What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship. This week, we look at the Lakers, a team trying to juggle a rebuild with the sunset years of Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant is worth every penny of the $25 million he’ll be making next year; Kobe Bryant is not worth $25 million dollars in cap space next year. These two statements may seem contradictory, but that is the situation of the Los Angeles Lakers and their aging star player.
Kobe has said that all he cares about is winning another championship, but he has also balked at taking a pay cut to help his team sign other players. Kobe’s contract next year takes up more of the Lakers cap than every other player under contract for the Lakers combined. Kobe’s ability to sell jerseys and put fans in the seats make him worth the investment, but as a basketball player, his inability to stay on the court make such a large cap figure unreasonable. Next year will be Kobe’s 20th in the NBA, and he’s only been able to suit up in 41 games over the past two seasons. If Kobe Bryant is going to be a part of a championship Lakers team, they’re going to need to add more than just a few role players here and there.
This season is over for the Lakers. Unless they can out-tank Philadelphia over the next few games, they seem to be locked into the fourth-worst record in the NBA. From there, the Lakers fate rests in the ping pong balls. If two teams jump the Lakers into the top three and push them back into the sixth spot, the Lakers surrender their top-five protected pick to the Sixers and sit out the first round. Next year, the pick becomes top-three protected. The Lakers also owe a top-5 protected pick to the Magic in 2017, and my guess is that the Lakers hope to be relevant enough next year and the year after to not miss the picks they’re giving up to Orlando and Philly.
Even with Kobe’s large cap number, the Lakers should still have some room to sign new players. If the team moves on from Jordan Hill, they’re only committed to $40 million dollars on their cap, per Spotrac.com, and could potentially sign a max-level player in free agency. The question becomes, who do they sign? Assuming they want to compete during Bryant’s remaining years, they should pick a player that would play well with him. It’s for that reason they should avoid Rajon Rondo like the plague.
On the surface the pairing makes sense: Rondo doesn’t like to shoot, Kobe loves to shoot, it’s a match made in heaven. You’re right, Rondo doesn’t like to shoot, he prefers to pass and set up his teammates, but do you know what Rondo loves to do? Dribble. As a Celtics fan, I have watched Rondo dribble out a shot clock, whip a pass to Brandon Bass with three seconds left on the shot clock more times than I can count.
This will not make Kobe happy.
Kobe needs time to work his defender to get his shot off and/or draw a foul. He doesn’t want to catch and shoot immediately because Rondo couldn’t make something better happen. Both players need the ball in their hands, and neither has a reputation for being laid back when things don’t go their way. Instead, the Lakers should see if Jordan Clarkson can continue to play well and develop into a real building block for the future and look to one of the centers that will be available in free agency, possibly one of the Lopez twins or DeAndre Jordan if he can be pried away from the Clippers.
There is another path to success for the Lakers–tank hard. If they keep their pick this year and get a top three pick next year, Philly receives the Lakers’ 2017 pick unprotected and the Sixers have to settle for two second round picks from the Lakers instead of a first round pick. That would be a net gain of a first round pick for two second rounders, a trade every team in the league would make without a second thought.
If the Lakers don’t sign a big free agent, and instead commit to tanking as Kobe Bryant’s career closes out, they could have a series of high draft picks that might lead to the future foundation of the Los Angeles Lakers. This course obviously runs a high risk. The Lakers are already losing prominence in LA to the Clippers, and if they don’t win a top three pick in the lottery next year, they still lose their picks to the Sixers and Magic.
If the draft picks don’t pan out and the Lakers find themselves struggling year after year, they may end up living out their worst fear: that they’ve switched places with the Clippers.