The continuous loop played out during the NBA draft. Commissioner David Stern walked to the lectern. He announced the latest draft selection. ESPN cameras soon zoomed in on the emotional prospect and his family. The networks analysts then assessed to what degree these players could either lift a franchise or simply upgrade a team’s roster.
For the Lakers, however, the scene just brought another reminder of how difficult and unpredictable the effort to restore championship success could be.
The Times’ Mike Bresnahan reported that the Lakers tried and failed to improve their draft position with trades. The Lakers had hoped they could find a team interested in Pau Gasol so they could draft Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But the Charlotte Bobcats selected Kidd-Gilchrist second overall. Bresnahan reported the Lakers highly coveted Ohio State power forward Jared Sullinger and Baylor center Perry Jones, but couldn’t find a trading partner before both were snatched away late in the first round.
Instead, the Lakers only upgraded their roster by acquiring Marquette guard Darius Johnson-Odom for cash after the Dallas Mavericks selected him with the 55th pick. Then, the Lakers ended the draft by taking 7-foot Gonzaga center Robert Sacre with the 60th pick.
“This is really the beginning phase of when teams look to improve,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. It could also be the beginning phase of a difficult task for the front office. Should the Lakers only make modest tweaks, it could help the team on a short-term basis. But it wouldn’t solve the the fundamental long-term issues as an aging team with an $80-million-plus payroll. Should the Lakers blow up the team outside of Kobe Bryant, as Magic Johnson once suggested, the approach could help the rebuilding effort at the expense of contending for a championship for the next few seasons.
Behind this delicate balancing act Kupchak admits, “Our assets are limited.”
The Lakers only have an $8.9-million trade exception, stemming from the Lamar Odom trade. They also can acquire a free agent through the mini mid-level exception, worth $3 million.
The players currently on roster also limit the Lakers’ options.
Bryant’s not going anywhere, even if he’s owed $58.3 million in the next two seasons and on the tail end of his career. He remains the team’s best player and shipping him off would be a public relations disaster. Even if any impending moves will bear on the Lakers’ fortunes after Bryant’s playing career has ended, Kupchak conceded, “I don’t know how you plan for that.”
So far, the Lakers have repeatedly shopped Gasol around, attempting to rid themselves of his two-year, $58-million contract. But the Lakers have rejected offers (Atlanta’s Josh Smith) and been rejected (when trying to move up in the draft). The Lakers haven’t began talks with Andrew Bynum over a long-term deal, but Kupchak suggested they consider it a priority. Same too with re-signing Ramon Sessions, though there aren’t any guarantees after he opted out of his $4.55-million player option.
Things become even dicier once free agency begins Saturday at 9 p.m. Sessions, Matt Barnes and Troy Murphy will become unrestricted free agents, while Jordan Hill, Devin Ebanks and Darius Morris will become restricted free agents. Kupchak suggested the fate of those players will mostly rest on what market value they attract.
That leaves the Lakers in a state of flux that Kupchak epitomizes best with his public comments. Kupchak boasted, “I don’t see why we couldn’t be in the hunt next year,” should the current roster stay intact. Yet, he conceded the Lakers stategy that they “will try to hit a home run.”
As the Lakers did leading up to the NBA draft, they may just whiff. Or they may hit a long ball after working the count. No one knows, for sure.