This season, NBA fans have been treated to the rare sight of seeing the Los Angeles Lakers flounder. The most consistently successful franchise in the history of the league has only missed out on the playoffs five times (one of which happened when they still played in Minneapolis). With a 21-40 record, a sidelined Kobe Bryant, and a questionably talented roster, it figures that this season will mark the sixth such occurrence.
Yet there is hope that the team's lottery stay will be brief. Kobe, ever the competitor, has said that the turnaround will be a quick one. In more concrete terms, it's been argued that the Lakers will obtain one of this summer's high-profile free agents to remake their roster for the future. They believed that the future will be bright, in part because the Lakers remain a marquee franchise and attractive destination.
It now appears that the front office is adjusting that plan to reload in free agency this summer. With Kobe agreeing to his massive two-year extension in November, the Lakers' offseason flexibility has been dependent on their releasing aging and injury-addled Steve Nash via the collective bargaining agreement's stretch provision. Nash has been open and honest about this potential turn of events (and the subsequent end of his career), so it's not as if it's a mere rumor.
However, the Lakers seem to have told Nash that he's likely to stay with the team for the final year of his contract. As such, they're probably not going to shell out for a big name this summer. From Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report (via PBT):
The Lakers would rather be done with the entirety of Nash’s $9.7 million salary next year if they’re not planning on spending much next season, as opposed to stretching that money across the next three seasons if they waive him and suffer future burdens.
That decision by the Lakers would give Nash one last season to get his body as right as possible, control the nerve-root irritation sapping his back and legs, and try to go out on something close to his terms.
“Yeah,” Nash said Tuesday night about the Lakers letting him play it out next season. “It sounds like it.” [...]
For the Lakers’ purposes, Nash being able to contribute next season would lessen the bust of his acquisition only slightly. The losing hedges with Dwight Howard and Nash are severely limiting the Lakers’ rebuilding options now, and as Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said last month, the one thing the franchise cannot afford is to gamble again and lose.
To Kupchak, paying maximum dollars to star players who the Lakers are not certain can deliver championship performances would be bad business—and is, in fact, exactly what has happened in New York with the Knicks struggling despite having Carmelo Anthony. So don’t expect to see Anthony or Chris Bosh—if he opts out of his Miami Heat contract—getting epic offers from the Lakers.
The implication here is that the Lakers think that 2015 free agents such as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rajon Rondo are the kinds of players, who can win championships. That point is arguable, but the practical outcome is that the Lakers would only pursue LeBron James (who would be a 2015 target anyway if he doesn't opt out) among this summer's potential max-level free agents. Otherwise, they'll keep Nash, pay him his salary over one season, and hope for the best.
Given that James is a long shot to team up with Bryant this summer (this is educated speculation only), it figures that the Lakers will have much the same team next year. Although Kobe figures to be healthier, he turns 36 in August and cannot be expected to return to his full abilities after such a lengthy term on the sidelines. As even the most optimistic projections for Nash do not expect much and big man Pau Gasol seems uncertain to re-up with Los Angeles, it's not crazy to see the Lakers as a lottery team again next season.
That would be an odd sight, to say the least. The Lakers have missed out on the playoffs in consecutive seasons just one time in their history (1974-75 and 1975-76), and fans expect to see a championship contender in every season. Going two seasons without a playoff appearance won't necessarily change those expectations, and it figures that Laker Nation would expect a major splash in 2015 free agency.
There's no special reason to think that splash won't be made, if only because two years in the doldrums aren't going to rob the franchise of their full aura. However, it's worth considering how deferring the team's reloading process could change their image and long-term expectations. While the Lakers have developed championship contenders in part because they've waited for the right players, they've also reached those heights through a great amount of luck. In banking on the 2015 free agent class, the front office has essentially made a big bet on a set of players who, for all their abilities, are not on the same level as the LeBrons and Durants of the NBA. This plan carries with it a hope of obtaining a similar player through the draft, but that's a gamble, as well. This path is not a sure thing, no matter how much planning the Lakers do.
The point here is not the Lakers are doomed to failure. It's just that, as their appraisal of available players stretches on, they look more like any other franchise attempting to create a championship team. The Lakers' history and market size certainly helps in that pursuit, but, as they learned with Dwight Howard in July, free agents usually assess current realities over all else. A rich history looks less impressive the more it recedes into the past.