The luster of the Los Angeles Lakers has worn off. Not completely, of course. No other NBA team boasts the combination of history and glitz that the Lakers do, a reality likely here to stay. Competing franchises can’t simply summon all-time greats like George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant their way, just as they’re unable to fabricate from thin air sunny, room temperature weather, beautiful beaches, and a notable Hollywood fan base.
So the Lakers still loom large in the league, but the team’s inability to land each free agent it so obviously covets in recent summers casts doubt on the notion that it’s the sleeping giant so many purple and gold clad followers still believe. Even general manager Mitch Kupchak, apparently, took a more measured approach into July’s free agency frenzy than the Lakers’ actions suggest.
In a story detailing expectations for the coming season by Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Kupchak says the Lakers didn’t actually believe they had a realistic chance to lure LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony to L.A. this summer.
Things would have looked so different had the Lakers landed Anthony or, a real longshot, James. But they didn’t.
“Our expectations with either player just based on what we perceived the environment to be . . . we never felt it was realistic that we could get one or [both],” Kupchak said. “But if you don’t try you don’t know.
“We’ll get somebody. At some point we will.”
Rest assured that Kupchak and company didn’t clear hordes of cap space to trade for Jeremy Lin, win the amnesty bidding for Carlos Boozer, and overpay incumbents Nick Young and Jordan Hill. The Lakers hope was indeed to land one of the summer’s two biggest fish, and they actually came closer to catching Anthony than league intelligentsia assumed they would.
While maintaining the team was never optimistic of signing LeBron or Carmelo, Kupchak even admits the Lakers’ wholehearted attempts to do so. As he says, there was no way to know for sure that franchise glamour wouldn’t win over the superstars unless it courted them.
You know what would have made the Lakers’ long-awaited acquisition of a new, entrenched franchise player more likely, though? If the team hadn’t awarded 35 year-old Bryant a two-year, $48 million extension as he was rehabbing a ruptured achilles tendon last November. As a result Kobe’s wildly outsized deal, the Lakers didn’t even have enough cap room this summer to sign either James or Anthony outright – let alone inking one of the star forwards to a max-level deal and then signing the ancillary pieces they would need to immediately compete for a title.
Now, there were mitigating factors at play in both cases: James was only bound for Miami or Cleveland, and the New York Knicks’ offer to Anthony ultimately proved too lucrative for him to pass up. But if the Lakers had enough flexibility to create a legitimate super-team with Carmelo aboard, you can bet he would have taken their overtures even more seriously at the very least.
That lack of wiggle room surely won’t be Kupchak’s problem for much longer. Bryant will likely retire after the 2015-2016 season, and the Lakers have less than $10 million on the books for the summer that follows it – when Kevin Durant and a host of other talents hit the market. And the July after that, Southern California native and UCLA attendee Russell Westbrook will be available.
Kupchak and company will definitely try to find the Lakers’ next legend in the following three years, but it’s heartening to know he doesn’t hold the irrational belief his team’s fans do that every free agent has L.A. at the top of his list. Of course, it would also be nice if Kupchak had a better contingency plan in place going forward than the one the Lakers exercised this summer, too.
What do you think?
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