicate some sort of possible move in that direction, but all of that talk is nothing more than rumor at this point. Still, with the lamar exception to throw around it is still possible to add enough to this team to make it a serious contender once again.

-Make a bold play with an eye toward both the present and the future

This is where all the Pau Gasol talk comes in. With a player of Pau’s talent, reputation and 18 million dollar salary, the choices are to either trade him to a team in search of a star and receive a package of lesser players and draft picks, or try and swing a more difficult star for star deal. The latter scenario only makes sense if you can find a star that improves the team, and that looks unlikely in the present climate.

If you do try and swing a deal for depth, you’d be looking at shoring up the depth at the expense of one of the league’s elite players. If this really is a money issue or a product of the teams’ opinon that Pau’s best years are behind him, now is the time to sell him while his value is still high and attempt to get younger and more flexible roster wise. With the right deal, this team hits the ground running as a re-tooled contender. With the wrong one, they are basically entering rebuilding mode.

Again, this could get awful tricky.

CHAPTER IV: WINNER AND STILL UNDEFEATED…FATHER TIME

As everyone knows, both in sports and life, he’s gonna get you sooner or later. In this case, the Lakers appear to have this year and the next to make another run or two before they will come to the fork in the road, and by then they’ll be paying an almost 36 year old Kobe Bryant 30 million dollars in the final year of his contract. After that, nothing else can be certain, from whether old Kobe is going to take less money to come back and play as a no-longer-dominant force to wether the Lakers will even want him then. For what it’s worth, Bryant has repeatedly stated that he plans on being a laker for life and doesn’t plan to chase rings elsewhere in his old age. In all likelihood, Andrew Bynum will be the franchise cornerstone in three years time, unless the Lakers somehow find a way to win the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, an idea that feel like a longshot at this point.

Of course, everything in between remains a mystery. Will the Lakers have found a way to reload without going through the lean times that befall most former contenders? After all, LA has missed the playoffs exactly one time in the last 18 years, and that was the first season after the Shaq trade. When you charge what the lakers charge for tickets, rebuilding isn’t going to be tolerated, at least not in the traditional sense.

Without being too dramatic here, the next few years of the franchise’s fate will most likely be determined in the next few months. Either they get aggressive now, even at the risk of lean times in the post-Kobe world, or they pack it in for the future and risk getting left in the dust by the upstart Clippers. As long as Jerry Buss breaths air, it’s hard to imagine him being fine with the Lakers being relegated to also-ran status.

For better or worse, this chapter in Laker history is nearing a close. Whether or not there is a happy to it will will depend on the actions of Jim Buss and his new regime.

If you are a fan of this team, now might be a good time to cross your fingers.

 

-John Hathwell

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