Plan A for the Lakers this off-season was always unrealistic. Their pipe dream saw LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony wearing the purple and gold on opening night, with the “consolation” being landing just one of them (or even Chris Bosh).
Plan B was never made known, but often referenced. Mitch Kupchak said the Lakers had a Plan B. Kobe Bryant said the Lakers had a Plan B. But the specifics of the secondary plan were unknown. Many hoped it involved targeting the likes of Greg Monroe, Eric Bledsoe, and Lance Stephenson.
Instead, Plan B looked more like a team in turmoil than a team with a direction. Hours after James returned to Cleveland, the Lakers traded for Jeremy Lin and a first round pick and resigned Nick Young and Jordan Hill, effectively eating up all their cap space. Nearly a week later, the Lakers surprised all by winning the claim for Carlos Boozer for just over $3 million.
The idea was clear: maintain flexibility while being as competitive as possible. Between Nash, Lin, and Boozer, the Lakers will have nearly $20 million coming off the books, with Hill having a team option to free up $9 million more.
This isn’t your typical rebuild. The Lakers are simply waiting to reload.
Maybe Kupchak and Jim Buss learned this summer than cap space wasn’t enough to lure in the stars. James returned to Cleveland because it’s his home, but also because they’re fielding a team with Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, and Dion Waiters, among others. All three are young players with bright futures ahead of them.
For the Lakers this summer, their player with the brightest future was Ryan Kelly, who was only a restricted free agent.
But while some may suggest forming a young nucleus of possibly Stephenson or Monroe, saving room for a max free agent like Kevin Love or Rajon Rando next summer, the Lakers have limited interest. While early indications look like they may have hit a home run with their draft this year of Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, that will remain their two best youngsters (barring a trade) heading into next summer.
When other teams rebuild, they bottom out for a season or two (or four, in Cleveland’s case), stock pile some talent, and either mold that talent into a competitive team (Oklahoma City), or use that talent as trade chips for superstars (Houston). The Lakers seem conflicted. Arguably their worst season in franchise history and the closest they’ve come to bottoming out saw them still land with just the 7th pick in the draft.
The Lakers mindset is not like the Cavs or Bucks or 76ers. They don’t come into the season with the idea they’ll tank from the get-go.
What the Lakers have done is done their best to stay competitive. On opening night, the Lakers will likely trot out a lineup with Lin, Bryant, and Boozer, with Hill, Young, Randle, Clarkson, and Xavier Henry mixed in. This isn’t a bottom five team, by any stretch. But this, at best, is an 8th seed in the tough Western Conference.
Sure, the Lakers could do their best to hold on to their top-five protected first round pick which Phoenix owns thanks to Steve Nash, but too many variables are in play. If the Lakers do tank, yet miss out on a top five pick, they’ve embarrassed themselves and their historic franchise.
Even more, free agents aren’t lining up for teams interested in losing on purpose. There’s a reason free agents aren’t lining up to join Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Outside of LeBron, who is the highest profile free agent to join Cleveland in the last four years? Andrew Bynum?
Last season was an anomaly. The cards fell right (or wrong, depending on which side of the argument you’re on) and the Lakers found themselves with a chance to maximize their losses and reap the benefit. Even then, they competed night in and night out, winning their final two games and significantly worsening their lottery chances.
Injuries left the Lakers with a roster of rubbish for parts of last season. It wasn’t for lack of talent or lack of effort that the Lakers were a bottom seven team in the league.
This season, the Lakers will field a better roster. Lin > Kendall Marshall. Carlos Boozer > Chris Kaman. Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are better than last year’s rookie Ryan Kelly (which is not to say Kelly isn’t serviceable in his own right). Nevertheless, this team will go out and compete. No team that sends out a healthy Kobe Bryant is going to be accused of tanking.
Plan B wasn’t a white flag for the season. Plan B was a team refusing to tank, but acknowledging their situation.