The Lakers are currently 9-9, good enough for 12th in the Western Conference and in line with the ESPN’s preseason projections. Fielding a .500 team might get you a four seed in the Leastern Conference, but in the Western Conference you might as well tank to get a better shot at the lottery. Although, in typical Lakers fashion, they have let the world know the franchise plans to do no such thing. On the heels of Kobe Bryant making his rumoured return from last season’s ACL tear this Friday, is the two-year, $48.5-million contract extension conducive to those said championship aspirations? Long story short: yes. And here’s why.
The problem for the Lakers in 2013 and beyond
The Lakers’ diminishing drawing power
A lot has been said about the Lakers over these past few seasons. They have the wrong coach, they play too slow, Kobe doesn’t make his teammates better, etc. But there’s one issue that doesn’t get as much press as it should: the Lakers’ diminishing drawing power. In the NBA of the 1980s and 90s, Los Angeles was the big stage where fame and fortune held hands and took long walks on the beach. In the 2000s? Big names are everywhere, small market or not. Kevin Durant is as well-known in Oklahoma City as Ricky Rubio is in Minnesota. In fact, I would argue that the smaller markets, with media coverage that is less intense and much more forgiving than places like New York and Los Angeles, allow players to be themselves and concentrate on just being basketball players, rather than mini-celebrities. As a result, the bright lights of Los Angeles are often shining a little too hotly for some players (*cough* Dwight Howard) to deal with. Los Angeles is no longer the sole destination for the dreams of many young athletes. If you want your own shoe deal and to be recognized by the country, you can literally play anywhere.
The passing of Dr. Buss
Jerry Buss, someone who was rarely in the forefront of the media spotlight, was the main draw to free agents. He was the chief negotiator and closer in various behind-the-scenes deals. His charisma and magnanimous presence is exactly the thing missing from a sit down meeting with Dwight Howard. With Dr. Buss’ passing and consequently, the passing of the reins to his son, Jim Buss, free agents are now wary of the leadership at the top of the pyramid. It’s show-and-prove time for Jim Buss, and his record so far isn’t sparkling with achievements. The short list includes Dwight Howard leaving town in the summer of 2013, the mishandling of longtime legendary coach Phil Jackson and the ousting of his own sister Jeanie Buss from taking the lead.
The Lakers are rebuilding their brand with these mantras
“We take care of our own”
With so many players unwilling to make a long-term commitment to the new management of the Lakers, the franchise has to show that the Buss family still takes care of its Lakers familia with Dr. Buss no longer in charge. Part of the challenge of owning a team like the Lakers is giving praise to its storied history while keeping an eye on the future. And the Lakers, for whatever hatred they have incurred from outside sources, have always taken care of their own. Ownership shares have been granted to Magic Johnson, a statue of Kareem is being erected outside the Staples Center, Jerry West was allowed the freedom to GM another franchise (Memphis) and works as a consultant elsewhere (Golden State). After what Kobe Bryant did for the Lakers franchise since the late ‘90s, dumping Bryant or allowing him to leave in free agency would be a signal to the rest of the league that the new guys in charge don’t view things the same way as their father.
You have to keep in mind the new audience the Lakers are speaking to and trying to lure: other superstars. Signing Kobe, even if he hasn’t played a game all year, is a signal to the league that if you put in work under a Lakers’ uniform and bring more championship banners to the rafters, you’ll receive a hefty pension during the end of your career, even if your productivity is uncertain.
“We want the right kind of players”
Few personalities in the NBA would like to play side-by-side with the Black Mamba. But you know who would? People who care about winning. It’s an open secret that Kobe Bryant is much more about winning than getting along with his peers, and it’s this kind of personality that is able to satiate the sports hunger of Los Angeles. Magic had both the charisma and winning attitude, but when it comes down to it, everyone takes winners over nice guys. So who could they possibly be going after?
The free agent crop of 2014 may include people like Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, but with those targets seeming to be a little far fetched (maybe more than a little), the Lakers could be keeping an eye on the crop of 2015. 2015 will be an interesting year, as players like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, both Los Angeles natives, will be available. Kobe will be nearing the end of the contract and passing the torch to whomever the Lakers bring in, and the right fit will have a respect for the history of the Lakers, but still want to create their own part in the team’s mythology.
Speaking of mythology…
A real shot at being the G.O.A.T.
The Lakers would love to be associated with the greatest player to ever play the game. Period. A lot of folks will smirk at the above title, but if Kobe somehow wins his sixth ring, he may be considered the Greatest of All Time with the right amount of perspective. Everything changes in hindsight, and winning another championship in these circumstances may change the overall outlook of Kobe’s career. If everything goes right, Kobe will have returned from his ACL injury after a mere nine months. Everyone thinks Kobe will never be the same again. Yet, his work ethic causes the skeptics to doubt themselves. The championship could affirm Kobe’s determination to overcome age and injury. The sixth ring would also tie Michael Jordan’s number, making the argument of six rings against five moot (finally).
Kobe is also only 675 points behind Michael Jordan from passing him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He’s also 6770 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s towering scoring leader. With the two-year extension, considering there are 82 games per season, and assuming Kobe plays in at least 60 games this year (a possible 224 games), Kobe would have to average approximately 30.5 points to get the job done (that figure does not include the playoffs). You also have to keep in mind that Kobe almost lost two full seasons due to the various lockouts, and he would have passed that figure already. In all honesty, I would say that goal is near impossible for someone at Kobe’s age and injury history, but I would also say never bet against the Mamba.
A last-second shot
When Kobe’s extension kicks in, it’s estimated that Kobe will still take up 40 per cent of the Lakers’ cap, and critics are screaming that they will not be able to lure another two superstars to field a team capable of winning at a championship level. Time will tell if they are right. Remember, it was not too long ago that the NBA vetoed a trade that would have brought Chris Paul, another notorious competitor in the mold of Kobe, to Los Angeles. But if they can’t swing a trade like that anymore, the Lakers are going to have to wade into the free agent waters. Right now Los Angeles isn’t an attractive place to play. But read those above statements again. Do you really believe that the Lakers would be better off by letting Kobe go? Hell no.