Do the Lakers Have a Plan?

Kobe Bryant injured

It's the 21st century. We live in a technologically advanced society. Things move fast. Innovate. Create. Disseminate. If you are a company that is actively trying to make a profit and stay ahead of your competition, you'd really be shooting yourself in the foot if your pitch to new clients was all about the glorious times your company had decades ago, about all the great things your former employees did in the past. If that's your pitch, you had better be like a fancy antiques dealer or something. Because otherwise, I mean, who cares?

The Los Angeles Lakers are not a fancy antiques dealer. They are a basketball team that plays in a basketball league filled to the brim with organizations that are focused on pioneering new ways of thinking, analyzing, data-collecting, and player-tracking.

Meantime, the Lakers were the very last NBA team to do something as simple as have team representatives attend the annual Sloan Analytics Conference. It's hard to discern their current team-building strategy as anything other than believing that free agents will be attracted to the team because of their glorious and decorated past.

In the three years since Phil Jackson's most recent departure, the Lakers' winning percentage has dropped significantly each year, going from .695 (Phil's last season) to .621 to .549 to .329. They have gone through two head coaches in that time, and the position is presently vacant.

Heading into the summer with tons of cap space, the only free agents they have signed, on the strength of their supposedly illustrious pull, are the amnestied Carlos Boozer, and Ed Davis, who is a quality role player signed at a bargain price—but still a role player. Mostly in free agency, the Lakers have been busy resigning a gratuitous chunk of the players who made up the nucleus of their .329 team: Nick Young received a four-year deal; Jordan Hill will receive $9 million each of the next two seasons; and Xavier Henry, Ryan Kelly, and Wesley Johnson are also back.

Julius Randle LakersThere is hope in the much-hyped rookie Julius Randle, deemed a smart pick at No. 7 overall in this year's draft. He may well turn out to be a fantastic player, but there will be no young, elite reinforcements along the way.

The Lakers' first-round pick in 2015 is on its way to the Phoenix Suns as part of the Steve Nash deal (yes, Steve Nash!). While Los Angeles did receive the Houston Rockets' 2015 first rounder as part of the recently consummated Jeremy Lin trade, the Rockets are a borderline-elite team, and that pick will be No. 20 or so in the Lakers' best-case scenario.

The Lakers are also sending their 2017 first round pick to the Orlando Magic as part of the Dwight Howard deal. One season of sup-optimal Dwight and many seasons of supremely sub-optimal Nash is not a good return for two first-round picks.

With only Randle and Young currently under contract past 2016, the speculation that the Lakers are banking on spending big on that year's free agency class—which includes the crown jewel, Kevin Durant—is not unfounded. But, man, 2016 is a long time from now!

Even the ballsiest of the league's rebuilding teams—think the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz—don't just sit and twiddle their thumbs in anticipation of future options. Proper rebuilding teams make prolific transactions that net themselves a multiplicity of assets—see Philadelphia's acquisition of five second round picks in this year's draft, or the four draft picks that Utah received for taking on the burdensome contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins.

The Lakers' trade for Lin was definitely a step in the right direction, taking on a present contractual burden for a future asset. But this is the only such move that the Lakers have made. And unlike other rebuilders, the Lakers do not have an organizational scheme, unified from front office to the (empty) coach's bench, with specific traits and skill-sets that they can focus on when making those all-important draft selections.

Kobe Bryant injuredI've gone this far without mentioning the elephant on the cap sheet: Kobe Bryant. The two-year, $48.5 million contract that the team extended to Bryant early last fall is the clearest indication that they are focused on past legacy instead of future progress. Although neither the team nor Kobe himself could have foreseen it, Kobe's 2013–14 contract was one of the least efficient in NBA history: $30.4 million for six ineffective games between long-term injuries.

Even before Kobe's extension has actually started, it already looks like an albatross: while Kobe can definitely still be an effective NBA player, his last two seasons have been derailed by injuries, and his history of relationships with young, unproven teammates has been shaky at best. Actually, who am I kiddin': it's just been pretty crappy.

Other teams with long-tenured, Hall of Fame-caliber players have approached the dilemma of an aging superstar from an entirely different direction. Dirk Nowitzki is still a massively effective player, and he just re-signed with the Dallas Mavericks on a three-year, $25 million deal. Tim Duncan was also a free agent this summer, but quietly re-signed with the San Antonio Spurs to a two-year, $20.7 million extension. These are contracts that fairly compensate these players at their current, past-prime value—there is no de facto "tax" added on for these players' decade-plus of elite contributions to their team.

What's more, the Nowitzki and Duncan deals were agreed to during this month, when both players were bona fide unrestricted free agents. Last fall, the Lakers were facing zero time constraints when it came to signing Bryant. It's supremely unlikely that, had Bryant been left un-extended and allowed to test the free agency market here in July, he would receive anywhere near the offer that the Lakers gave him up against no competing bids.

So, why re-sign Kobe? While his famous anal-retentiveness will ensure that he will remain a productive player, given good health, those same traits led to the highly contentious season that Kobe had with Dwight in 2012–13. Los Angeles is not the sole desirable NBA city to live in—why would a marquee free agent want to run with a cranky, aged Kobe if they can play elsewhere? This extension is already one of the league's most untradeable contracts, and before it's even gotten started.

Even if Kobe does return to full health, there's not a lot of reason to believe that the 2014–15 Lakers will improve too much over their 27-win total last year. Most of the same players are returning. But also two of the three highest-producing Lakers by win shares—Jodie Meeks and Pau Gasol—are gone. Oh, and of course, they don't have a coach.

What do I know: come July 2016, Kevin Durant may very well be signing with the purple and gold, and so many new banners may go up in the rafters as a result. But last year, the Lakers were a directionless lottery team. There's not a lot of reason to think that the next two years will be any different.

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