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The Lakers are on the Clock

This isn’t a team that’s one free-agent signing from competing for a title. This isn’t a roster that’s one move from vaulting up the Western Conference Standings — where it takes 50 wins just to earn a chance to get on the VIP postseason list. With Kobe Bryant coming off his third major injury, sophomore Julius Randle coming off a rookie campaign that lasted less than one game before he lost his season to a broken leg and D’Angelo Russell having proven nothing at the NBA level, this is a Lakers team that offers nothing about its future, instead relying on past glory in order to sell the future.

And that’s exactly the problem. The Lakers are living in the past.

Bryant is one of the best three players to ever wear the purple and gold, but he’s got one (maybe two?) seasons left in his career before moving on. Los Angeles will then be forced to turn the page (for good) at that point, and the Lakers are going to be in a bad position if the post-Kobe core involves just Randle and Russell, two players who have a combined age (39) that’s barely older than Bryant (36).

Since the failed Chris Paul trade, the Lakers have continued to chase the pursuit of a superstar without success. CP3 has since become the franchise face for the other Los Angeles team, Dwight Howard’s one-and-done season alongside Kobe was filled with more flames than the Devil’s annual convention before Howard moved onto Houston and the Lakers chased Carmelo Anthony — who was unlikely to ever leave the New York Knicks no matter what other clubs came calling — to no avail before settling for a bunch of third and fourth tier free agents en route to a franchise-worst 21-win season.

Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors — the team that won 67 regular season games with a rookie head coach before beating LeBron James in the Finals — have a core that was developed entirely through the draft. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes were all lottery picks while Draymond Green was stolen in the second round of the 2012 draft. Green, by the way, just re-signed with the Warriors on a five-year deal worth more than $82 million.

It’s not always about the name when it comes to evaluating the game. The Lakers would be wise to learn more about that.

The Lakers understand that there’s value in having a recognizable brand as a Los Angeles franchise. That helps to explain the additions like Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin last summer despite neither filling a real need. But when viewers are tuning out long before the season ends because Lin is exposed as a mediocre point guard and Boozer as an aging, declining pick-and-pop big who has no interest in playing defense, how much real value remains in the name alone?

The same can be said of head coach Byron Scott, who was hired to restore some of the previous “Laker Glory” from the Showtime Era, but when the honeymoon period ended after a salty walk down Nostalgia Lane, what was left to watch? A head coach who seemed incapable of adjusting certain philosophies to a modern-day NBA that’s leaving the Lakers behind.

Now with the Lakers looking increasingly unlikely to make a free-agent splash for the third straight summer, Los Angeles simply cannot afford to have another offseason where the club shops in the bargain bin after striking out on stars.

This is a team that’s looking to hit a home run when it should be settling for singles, doubles and moving the runner along. Forget LaMarcus Aldridge. Forget Marc Gasol. How about building a real product that can gel together moving forward? How about finding a starting center who’s capable of defending the rim? With just shooting guard Nick Young and second-round pick Anthony Brown on the roster at small forward, how about finding a starting small forward capable of growing with Russell, Randle and Co.?

Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding, who has covered the Lakers for almost two decades, writes that it’ll take a special player for the Lakers to find their next building block should they continue to chase stars in free agency:

The bottom line is that a star free agent would be taking a leap of faith — just what Bryant was trying to get Aldridge to embrace in telling his tale — in signing up to play next to kids and faceless future teammates.

That’ll take a truly special star free agent, one who has a truly special confidence in himself.

The post-Kobe burden is real. The Lakers have nothing to offer in the current except their future potential. What free agent wants to be the one to step up to the plate, assume the mantle from Kobe and shoulder the burden if the experiment fails? The lights are bright in Los Angeles no matter if the team is winning 20 games or 60 games.

It used to be a slam dunk that free agents would want to join the Lakers for all of the reasons the team continues to pitch off the court — now those things are readily available elsewhere. It used to be a no-doubter that the Lakers could build a competitive roster, but now there are only questions about the future.

Instead of continuing to make the same mistake over and over and lose out on quality building blocks in the process, the Lakers would be wise to take a new approach to team-building going forward.

The previous success is undeniable, but after winning 48 games combined over the last two seasons, it’s time for Los Angeles to rethink its sales pitch.

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