After Dwight Howard left the Lakers last week, many fans thought it was for the best. With only Steve Nash's $9.7 million salary on the books for 2014-15, the Lakers can enter next offseason with unprecedented cap space.
Some Laker fans see this as a panacea and a means to quickly improving the team. Many have even speculated that the Lakers could sign LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. To fans, I have two words for you:
Despite the hopes and dreams of some fans, the Lakers are in a much worse situation without Dwight Howard. First off, there's little or no chance that LeBron is coming to LA. The Miami Heat are the presumptive favorites to win a third straight title. Anyone who thinks LeBron will leave right after a three-peat is completely delusional. Even if the Heat come close and lose, then I can't imagine LeBron having the gumption to abandon his team and being accused of disloyalty for a second time.
But should LeBron feel that the situation in Miami is completely hopeless - even if Dwyane Wade can never be an effective player again, it still won't be hopeless - then he'd likely pick Cleveland over Los Angeles. LeBron has stated in the past that he'd like to come back to his hometown, and part of him still feels guilty over the way things ended last time.
As for Carmelo Anthony, he will definitely not come to LA as long as Mike D'Antoni is the head coach. Anthony despised D'Antoni's system in New York and helped get the coach fired. Should Jim Buss' bizarre love affair with D'Antoni suddenly dissolve, then Anthony to the Lakers becomes a possibility. But do Lakers fans really want him? Carmelo has proven year after to year to be a one-dimensional player - a terrific scorer who has to be endlessly prodded into begrudgingly playing defense and setting up his teammates. His low assist numbers are embarrassing. Barring a sudden change in his mentality, Carmelo will never be a championship player.
And besides, I still can't see Anthony wanting to leave New York. He's dreamed of being a Knick his entire life, and he finally orchestrated events to make that happen. I doubt he'll depart after three seasons and allow himself to be labeled as one of those guys who couldn't win in New York.
So what about other NBA stars who might want to become Lakers? I decided to go ahead and list 25 players who I believe will be recognized as the best in the game entering the 2014-15 season. In no particular order they are:
These are 25 players who I see as having the ability to significantly lift a franchise from also-ran to contender. A team will probably need two, if not three of these players in order to win a championship.
Looking at the list, only James, Anthony, Wade, and Bosh could even be free agents after the season. Love is the only player on this list who has ever talked about leaving his team. Rondo is probably available in the right trade scenario. The other players are all basically locked into long-term deals and aren't free agents next offseason. In the case of Paul George, he'll be a restricted free agent, but the Pacers can pay him more than any other team, or match any offer sheet for him. For any other player on the list to leave, they'd have to actively force their way out via trade, and there's no indication any of them will right now.
As I noted before, James and Anthony aren't coming to LA. There's virtually no chance Wade leaves Miami, but if he does, then it's because he's no longer a top player. The same could probably be said about Bosh.
That leaves Love and Rondo as potential trade targets. And herein lies another problem for the Lakers - if they only have one salary on their roster, then they basically don't have any assets to trade. Remember, the Lakers only got Dwight Howard because they had Andrew Bynum as trade bait. The Lakers have also acquired past stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Pau Gasol via trade, only because they had players to send away.
The Timberwolves aren't going to take Steve Nash and a low-teens draft pick for Kevin Love. The Celtics certainly aren't motivated to give Rondo to the rival Lakers. The Lakers could theoretically do a sign-and-trade with one of their free agents, but that player would have to agree to it.
So who is available for the Lakers to use all that cap space on? The best available free agents could include Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Luol Deng, Andrew Bogut, Kyle Lowry, Danny Granger, and Marcin Gortat.
Nowitzki and Garnett are Hall-of-Fame players on their last legs, and they're not going to be stars two years from now. Randolph is a good player who has never lived up to his potential and never been easy to coach. Deng is only 28, but he's a shell of the player he used to be. Gay is a good scorer, but the Memphis Grizzlies actually got better after they got rid of him and sent him to Toronto. Bogut has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons, and I'd argue he's a bust as a former No. 1 overall pick. Granger has dealt with a myriad of injuries the past two seasons, and he's on the wrong side of 30. Kyle Lowry is a decent player if you put him into the right supporting role. Gortat isn't going to get anyone excited.
In other words, none of these guys are going to make the Lakers a championship team.
Restricted free agents include the previously mentioned Paul George, along with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Greg Monroe. Since they're restricted, they'll only leave if their current teams fail to extend their contracts or decide not to match an offer sheet. And in the latter case, it would only happen if their value really fell. So in other words, they'd only go to the Lakers as damaged goods.
Having nearly unlimited cap space sounds terrific. But if there's no good players to use it on, then what's the point? It's like walking into a 7-11 when you have enough cash to buy half the groceries in Bristol Farms.
The Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks entered this offseason with copious amounts of cap space. Despite a dynamic owner in Mark Cuban, the Mavericks have only been able to sign Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, meaning no one will pick them to make the playoffs. The Hawks haven't fared any better, only acquiring Paul Millsap and then bringing back Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. They could miss the playoffs too.
My only hope for the Lakers next season is that they don't use all of their cap space on mediocre free agents who tie them down when actual superstars do become available.
But in the meantime, the best course of action for the Lakers is to break up their team, try to get a high pick in a loaded 2014 NBA Draft, and rebuild from the ground up. I wrote that both two weeks ago and six months ago. Bill Simmons agrees with the idea as well, and offered his own plan to improve the team by temporarily getting worse.
Unfortunately, it looks like the Lakers will give it their best shot with an old and slow lineup this season, and then have plenty of cap space to add lousy players to their roster.