The Los Angeles Lakers are not the organization they once were.
Once the premier franchise of the NBA and the destination of choice for just about every kid coming out of college, the Lakers are now a team that is trying to reinvent itself. Although the Lakers would never admit that they are “rebuilding” because pride won’t allow it, that is exactly what they are doing.
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The Lakers shocked everyone at the NBA Draft this past June by passing on Duke center Jahlil Okafor and instead picking guard D’Angelo Russell out of Ohio State. It was a bold move many saw as a clear indication that the Lakers are rebuilding, even if they won’t admit it.
In addition to Russell, they have returning forward Julius Randle and guard Jordan Clarkson, two talented players that could be the beginnings of a core of young talent that will take them into the future.
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So you have to ask why a team that needs to pursue youth would go out during free agency and sign center Roy Hibbert and forward Lou Williams, even if the deals were very team-friendly. Why would an organization that needs to be thinking about the future and freeing up cap space pursue LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan, knowing that it would be nothing but a band-aid and wouldn’t solve the very real issues this team has?
It all comes down to Kobe Bryant.
It is fair to say the Lakers have been crippled not only by Bryant’s incredibly expensive extension (which will pay him a league-high $25 million this year), but by the man himself. It seems as if no decision can be made about the roster without consulting Bryant first. He is a large part of the reason that the Lakers have not been able to rebuild the way they should — tear it all down and start over. Bryant wants to win and will hear no argument that may state otherwise.
Then there are scenes like the one that played out in front of the national media earlier this week.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak oversaw a press conference to introduce their three new free agent signings: Hibbert, Williams and Brandon Bass. Everything was going fine until someone asked if Bryant had reached out to any of them to welcome them to the team.
What followed was awkward personified:
Then there is the entire “Will Kobe Bryant retire?” conversation that will follow him everywhere he goes this season. Kupchak seems inclined to believe that Bryant will in fact call it a career after the 2015-16 season, saying on SiriusXM NBA Radio just this past May:
"“He has indicated to me that this is it. There have been no discussions about anything going forward. I don’t think there will be.”via SBNation.com"
This of course led to Bryant tweeting out the following:
So is Bryant going to retire? And if he does, will it turn the Lakers’ season, one that is supposed to be about developing young talent, into a farewell tour that will become a three-ring circus and the entire focus of the NBA?
Ironically, the best thing that could happen to the Lakers is if Bryant does indeed retire. Without him there, the franchise will be free to rebuild as they see fit, even if that does include tanking for a year or two (although the Lakers have been pretty bad without even trying).
Despite Kupchak repeatedly saying he wanted to give Bryant the best chance at one more NBA championship, the Lakers are not going to the postseason this year. It’s just not going to happen. Which means that the 2015-16 season should be about development and the future and forming a plan that will result in the Lakers being among the elite of the NBA again.
But as long as Kobe Bryant is there, the distractions will continue. How much so remains to be seen.
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