The Los Angeles Lakers are finally in the post-Kobe Era, and there are many reasons to be both optimistic and puzzled by the direction of one of the most successful organizations in professional sports. The free-agent market came and went last week, and general manager Mitch Kupchak failed to land a star player to lift the club into serious playoff contention, let alone in a position to win a title next season or anytime soon.
There was a time when the Lakers were able to draw free agents like Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Times have certainly changed. Despite a more flexible salary cap, the Lakers couldn't even coax a local product like DeMar DeRozan from frigid Toronto, while superstar Kevin Durant wasn't even on the radar. The power has shifted so dramatically away from the Lakers, along with many other teams, that it seems like the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs are the only clubs bothering to think about playing next June.
Yet there are plenty of reasons to be positive about where the Lakers are headed. The Lakers are slowly building something special with so much youth, cap flexibility and room for growth while the current top teams likely stay on top.
Big questions are lingering for Kupchak. What free agents will be available next summer and do the Lakers have any chance to get them?
Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul, Nerlens Noel, Greg Monroe and Rudy Gay highlight the next free-agent class. Of that group, the only player who can both legitimately consider the Lakers and also put them in serious title contention is Westbrook. The Los Angeles native seems certain to test the market unless the Oklahoma City Thunder find a way to lure top talent, which seems highly improbable.
Salary-cap space is not expected to be a problem for Kupchak. Most of the Lakers' top talent will be making under $12 million in 2017-18, and there should be takers for expiring contracts like Lou Williams, who is only making $7 million.
But landing Westbrook is still a tough task. Kupchak will need to convince Westbrook, who turns 28 in November, to bypass signing with a team that has established talent and take a chance playing alongside developing stars like Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle. The lure of playing in his hometown may not be enough, which was the case with DeRozan.
It also doesn't help that the Lakers' 2017 first-round pick belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers and is only protected for selections 1-3. Los Angeles will once again be in the ugly situation of needing a terrible record to hopefully keep their pick, or lose what could be their most desirable trade asset by playing to their potential next season. If new head coach Luke Walton has the Lakers playing at their absolute best, it's still a longshot to make the postseason in the deep West, and at the same time makes them a bigger longshot to keep their pick.
There are also broader implications for the Lakers' pursuit of Westbrook. The new trend is for star players "to join forces," and Westbrook may decide to laugh off a Lakers offer to team up with another free agent in Texas or Florida, two states with no income tax. It happened once with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010, and it could easily happen again.
Such a possibility may force Kupchak to consider dealing some of the young talent to acquire players to entice Westbrook to see the Lakers as a quality landing spot. The only elite player with a good chance to leave his current team is DeMarcus Cousins. The Sacramento Kings would almost certainly want the Lakers to include at least one of their star young players, and if it means acquiring Westbrook, Kupchak would be willing to accept parting ways with guards Jordan Clarkson or D'Angelo Russell, as well as other pieces.
In June 2015, Marc Stein of ESPN reported that the Lakers were "one of the most determined suitors" for Cousins. The 25-year-old is owed roughly $17 million next season, and $18 million in 2017-18. Because of Cousins' expiring contract, the Lakers can perhaps get away with not having to surrender as much talent as they would if he had a long-term deal.
The combination of Cousins, Westbrook and at least one of the Lakers current young stars would be interesting. Both players are exceptional talents, but the team might be gutted to get Cousins. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the best way for the team to compete for rings is with that combination, but it still may not be enough. There are 13 other Western Conference teams scratching their heads trying to figure out how the Warriors will ever fall off their mantle.
The other option is less appealing: begging the Lakers' fanbase to be even more patient. The last time the Lakers made the playoffs they had Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard on the roster and still got swept by the Spurs in 2012. Since then, the Lakers have floundered to an average of 21 wins a season.
Another 20-win season might be in order to have the luxury of perhaps keeping the pick. Should the ping-pong balls bounce the Lakers way, again, they will have another trade chip to land a veteran or at least provide another reason for a free agent to join the young cast.
As of right now, the Lakers are not in playoff contention but the burgeoning players would make them interesting by 2017-18. Should the Lakers avoid setbacks, they could challenge the Minnesota Timberwolves as the best young team in the West. The positives are certainly there.
The early returns from summer league have been encouraging for the rookies. Ingram has the makings of a star, while there is hope that 19-year-old Ivica Zubac can grow into a serviceable shot blocker and inside scoring threat. Meanwhile, Russell, Clarkson and Randle have either lived up to expectations or exceeded them, and there is still room for growth. Larry Nance Jr. is a workhorse and has made positive strides in improving his game.
Newcomers Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov won't make a serious difference next season, but they at least keep the roster from looking like a collection of youngsters. Both Deng and Mozgov have the professionalism and leadership needed in the locker room and on the court.
Nick Young is currently on the roster, but he is not expected to stick around. The veteran has a player option for $5.6 million in 2017-18, and the most the Lakers can reasonably can expect in trading him would be second-round draft picks.
Here's a look at the current 14-man roster for the 2016-17 season:
Brandon Ingram, SF
Julius Randle, PF
Timofey Mozgov, C
D'Angelo Russell, PG
Jordan Clarkson, SG
Loul Deng, F
Larry Nance Jr. PF
Tarik Black, C
Jose Calderon, PG
Lou Williams, G
Nick Young, SG
Ivica Zubac, C
Marcelo Huertas, PG
Anthony Brown, SG