It's been clear for a while, but the Lakers recent era of success is officially over. With the decisions that the organization has made over the past year, it now seems like the Lakers are officially in "Franchise Hell" and will remain so for roughly the next decade.
Remember how long it took the Celtics to recover after Larry Bird's retirement or the Bulls to rebuild after Michael Jordan left the game? Well, that's what the Lakers are about to go through.
The problem is that the current NBA collective bargaining agreement was designed to prevent teams from doing what the Heat did two years ago when they signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh. It was set up to punish teams that tried what the Lakers did in acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. The NBA doesn't want franchises in glamor cities (see: Lakers, Heat, Knicks) signing all of the best players and creating unbeatable super teams. Instead, the collective bargaining agreement was an express reaction to superstars like James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Garnett who forced their way out of Cleveland, Denver, and Minnesota, respectively. The NBA wants parity.
Tonight the Lakers got swept by a Spurs team that is also old, but has found a way to adapt to changing times. The Spurs have done a better job than any team at scouting internationally. Unlike the Lakers, they've found valuable contributors in the latter portions of the draft. And the Spurs have taken several players off the scrap heap and turned them into useful pieces.
They found George Hill out of nowhere and swung him to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard, who gives them youth and energy. They have gotten valuable contributions all season long from players like Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, and Boris Diaw, and that's with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan each missing at least a dozen games due to injury. It's also worth noting that Duncan took less money to remain in San Antonio, allowing them to sign more players under the salary cap.
The Lakers front office has less than a fraction of the creativity that San Antonio's has. The Lakers front office tenaciously pursues the biggest names available, even when those players are so old and slow that they're really just names, and no longer valuable contributors.
The Steve Nash signing was a total disaster. We were all blinded to it at the time, but the idea that they could sign a 39-year old point guard to three-year deal -- and expect him to be as effective as he was at 29 -- was just plain stupid. Even dumber was the decision to hire a coach based on the 39-year old point guard's skill set from a decade ago, and not the 27-year old center's current skill set, the player that they absolutely had to keep.
I'm not sure if Dwight Howard will stay in LA, but I wouldn't be surprised if he left. It's true that the Lakers can offer him $30 million more than any other team. But Howard has already made over $100 million in his career. Any deal he signs will be enormous. If money is really his top priority, then he'll stay in LA. But it's hard not to look at a team like the Houston Rockets and not think that's a better basketball situation for him.
The Lakers have an aging roster with no depth, and a head coach who has no idea how to effectively utilize the best center in the game. The Lakers also have a fan base that will always compare Howard to Shaq, and constantly remind Dwight that he doesn't measure up. Conversely, the Rockets have an exciting young team with James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and Omer Asik. If you put Dwight Howard on that team, then the Rockets are competing with the Oklahoma City Thunder next year for a berth in the Finals. This year, with Kobe Bryant on his team, Howard barely made the playoffs.
So what should the Lakers do from here? A few months back, I said that the Lakers should recognize their shortcomings and break up the team. I still stand by that column. Had the Lakers acted more aggressively before the trade deadline, then they could have better positioned themselves for the future. Instead, they have few young players to build with, and a dearth of draft picks in the years ahead.
The first thing the Lakers need to do is to figure out their coaching situation. Mitch Kupchak insists that Mike D'Antoni will be back. That might be fair to D'Antoni, but it's obvious that he's the wrong coach for the team. D'Antoni may have changed his coaching style during the year, but it's still a style that he's not comfortable with. He might be the worst defensive coach in the NBA and he has no idea how to use big men.
If I were Jeanie Buss, I would try to unite all of my brothers and sisters -- and whomever else owns a share of the team -- and organize a coup to oust Jim Buss. She should then put fiancé Phil Jackson in charge of basketball operations and let him hire Brian Shaw or Kurt Rambis as head coach. It's true the Lakers are still paying Mike Brown not to coach, but they did get some salary relief when he signed on to coach in Cleveland.
Unfortunately, that's not going to happen, so the Lakers offseason plans essentially revolve around Dwight Howard's decision. If Howard decides to stay, then the Lakers have to trade Pau Gasol for the best scoring guard that they can get. I'm not sure if anyone is out there, but with Kobe Bryant possibly missing the beginning of the season, they're going to need someone athletic in the backcourt who can create their own shot.
Some people have said that the Lakers should amnesty Kobe, but I think that talk is pretty silly. We all know that Kobe is going to work ridiculously hard at coming back from his torn Achilles. He is going to return as soon as is humanly possibly, and even if he's not as good as he used to be, he'll still be pretty darned good. Some have said that the Lakers should do some kind of secret agreement with Kobe, to re-sign him after they amnesty him. But ask Joe Smith and the Minnesota Timberwolves what David Stern thinks of secret agreements.
The real question is if Kobe retires after next season, which he had previously indicated that he would do. Given the injury, I think Kobe plays at least through 2014-15. My hope is that Kobe would take less money to stay that extra year, giving the Lakers some room to sign other players. As noted before, Duncan took less money to stay in San Antonio. Even LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade all took less money to play in Miami. It's time for Kobe to do the same.
If Howard leaves, then the Lakers can try for a mid-tier playoff seed with a recovering Bryant, Pau Gasol in the last year of his contract, and Steve Nash on his last legs. But Nash looked so dead this season that I wonder if he might retire. And if he does, then the Lakers will have a giant hole to fill at the point guard position, with no money under the cap, no real tradable assets, and no draft picks this year. They'll need to rely on Steve Blake for consistent quality production, which is a dicey proposition.
With the new collective bargaining agreement, the best way to build a team is with young players and through the draft. But it takes a long time to do that, and it also takes some lottery luck. The Lakers are close to a point where they'll have to start over from scratch. Even if they keep Howard, they'll be paying so much in luxury tax penalties that they will basically be unable to surround him with anyone decent. The deeper a team is into the tax, the more punitive the penalties become, and certain options like the veteran's exception are no longer available.
And hence, the Lakers are in franchise hell. They are stuck with a roster that is obscenely expensive and not good enough to win now. And to get good enough to win they'll need to blow the whole thing up and try like heck to build it back together over the course of multiple years. If Jim Buss were better at his job, then the Lakers could be like the Spurs, and be well-positioned for the future. But instead, their shortsighted decisions have left them in a mess.