The lights at Staples Center have grown dim. The roar of the crowd has faded. The Lakers themed confetti is gone, resigned to the trash heap (or eBay).
Kobe Bryant has left the building.
The Los Angeles Lakers now head into an offseason of uncertainty without their star for the first time in two decades. The team’s win total has sunk lower and lower for three consecutive years, and this past season they set the franchise record for ineptitude.
Meanwhile, Lakers supporters are growing impatient as the rebuilding process drags on. Some are starting to lose faith in the organization, which boasts the largest fan base in the league.
Troubling times in Laker Land, to be sure.
General manager Mitch Kupchak has repeatedly said that the team has three areas that they can utilize to rescue the team from basketball purgatory: the draft, free agency, and trades.
While this is true, a larger question looms over the sunny skies of Los Angeles, and the answer will ultimately dictate the success or failure of the club: Just how desperate are the Lakers?
Most franchises these days, were they in the position that the purple and gold find themselves in, would continue playing the long game. Draft young players with potential, avoid signing cap-clogging big deals and look for scenarios where assets can be poached from other teams via trade.
Eventually, those moves will lead to a defining moment when either a star is drafted or can be acquired via trade, and from there the push towards relevancy begins.
Look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, who lucked into Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft and made a smart deal to swipe Andrew Wiggins from Cleveland. They have now hired a masterful head coach in Tom Thibodeau and are poised to make a leap in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a quick process. The Wolves missed the playoffs for over a decade and are just now coming back up.
The Lakers don’t have that kind of time.
Jim Buss, Lakers Vice President of Basketball Operations, has an infamous self-imposed deadline to return the team to contender status before the summer of 2017. If he can’t, Buss has promised to resign from his post.
Buss isn’t too keen on quitting, but it’s difficult to see the current roster as a contender a year from now. If he wants to stick around, it’s going to require some massive risks, and Lakers fans know all too well how those can backfire.
After all, a petulant Dwight Howard and an injured Steve Nash were all it took to knock the Lakers into the Sarlacc pit that they currently reside in.
In addition to Buss’ ticking clock, the Lakers also have the pressure of slipping TV ratings and fan attendance to deal with. Last season the Kobe retirement tour kept fans tuning in and buying tickets, hoping to get one final glimpse of the Black Mamba before he hung up his high tops.
Should the Lakers attempt to trot out a sub-par lineup again, the drop in ratings will be noticeable. Lakers fans live and die with the team, but let’s face it, the on-court product has been difficult to watch. With so many other entertainment options in Southern California, casual fans will be more than happy to avoid the Lakers for the time being.
Sure, the “bandwagoner” accusations will fly, and maybe rightfully so, but watching a team that loses badly on most nights can be a trying experience. Fans want to cheer for a team that does the impossible and thrills them on the nightly basis, not one that brings them down.
Fewer eyes on the team mean less cash is coming in, and that’s something the Lakers aren’t accustomed to.
The diehards will always be there, rain or shine, but ultimately the Lakers need a new superstar to build around, someone to bring hope for the future. It’s debatable whether or not that player is currently on the roster.
Finding said star won’t be easy, though.
The free agent crop this summer is remarkably thin. The only superstar available is Kevin Durant, and after him are a handful of All-Star level players like Al Horford, Mike Conley, and DeMar Derozan.
With the salary cap rising the majority of the league will have money to burn, creating a feeding frenzy that will leave many franchises out in the cold. Most free agents these days prioritize winning first and foremost, which means that the Lakers could find themselves as one of the teams who end up going hungry in spite of the roughly $60 million that they could have to spend.
The Lakers do have some assets at their disposal, mostly in the form of young players like D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson.
They may also have one of the top picks in the 2016 NBA Draft. Should the lottery balls bounce their way, the Lakers could wind up adding another young talent like Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram to their core.
However, even if the do keep their pick (if it falls outside the three it goes to the Philadelphia 76ers thanks to the Nash trade), adding another young player may not get the team back to respectability next season. A rookie, even the number one overall pick, wouldn’t be a major draw for free agents, who typically look for situations where they can win right away.
Rookies make mistakes, and mistakes in the NBA equal losses. Free agents don’t have time for that.
What this all boils down to is that, once the status of their draft pick is known, the Lakers will have to decide between continuing to build around the young players or cashing in some of their chips in an attempt to win now.
There are a few star players who could potentially be dealt this summer, with Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins and Chicago Bulls wing Jimmy Butler topping the list. If the Lakers keep their pick, the temptation will be strong to use some of their young assets to land a ready-made star now, and then head into free agency with money to burn and the draw of an All-Star already on the roster.
As painful as it may be, the team could decide that moving Russell, Randle, Clarkson, and/or the draft pick is the correct path to take if it means getting back to winning basketball in the here and now.
Of course, it takes two to tango, and should a desirable player become available via trade there will be plenty of suitors. There are no guarantees that the Lakers will be able to beat offers presented by other teams, or that the sellers will be realistic with their asking prices, but the Lakers will certainly be listening to all options to see if something makes sense.
The argument can be made that the Lakers need to stay the course and keep their young assets. Making the correct decisions with young players can ultimately create a longer window for success, but the risk is much higher that they won’t pan out.
Given everything that is at stake, though, from Jim Buss to the ratings to even the team’s slipping allure, it’s not difficult to imagine the Lakers opting to go with the sure thing and try to make a deal. They would certainly feel more comfortable heading into the terrifying post-Kobe world with an established star already in place and ready to do the heavy lifting.
Other questions still linger, most notably regarding the fate of head coach Byron Scott. Ultimately, though, Kupchak and Buss will need to determine the direction of the franchise this summer and then proceed forward from there.
Do they take the risk and continue to build around young players, or do they find a deal and then try to reload in free agency?
Let’s hope they choose wisely.