Roughly 3 years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers extended the contracts of mainstays Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol through the summer of 2014. Nearly all contracts at the time and in the future were also set to expire at the same time, with the idea of giving the Lakers maximum and unprecedented financial flexibility to pursue free agents with. Lakers GM Mitch Mupchak preached patience when the contracts were given, and columnists and analysts around the world all knew where this “financial freedom” was headed; the 2014 free agent class could potentially include the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, amongst others, and the Lakers were going to give themselves every opportunity to pursue those franchise changing players.
As fans, we waited, and struggled through some rough times (last year the Lakers finished with one of the worst records in franchise history), and kept reminding ourselves of the cap space that was coming, and of course went so far as to tease ourselves and speculate as to how a 2014-15 Lakers squad might look with the likes of James and/or Anthony teaming up with Bryant and whatever supporting cast management was able to put around them. Every move the Lakers made leading up to this summer was put under a microscope and scrutinized; Kobe Bryant’s incredible 2 year, $48 million contract extension was bashed by critics and some fans, who feared the extension would jeopardize the precious cap space, and the Lakers wouldn’t be able to build their new dream-team. For 3 years, this year included, Pau Gasol was the subject of numerous trade rumors, with some good offers reportedly being made, but the Lakers remained adamant that were they to trade him and his expiring contract, they would want 1st round draft picks, and/or other expiring contracts, no other additional salary that would take away from the cap space.
At the end of May, embattled head coach Mike D’Antoni resigned, much to the delight of Laker fans. The Lakers announced shortly thereafter they would conduct an extensive and diligent search for a new head coach. After a couple weeks went by, it was speculated the Lakers would wait until after free agency was over to hire a new coach, hoping the opportunity to have their say about who is coach would appeal to and entice potential free agents, something no other team could offer. During season ending interviews, Kupchak was adamant that the Lakers would be “super aggressive” in free agency, confirming the last few years & contracts had indeed been building up to this.
In the weeks leading up to July 1, the start of free agency, the hopes and dreams of fans started to come to fruition; all the players that had the option to opt out of their contracts and become unrestricted free agents, did so. James, Anthony, Bosh and others were free to go and sign where they pleased. With news the Lakers had scheduled meetings with Anthony, and the agent of James, fans, like myself, anxiously awaited word on TWITTER, ESPN, and various other media outlets as to who might the donning the purple & gold next season. It was a pipe dream sure, but at least the Lakers had put themselves in the position to sign new stars. Then, reality started to slowly sink in; though the prized free agent, James, was indeed a UFA, and his agent was taking meetings with other teams, it was widely speculated and reported he was only considering either Miami or a return to his native Cleveland. Anthony was a more realistic option, as the Lakers reportedly “blew him away” during their pitch, and he was close with Kobe Bryant, who had been recruiting him to the Lakers since the season ended. Add to that, reports that Anthony was torn between the Lakers and a return to the Knicks, who could offer him more money and years, and fans continued to get their hopes up, myself included. Alas, it was not meant to be. James did indeed return to Cleveland, and Anthony elected to remain in New York. The pipe dream was over.
With the top 2 free agents now committed elsewhere, the Lakers moved quickly to fill out their roster for the upcoming season, resigning fan favorites Jordan Hill and Nick Young, and acquiring via trade Jeremy Lin and 2 2015 picks from the Houston Rockets. After years of trade rumors and Kupchak vowing not to trade him away just to do it, Gasol signed a new contract with the Chicago Bulls, who heavily recruited him. Though a S&T deal was rumored, it never came to fruition, and after all that, the Lakers were indeed left with nothing to show for it. Truly a far cry from teased “dream” summer of 2014.
For all intents and purposes, the Los Angeles Lakers are now in full rebuild mode, and barring a miracle trade, they will be doing it the old-fashioned way. That is not to say it is a certainty the Lakers are committed to this roster long-term; Lin and Steve Nash are both expiring contracts (trade bait), and Bryant’s contract runs out in the summer of 2016, when LeBron James and Kevin Durant will dominate the free agent market. Until then, the Lakers were able to maintain their future cap space and flexibility with their new round of short-term deals, and with their expiring contracts and new acquired draft picks, we can hope they will look to be active during trade season, as well as next summer and beyond. Let the speculation and recruiting begin…