It has been two days since Kobe Bryant’s unforgettable career finale that saw him score 60 points, willing the Los Angeles Lakers to one last victory over the Utah Jazz.
While fans obviously never want the euphoria of that moment to end, the front office knows it has an uphill battle staring them in the face. With Bryant no longer in the picture, the rationale of catering to his farewell tour can no longer be used as an excuse as they prepare for an absolutely crucial offseason.
The past two summers have seen the Lakers enter with enough money to offer a maximum level contract to free agents, yet the team was unable to land a cornerstone to help jumpstart the rebuilding process.
This year could prove to be different, though. With a number of contracts expiring, including Bryant’s $25 million dollar salary, the Lakers will have enough money to offer two max contracts, with some money still left over. Unlike last year — with an injured Julius Randle and really only Jordan Clarkson as a building block — Los Angeles at least has something to sell to free agents with a core group of Randle, Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr. and D’Angelo Russell. Not to mention a potential top-three pick, if the ping pong balls bounce the Lakers’ way again.
Of course, with the group being so young, a lot remains to be seen. Additionally, who knows if Russell’s incident with Nick Young might affect things in terms of players’ desire to come to Los Angeles. Keeping Byron Scott as head coach for another season probably would not help things, but that decision has yet to be finalized.
Perhaps the most influential recruiting pitch might be the ability to offer enough money for two star players to pair up in purple and gold, or a handful of noticeable upgrades to help improve the overall depth of the roster. The Lakers certainly have more resources available to them this time around, but they will still have their work cut out for them. At the end of the day, trying to appeal to players after a 17-65 season is no easy feat.
However, Shaquille O’Neal apparently thinks the Lakers can do it. Shaq was on SportsCenter on Thursday night, and when he was asked where Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant will play next season, he had a surprising answer.
Okay, so Shaq was probably having some fun like he has been known to do. I’m sure he knows that the odds are paper thin that Durant decides to take the torch from Bryant as the next Lakers franchise player. He is in the prime of his career and hungry for a championship, and Los Angeles is likely still a few years away from contending for anything meaningful. The odds of Durant joining a rebuilding franchise are about the same as Shaq hitting 10 free throws in a row (Kidding, Shaq. Love you.).
But maybe O’Neal is considering something that not many people have touched on just yet. Could the Lakers use Kobe’s farewell as a recruiting pitch to sway free agents into signing with them?
Whether you hate Bryant and the Lakers or not, there is no denying how incredible of a job they did handling their beloved star’s final day as a Laker. The team, paired with Nike, turned it into an all-day event. It felt similar to that of a national holiday, as franchises from other sports, celebrities and fans everywhere tweeted their goodbyes to Bryant, using #MambaDay. Twitter even broke during the first quarter of Wednesday’s game.
Instead of Kobe’s farewell being a sad day like many expected, the Lakers ensured that it was a celebration of his illustrious 20-year career. They basically threw a party outside of Staples Center, and there was no shortage of attendees.
— Lakers Outsiders (@LakersOutsiders) April 13, 2016
That image does not capture the entire scene outside of Staples Center, either.
What player wouldn’t want that?
Now, I’m not sure there is a single player in the league right now — other than maybe Russell, since he started as a Laker — that can elevate their game and status to a level that could earn the amount of love from Lakers fans that Kobe did. The two players that probably would have the best chance to come close both play for the Thunder. Lakers fans desperately want Durant and Russell Westbrook, even though the odds of either coming are slim, despite the latter being from the Los Angeles area.
But Wednesday served as the latest testament to how the Lakers treated a player that brought them multiple championships as the clear-cut leader and alpha dog. They also gave Kobe a two-year, $48.5 million extension, despite coming off a ruptured Achilles at the age of 35. Granted, the Lakers did not treat Pau Gasol all that great in his final seasons with them, but they did still give him a three-year, $64.7 million extension prior to the final few seasons filled with trade rumors.
Also, it was an amazing display of how powerful the fan base can be. The team’s 16-65 record did not matter. Millions of fans still tuned in to watch Bryant’s final game anyways, even with the Golden State Warriors earning their historic 73rd win at the same time. A sellout crowd also paid outrageous ticket prices to see No. 24 take the court one last time.
Will the Lakers try to use the festivities and fan devotion to try and lure free agents? General manager Mitch Kupchak certainly implied it.
Mitch on free agency: "Anybody that watched on Wednesday night, they know what it's like to play in Los Angeles and be successful here."
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) April 15, 2016
Being successful as a member of the Lakers is great and all, but players have to be in a position to succeed. So clearly, it is not cut and dry.
Obviously, winning anywhere is great. Does it mean more to do it with the Lakers? Some would say yes, some would say no. I guess you would have to ask former players who have done so about that, but we have all seen what the championship parades are like when the Lakers win a title, and they’re absolutely nuts.
It probably won’t be enough to lure a superstar like Durant, but with such little established talent currently on the roster, the Lakers are sort of forced to use Bryant’s farewell and their treatment of him as a pitch to free agents this summer. It should be part of their meetings, not the entire presentation itself. They will need to sell a well-designed basketball plan if they hope to acquire talent this July.
Will Kobe’s incredible last day as a Laker help the franchise hit a home run this summer? I doubt it. But maybe it can be an influential piece of a plan that can still upgrade the roster and initiate the early stages of an ascension back to prominence.