When the Lakers handed over a promissory note of $48 million dollars to an unhealed Kobe Bryant they did it with a sense of geography. The NBA world had changed. So had the Lakers invincibility aura. So in a sense one bridge had been ruined and another bridge had been built. You could still find the roots of the Lakers historical success even if it was buried somewhere beneath the rubble. It just took longer to see the faded pieces of championship gold.
Quietly, the Lakers are still a dominant, glamorous franchise people want to watch and whose jerseys are the fifth best seller even when they are not in the playoffs But the sobering part- what Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss understood when they paid Kobe- was the Lakers are no longer the cream of the crop. The best players in the world don’t need Los Angeles. Los Angeles needs them
The world had expanded in the 30+ years since Dr. Buss bought the team. Other teams got better and frankly many players were raised adoring other franchises. Lebron James idolized the Bulls. Carmelo Anthony idolized the Knicks. Kevin Durant idolized the Wizards.
It was always going to be a grueling uphill climb to land a free agent. Dwight Howard last year, Carmelo Anthony this year and the pattern seems to be the same. The Lakers go after a max player and are summarily rejected. But consider the Lakers history. It is less about getting superstars year after year and more about roster turnover before assembling a contending team.
Eighteen years ago this month the Lakers signed Kobe Bryant to his first professional contract. In Kobe’s rookie year the Lakers won 56 games. They lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Utah Jazz and purged 5 players from their roster (Cedric Ceballos, Jerome Kersey, Joe Klein, George McCloud, Rumeal Robinson).
The next year they added four new players including Rick Fox. They lost again to the Utah Jazz, this time in the Western Conference Finals. They got rid of Nick Van Exel, Byron Scott and three others.
In the 1998-99 season the Lakers added 7 players including Dennis Rodman, Tyronn Lue and Glenn Rice. Their coach (Del Harris) was fired and Kurt Rambis took over. The Lakers lost in the Western Conference Semi-Finals to the Spurs; they were swept.
In Phil Jackson’s first year the Lakers got rid of 7 players and added 6 including Brian Shaw, Devean George and Ron Harper. It was a title year. But by the time Kobe poured the champagne in June 2000 he had 33 different teammates. The only players remaining from his first year were Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher and Robert Horry.
The expectation that the Lakers of 2013-14 could build a contender in one year after a 27-55 season is particularly ridiculous. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which was not punitive in the early Kobe years is punishing now. If you are in a large market, if you profit $100 million like the Lakers did last year, the road is even tougher. The Lakers can no longer just go out and get whoever they want like they did in decades past. Team building in this era takes time and a lot of turnover.
And so with that as a backdrop the Lakers are trying to build a contender in steps; that is their plan. They added Julius Randle in the draft. They acquired Jeremy Lin in a trade. They re-signed Jordan Hill and Nick Young. Even though the roster is still incomplete it is better than last year’s disaster.
Point Guard: Jeremy Lin is an upgrade over Kendall Marshall. Lin was the first NBA player to score 20 points and have 7 assists in his first five NBA starts. This past season he was second to Lebron James in field goal makes 0-3 feet (63%). In his brief career he has scored 25+ points or more 11 times, 30+ points or more 4 times. Kendall Marshall has never scored 25 points in his career. Furthermore, in this era of the scoring point guard it is a requirement that the point guard get into the paint and do damage. This is Lin’s strength. Marshall is better at getting players the ball from the perimeter. Marshall is an old fashioned, throw back point guard that has trouble with the speed of his contemporaries. The (Lakers) +/- was better when Kendall Marshall was off the floor while the (Rockets) +/- was better when Jeremy Lin was on the floor.
Jordan Clarkson’s strength is driving to the rim as well. He attacks the rim as if the rim just killed his best friend. He has no interest in standing around the perimeter like Kendall Marshall and passing the ball. This does two things. He will get to the line. He forces mismatches in the defense when the big man has to come over to help. (Upgrade: A)
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant replaces Jodie Meeks. Xavier Henry is still in the running for his back up though no deal has been negotiated as of yet. Xavier would be a great fill in for Kobe. He attacks the rim, finishes through contact and gets to the line. He has developed a consistent perimeter jumper and his defense is good. Where he needs to grow- he is only 24- is in reading defenses and coverage and developing head fakes. (Upgrade A)
Small Forward: Nick Young excelled at coming off the bench and providing scoring which is what the Lakers need. He’ll benefit playing with Kobe and his energy and enthusiasm will offset Kobe’s perpetual grimness even as Kobe has the capacity to turn darkness into light. But Nick has to improve on his shot selection, creating off the dribble and passing. As of yet the Lakers have not signed a starting small forward. (Upgrade: Incomplete)
Forward: Julius Randle is the type of power forward the Lakers have never had. He is tough and physical, a guy who chases down rebounds and plays as hard as he can every time he is on the court. He is not the most athletic power forward but he offsets that with his skill which is better suited for the NBA than college. His backup has yet to be determined. (Upgrade: Incomplete)
Center: Jordan Hll/Robert Sacre and someone else (hopefully). Separate the amount of money Jordan Hill was overpaid from what he can do on the court. He is an X factor, playing hard around the rim, rebounding and getting put backs. Pairing him with Julius Randle means the Lakers will rarely be outrebounded but they will be undersized. Do they have the athleticism and footwork to stop Blake Griffin or Zach Randolph? (Upgrade C).