For years, the Los Angeles Lakers were regarded as the (purple and) gold standard of the NBA, with a the perfect blend of organizational reputation and perfect location that commanded the respect of everyone else in the league – and attracted many to Los Angeles. It’s that blend which the Lakers used to sign the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal in free agency. Both of those now-legendary big men went on to win MVPs and championships while playing for L.A.’s premier pro sports team.
That reputation continued through the end of last decade, most notably when the Lakers signed Ron Artest to bolster their small forward position. Despite Artest only being a few months removed from a public, verbal clash with Kobe Bryant, he couldn’t pass up the chance to sign with the then-defending champions. Artest was a major part of getting that team back to the finals the very next year, and wound up forging a bond with Bryant that has lasted to the present day (but more importantly made this happen).
After that glorious 2010 victory over the Celtics to secure Los Angeles’s sixteenth NBA title, however, the Lakers’ luck in free agency has mostly run dry. Phil Jackson’s departure, the failed Chris Paul trade, and the Steve Nash debacle started to weaken the Lakers’ image around the league, but that was just the beginning. Dwight Howard’s shocking decision to leave for the Houston Rockets following the disastrous 2012-2013 season plunged Los Angeles into a full-on rebuild. That rebuild was only accelerated by the departure of Pau Gasol and retirement of Nash. Soon, the Lakers had been transformed from one of the top free agent destinations in the league to one of the most toxic.
The Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak led front office, however, seemed not to care. They still went hard after superstars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony (even spending $1 million to produce a film on Anthony’s life) – and missed on both. Yet the lowest point in decades of Laker free agency exploits came in 2015, when they courted former Trail Blazers All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge reportedly headed into his meeting with the Lakers hoping to be blown away by their pitch, but instead was disappointed by how much they focused on the marketability of being a Lakers star in L.A. and how little they talked about, well, actual basketball. Although he gave the Lakers a second chance to sell Aldridge on the actual quality of their team, the power forward instead made the easy decision to sign with the playoff-ready San Antonio Spurs instead. Yes, the front office took a lot of deserved heat from this, but it was easy to see where they were coming from. When it came to the actual quality of the Lakers on the court, there was virtually nothing to sell in the first place.
This year, things are different. The Lakers are finally making progress back toward their high-water mark of being able to literally sign Kobe’s enemies. Here’s how.
In 2015, hardly anything was known about the Lakers’ young core. Jordan Clarkson had come on strong at the end of the past season, but had also spent most of it in the D-League. Julius Randle had played all of 18 minutes before breaking his leg on opening night, leaving nothing but speculation about the type of NBA player he’d be. L.A. had added to that core by picking up D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance, and Anthony Brown in that summer’s draft, but all three were as unproven as any rookie coming into their first season in the association.
But after last season, even despite setting a new franchise record for losses in a season, the Lakers have a much more established set of young talent.
Clarkson continued to be solid, and proved that he can be at least a good rotation member if not more. Randle was a force in the paint, averaging a double-double (14.4 points, 13.1 rebounds) per 36 minutes in his de facto rookie year. Russell faced questions about his maturity, but still showed enough flashes to give hope that the Lakers’ faith in his superstar potential will one day be rewarded. Nance, despite not being fully recovered from an ACL tear, became the latest late-draft steal by providing a spark both in the starting lineup and off the bench.
Additionally, the Lakers again earned the second overall pick in the NBA draft lottery and also hold the 32nd overall selection. It’s a stockpile of assets that would make most other NBA franchises green with envy, and one that may interest free agents who aren’t desperate to join a team that’s currently contending. Kupchak also has the option to pool some of these assets together and trade for a star that may push the Lakers closer to contention – and draw more interest from around the league.
In 2014, the Lakers made their pitches to James and Anthony without a head coach in place, as they were still in between Mike D’Antoni’s resignation at the end of the past season and the hiring of Byron Scott in late July. In 2015, they made their pitch to Aldridge with Scott at the helm, which may have been even worse.
This summer, however, Scott is gone and Luke Walton is in his place. Walton has spent the past two years as an assistant on a Warriors team whose style of play helped them dominate the NBA over that span, and he’s already confirmed he’ll be bringing that style to Los Angeles next season. That should not only excite Lakers fans who have been forced to watch a style of basketball almost as ridiculously old-school as Byron’s off-court approach, but also be more intriguing to prospective free agents. Golden State has put the entire league on notice with its revolutionary ball movement and spacing, and players looking to be a part of that may now consider the Lakers a little more earnestly.
The Cap Space
Thanks to having a number of players on expiring short-term deals last season, the Lakers could have upwards of $60 million in salary cap space this summer. A tiny portion of that will go towards re-signing at least one of their restricted free agents (Clarkson), but L.A. is still expected to have the most cap space out of any NBA team. That should be enough to potentially add two max contracts along with a decent mid-sized one if they so choose – and they might, given the steep hike in cap space due to take place next summer.
Kobe (Or Lack Thereof)
Based on who you talk to, playing with Kobe Bryant was either a blessing or a curse. Regardless, it’s indisputable that from the time Shaq was traded in 2004 until the Black Mamba’s final game this past April, the Lakers were Kobe’s team. Their identity was intertwined with his. Any player who joined the Lakers during those twelve years, even if they could carve out a place for themselves in the hearts of Lakers fans, would have to play second fiddle to Kobe both on and off the court. Those who accepted that, like Artest and Pau Gasol, won championships with him. Those who didn’t, like Dwight Howard, well…
That era, of course, is over now. Kobe didn’t pass the torch to any single young Laker (although this has to count for something), so there is no waiting heir to the Mamba’s throne. What there is, though, is plenty of space for a veteran to enter Kobe’s void and become a marketable star and leader of the Lakers’ young core. Of course, such a player wouldn’t replace Kobe in the hearts of Laker fans, but he may not have to because…
The Lakers’ Brand is As Strong As Ever
Consider this: The Lakers have been by far the worst team in L.A. area sports over the past twelve months. During that time, the Dodgers, Kings, Ducks, and Clippers have all made the playoffs. Additionally, the Rams finally brought the NFL back to L.A. while USC and UCLA continued to display some of the most talented college football players in the country.
With all that said, if you were to ask any Angelino sports fan what the biggest moment of the past year was, they would probably answer that it was Kobe Bryant’s final game. The entire city was electric that day, in a way I can never remember it being. That was only magnified when Kobe dropped 60 in front of a raucous Staples Center crowd that cheered like it was Game 7 against the Boston Celtics all over again instead of a meaningless contest against the Utah Jazz. Even in what was literally the worst season in Laker history, the team still found a way to impact America’s second-largest media market in a way only the purple and gold can. That should speak volumes to any potential free agent looking to boost their image, as our own Gary Kester went more in-depth on last month.
No, I’m not saying that the Lakers are back to their pre-2011 status. Nor am I implying that all this will convince the likes of Kevin Durant to even for a moment consider signing with the Lakers. However, the Lakers will no doubt be active this offseason, and they have a much better product to sell this time around as they attempt to reverse the luck of their past couple summers.