The past two years in Los Angeles have been all about Bryant – from the ridiculous contract extension he was given, making him the league’s highest paid player at ages 37 and 38 while coming off a torn Achilles tendon, to former teammate Byron Scott being hired as head coach to his retirement tour for much of last season.
But Bryant’s presence also was a convenient excuse for the Lakers – for their inability to keep a marquee free agent three years ago in Dwight Howard, for their inability to sign one each of the last two summers. That includes the embarrassing circumstance of LaMarcus Aldridge granting them a second meeting after the first one was a spectacular failure – only to eventually sign with the San Antonio Spurs anyway.
Now, the Lakers will rise and fall on the decision-making of management — owner Jeanie Buss, her brother Jim, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, and general manager Mitch Kupchak. How the Lakers perform — with their combination of young talent and whatever they do with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft and their oodles of cap space — will now be on them. They no longer have Bryant to shield them.
For decades, the Lakers were the model franchise in not just the NBA, but in sports. Beginning with George Mikan during its days in Minneapolis to the likes of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson to Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant, the Lakers practically only knew success.
The past three years, however, have made that success a distant memory. They have been three of the five worst seasons in the franchise’s history – with the other two coming while the team was still playing in Minneapolis in the 1950s. Last season was particularly awful, as the franchise posted a 17-65 mark, its worst ever.
All of the losing, however, allowed them to populate their roster with young talent. Between guards D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson and forwards Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr., the Lakers at least have a few players they can point to as possible building blocks for the future. They’ll get another chance to add one in Thursday’s NBA draft.
They’ll then get another crack at free agency, with the possibility of replacing Bryant without the headache of trying to play alongside him their chief selling point. After the past few summers, however, the Lakers have to prove they are capable of making a coherent and competent sales pitch to the game’s top players.
Replacing Scott with Luke Walton, another former Laker who led the Golden State Warriors to a 39-4 record while Steve Kerr was sidelined following back surgery earlier this season, should help. But it will take more than that to convince elite free agents to consider the Lakers a true destination once again.
The possibility of Kevin Durant going there this summer – the chief hope for everyone in Los Angeles and every other market hoping to lure him next month – seems remote, at best. Yes, Durant owns a home there, but he also wants to win. And with the current roster the Lakers have in place, winning next season simply isn’t realistic.
The goal this summer, though, shouldn’t be to win. It should be to prove this is a coherent, stable franchise again.
Why? Because it is next summer that has a chance to be a transformative one. Assuming Durant remains in Oklahoma City on a one-year deal – as most people around the league assume he will – he will headline a free agent class in 2017 that includes teammate Russell Westbrook, two-time reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
If the Lakers can prove they are a competent franchise again this season under Walton, and their young core can begin to show some promise playing together, all of a sudden the idea of playing for the Lakers becomes much more appealing. Then, perhaps, finding the successor to Bryant as the next face of the Lakers will be possible.
Competence has been in short supply in Los Angeles the past few years. If Bryant’s departure is followed by its return, perhaps the Lakers can soon return to their familiar place at the top of the sport.
If not, though, the last three years could be the beginning of a new reality in Lakerland.