The Los Angeles Lakers built this team for a year from now and it is past the time to just admit it as the team is on the verge of going all-in for the highly touted 2014 NBA draft prospects like Canada’s Andrew Wiggins. Despite the Wiggins hype, next year’s draft holds a lot more than just the Canadian phenom to pursue. This will likely be the best draft class since LeBron James entered the league a decade ago and the Lakers don’t really have to do all that much to compete for the bottom.
If this was five years ago, the trio of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol would make the Lakers instant favorites for a return to the NBA Finals, but it’s not five years ago and there are solid reasons why no one should be holding their breath waiting for these future Hall-of-Fame players to drag this Lakers team into the playoffs, let alone reach the Finals.
Nash was the All-Star point guard Bryant’s Lakers were missing. Nash was supposed to push the Lakers over the top in their quest to win Bryant another ring, but it wasn’t to be. An unexpected broken leg followed by hip, hamstring and the anticipated back issues and Nash was only a shadow of his former self. It didn’t help that playing with Bryant was turning this two-time MVP into a version of Derek Fisher. Can Nash bounce back? Maybe he can physically recover, but the 39-year-old Nash cannot carry a team by himself and he needs All-Star level scorers to play with who want him to facilitate.
Pau Gasol is 33-years-old and in the final year of his monster contract. Last season was a mess. Between the ineffective utilization of his diverse skill set and the seemingly never ending foot problems, Gasol set new career lows for scoring and shooting efficiency. Foot problems for big men are bad news and they are worse news in your mid-thirties. Maybe without Dwight Howard around, Head Coach Mike D’Antoni can figure out how to use Gasol and maybe his feet can get through next season unscathed, but it doesn’t feel like a good bet.
Bryant keeps telling anyone who will listen that he’ll be back in time for opening night. He even seems to have Nash convinced and no one wants to challenge the NBA’s iron man with the incomprehensible pain threshold. A torn Achilles isn’t the same as a damaged finger or a turned ankle, however, this isn’t just about pain tolerance. Surgery, rehab, conditioning and learning how to deal with physical and mental aspects of this very serious injury suggest next season isn’t going to be one to remember for Bryant, if he plays at all.
About seven years ago, a much younger 28-year-old Elton Brand was going through the same thing with the Clippers. He tore his Achilles in the summer and just six weeks after surgery, he too was back in the gym training. Brand missed all of the 2007-2008 season except 8 games in April as he was about to become a free agent. After signing a monster deal with the 76ers, he only managed to play in 29 games the next season and it took another full season after that before Brand brought his level of play back up to something resembling his pre-injury production. Bryant is days away from his 35th birthday and he has never dealt with anything quite like this before. Don’t buy into the he’ll play in November story until you actually see him on the court in a game.
Dwight Howard is gone. End of story and perhaps the most obvious rationale for tanking this season. Howard moving on has shaken the foundation of the Lakers mystique as an NBA destination no one turns down. This only makes it easier for the next big name player to say no too.
D’Antoni is still around and after last season one has to wonder if the reason the Lakers didn’t fire their 2nd head coach that year was they realized there really wasn’t any point. D’Antoni has been a very effective coach when he has a group of fast, athletic and highly-skilled scorers to manage. Last year’s team was a questionable fit, this year’s team?
At least $5 million over the Luxury tax line and likely to end up with a payroll of close to $80 million this season, the Lakers have no flexibility with which to add talent. They don’t even have an exception that will let them do any more than add players at the NBA veteran’s minimum salary.
This is a great time to try out some young talent and see if they can pickup anybody worth keeping. Cue Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Ryan Kelly and very recently, Elias Harris. Harris is an undrafted senior power forward out of Gonzaga and fits the bill perfectly for what the Lakers really have no choice but attempt to do.
Even the acquisition of 2010 All-Star center Chris Kaman doesn’t seem to upset the strategy. At 30-years-old Kaman is coming off his worst season since 2004-2005 and last year, he played in fewer games and fewer minutes than Brand in Dallas. He should be able to provide a veteran presence without getting in the way of the up and coming Jordan Hill, once Hill’s hip injury has fully recovered.
To complete this year’s season long tryout, the Lakers should be looking to fill out the roster with guys like Josh Akognon at backup point guard, Austin Daye at small forward and Cole Aldrich at backup center. There are lots of promising young prospects available that either deserve a second chance or never really had an opportunity to show what they could do in the NBA.
It seems inconceivable that the Lakers would actually tank a season in order to get a better draft pick, but logic says they should be 100 percent on board with the idea, even if they don’t hang a ‘Tank for Wiggins’ banner outside of the Staples Center. The alternative is D’Antoni figures out how to coach his veterans and Bryant, Nash and Gasol all return 100 percent healthy and stay that way for an entire season, but that sounds like a pipe dream.
The fantasy of free agents lining up to join forces in Los Angeles and taking significantly less money to do so like in Miami is just that, a fantasy. The Lakers mystique took a big hit with Howard and the team needs a genuine hook to attract a difference maker out of next summer’s free agent pool. The best hook the Lakers can assure themselves of is a top pick in next summer’s draft and it doesn’t have to be Wiggins either. The chant during Lakers games this season should be, ‘Tank, Tank, Tank!’
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.
You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors