I know a Celtics fan should never try to help the Lakers. I know I should bite my tongue. I know I should hope Jimmy Buss keeps ruining his family’s team, I know I should be hoping that they’ll kowtow to Kobe and make the Lakers juuuuuuuust decent enough to be irrelevant, and that a decade of Blowtime would be my best possible outcome here.
But here’s the problem …
I love making fake NBA trades, figuring out blueprints for franchises and determining the fastest, most efficient ways to save them. That’s just who I am. I’m a weirdo. I have a folder of iPad bookmarks called “NBA Nerd” that features links for the ESPN.com Trade Machine, HoopsHype’s NBA salary page, ShamSports’s NBA salary page, Basketball-Reference.com, Hoopdata.com, PER leaders, and the NBA Transactions Archive. I’m like a cross between the Wolf, Olivia Pope and Jerry West. Or I like to think that I am. Again, I’m a weirdo. I genuinely enjoy hypothetically fixing broken NBA franchises. Even ones I can’t stand. So after Dwight Howard completed The Indecision and fled Kobe’s clutches for the sanctity of barbecue, luxurious strip joints, no state taxes, lower expectations and low-key media pressure Houston, I found myself clicking on the Lakers’ salary page just out of curiosity … but then my wheels started turning … and one thing led to another … and suddenly I found myself helping the Lakers. I couldn’t resist. Within a few minutes, I was inadvertently hatching a plan that even Rachel Phelps would consider shameless.
In the NBA, you want to be either really good or really bad. You never want to land between those two “reallys” for long. You don’t want to be squeezed into the no. 8 seed or keep finishing 12th or 13th in every lottery. Basically, you don’t want to be the Milwaukee Bucks. (Cut to every Bucks fan nodding vigorously.) If you can’t compete for the title, why not bottom out in the most flagrantly offensive way possible?
Of course, that’s something the Lakers have never, ever done. They picked first in the 1979 and 1982 drafts (Magic and Worthy) by fleecing laughingstock franchises of their draft picks — not by being the laughingstock franchise. They miraculously turned Vlade Divac, three cartons of Marlboro Reds and a pound of phlegm into a raw high schooler named Kobe Bryant. They landed Shaq, Kareem, Wilt and Dwight for a variety of reasons, the biggest being that (a) they’re the f-ing Lakers, and (b) celebrities love Los Angeles (we’ll get to this). Since they moved to Southern California in 1960, they’ve won 63.3 percent of their games, appeared in 25 Finals, missed the playoffs just four times, and never won fewer than 30 games. They haven’t picked higher than 10th with their own pick since 1975, when they selected Dave Meyers second and promptly traded him in a megadeal for Kareem. No professional sports franchise has been this consistently good for this long: not the Yankees, not the Canadiens, not the Steelers, not anybody.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. Their best player is hitting Year 18 and rehabbing from the worst sports injury an older player can have. Their second-best player just ditched them. Their third-best player becomes a free agent in 12 months. Their fourth-best player turns 40 this season. They can’t improve one of the league’s worst supporting casts because they’re patently terrified of being a repeat offender in the luxury tax. Their coach is realistically two years away from taking over the Minnesota Lynx or the Pepperdine Waves. And they need to sell the illusion of hope to their fans, which means they need to save as much cap space as possible for LeBron, which means they can’t add ANY contracts that expire after next summer.
Fact: This year’s Lakers team will be undeniably worse than last year’s Lakers team … a team that didn’t make the playoffs until Game 82.
Fact: This is bleak. Really, really bleak.
Right now, these Lakers have three, and only three, inherent advantages. First, they have a terrific owner. Jimmy Buss has proven over the last year that … oh, wait a second, he’s been an atrocity! I totally forgot! Last week, an L.A. reader named Jake B. even compared him to Tommy Boy, followed by me being unable to figure out if that was a bigger insult to Jimmy Buss or to Tommy Boy. (The answer: Tommy Boy. At least he eventually turned Callahan Auto Parts around.) If anyone needs my hypothetical help, it’s Tommy Boy Buss.
OK, so they have two inherent advantages. First, the Lakers have only one contract on their books for the 2014-15 season: Steve Nash for $9.7 million. They might be $50 million under the cap next summer — perfect timing for an all-you-can-eat buffet of free-agent stars headlined by LeBron, who’s only (a) the best player since Michael Jordan, (b) someone who wants to be a “global icon,” and (c) someone with an established track record of treating free agency like he’s organizing a bank heist with his buddies.
Second, the Lakers have a six-decade history of luring available basketball stars (ranging from all-timers like Wilt, Kareem and Shaq to in-demand-at-the-time free agents like Sam Perkins, Steve Nash and Mitch Kupchak) and keeping their stars nearly 100 percent of the time, with two notable exceptions: a celibate A.C. Green and a decidedly uncelibate Dwight Howard. Famous basketball players gravitate to the Lakers because of their storied history, and because Los Angeles remains the easiest American city for any wealthy celebrity to live in.
See, people rarely bother celebrities in Los Angeles. They can eat dinner or hit a nightclub without half the room staring at them like they’re aliens. They can live on the ocean, or they can live in some souped-up mansion in Bel Air or the Hollywood Hills. The weather is consistently fantastic. The women are relentlessly beautiful. Celebrities in L.A. can be around other celebrities all the time, and if there’s one thing celebrities love, it’s being around other celebrities. If they want to dabble in music or movies or any other ego-fueled creative project, or meet just about any heavy hitter business dude on the planet, they have those options here. If they want to fly to Vegas, it’s 50 minutes away. If they want to fly to Cabo, that’s just over two hours away. It’s the ultimate American city for famous people.
As recently as three years ago, had you told any fan of the other 29 teams, “In 2014, the Lakers will have $50 million in cap space during a loaded summer for free agents,” their reaction would have been, “We’re all screwed.” But when they’re being run by someone who can successfully be compared to Tommy Boy? That’s a different story.
Making matters worse, the Lakers lost their L.A. basketball monopoly. Lately, the lowly Clippers — a team that threw away the last three decades despite having the same inherent advantages as the Lakers — finally kinda sorta maybe figured out what they were doing. They’ve been spending money in the most anti–Donald Sterling ways possible, building around the league’s most expensive coach (Doc Rivers), a $107 million point guard (Chris Paul), a $95 million, high-flying power forward (Blake Griffin) and a slew of quality role players. It’s almost like the Lakers and Clippers switched bodies. And actually, we can’t rule this out.
So if we ever needed a “Save the Lakers” plan, it’s right now. Here’s how Wolf Pope Simmons would hypothetically save the Lakers in 10 hypothetical steps.
1. Don’t be afraid to suck all kinds of suck for one season.
Hey, Jimmy? You already have everyone’s 2013-14 season ticket money! They’re helpless. They’re stuck at your Thanksgiving table of basketball hell for six solid months — just keep force-feeding oily turkey and runny cranberry sauce down their throats. Why? Because you don’t want to be the West Coast Bucks, and because one of the greatest NBA drafts in 30 years is coming.
Two facts about the 2014 draft. First, if you were ranking the Can’t-Miss NBA Prospects of the 21st Century, Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins would rank behind LeBron, but would probably land right on that second tier with Durant, Oden and Carmelo. He’s T-Mac 2.0 by all accounts. Seriously, check him out. There’s a reason the Tankapalooza committee (I’m the chairman) is thinking about changing the name of Tankapalooza 2014 to Riggin’ for Wiggins.
Second, it’s the rare NBA draft that’s deep AND top-heavy. On Tuesday’s B.S. Report, ESPN draft guru and former The O.C. star Chad Ford pointed out that, in 2013, he broke the draft down by tiers — with Tier 1 being “potential franchise players,” Tier 2 being “potential All-Stars,” Tier 3 being “potential starters,” and so on — and there wasn’t a single 2013 draft prospect in Tier 1 or Tier 2. In 2014? Right now, we have eight guys in those top two tiers, and that’s without factoring in the possibility of one or two more breakout stars. There’s also a chance that Kentucky power forward Julius Randle might turn “Wiggins vs. Randle” into a “Durant vs. Oden”–type debate, and that Duke’s Jabari Parker might be looming as a Carmelo-like sleeper.
If there was ever a season for hopeless or semi-hopeless NBA teams to throw away like a half-eaten banana, it’s this one. Going 42-40 makes no sense. Why not take your lumps, Jimmy? Your fan base is more sophisticated than anyone realizes. They’ve had four generations of success. They’re even savvy enough to realize that it wasn’t the worst thing in the world that a wishy-washy, oversensitive, possibly breaking-down-and-maybe-even-past-his-prime Dwight fled for Texas. They get it. They’d be fine with throwing away ONE season. Just not two.
2. Clear every dollar off your 2014-15 cap. Get to zero, or close.
The goal: replicating what Pat Riley achieved four seasons ago, when he talked Dwyane Wade into playing with expiring contracts just so Miami could become a free-agent player in the summer of 2010 (with South Beach as the carrot).
Whether that was a calculated risk or a nefarious plan hatched during the summer of 2008 — you know, when LeBron, Wade and Bosh played on Team USA and befriended team ball boy Nick Arison (son of Miami owner Micky Arison), then won Olympic gold in China, followed by two years of whispers that those three players had made a pact to play together, and then it actually happened while David Stern and Adam Silver twiddled their thumbs and repeatedly yelled “Nothing to see here!” at each other — we’ll never know the real truth. But look how that gamble played out. Three Finals trips, two titles … and we’re still going.
On paper, the 2013-14 Lakers could take the 2009-10 Heat’s game plan to another level by jettisoning every contract while also landing a top-five lottery pick. But they have to worsen this year’s roster. Which means …
3. Trade Steve Nash to Toronto.
Admittedly, Nash doesn’t have much market value right now. He’s 39 years old, his body is breaking down in a variety of ways, he seemed a step and a half slow last season, he’s a turnstile defensively, and he’s making $9.3 million in 2014 and $9.7 million in 2015. Other than that, he’s pretty enticing. But you know where he’s still a hero? CANADA! What would be better than Nash finishing his career on Canada’s only NBA team?
Now here’s where you say, Wait a second, the Raptors just hired Masai Ujiri from Denver. That dude is a shrewd mf’er — he’d never trade for Nash. Au contraire! Thanks to Rudy Gay’s onerously onerous deal, DeMar DeRozan’s extension, the cap-clogging quartet of Landry Fields, Marcus Camby, Tyler Hansbrough and Steve Novak (nearly $20 million combined in 2014-15) and a few other commitments, Toronto can’t become a free-agent player until the summer of 2015 … right as Nash’s deal is expiring. So why not bring him aboard as their feel-good Canadian basketball ambassador?
Do you realize trading for Nash would immediately become one of Canada’s five greatest NBA moments ever? Since Toronto and Vancouver were added as expansion teams in 1995, here’s that list right now:
Highlight No. 1: Vince Carter wins the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest.
Highlight No. 2: The Raptors come within a missed Vince jumper of advancing to the 2001 Eastern finals.
Highlight No. 3: Kobe scores 81 points against the Raptors. Hey, at least they were part of history.
Highlight No. 4: The Grizzlies move to Memphis (so Vancouver doesn’t have to watch them anymore).
Highlight No. 5: Actually, we’re done. You want to know what the greatest running Canadian NBA moment is? Every time Vince comes back to Toronto, they boo him lustily for four quarters. It’s the only real Canadian basketball tradition they have. I’d say they need to rent a basketball ambassador. Call me crazy.
Anyway, here’s my offer: Nash for Linas Kleiza’s expiring contract and Aaron Gray’s expiring contract. I can’t do better than that. I’M GIVING YOU CANADIAN BASKETBALL HERO STEVE NASH FOR TWO SCRUBS!!!!!! Take him! I’m putting a ribbon on him, including a Labatt hat and everything! Just call this trade into the commissioner’s office already.
(By the way, I just downgraded the Lakers’ 2014-15 salary cap to $0.00.)
4. Trade Pau Gasol.
You know who’s not helping us Riggin’ for Wiggins? A future Hall of Famer playing for a new contract. I don’t need Pau dropping 23 and 11 every night. No thanks. That leaves two possible trade destinations for him.
• Destination No. 1: Hey, Cleveland, why roll the dice on Andrew Bynum’s fusilli knee ligaments when you can rent Pau in a contract year? You know he’ll be motivated. You know he’s one of the league’s best 25 players when healthy — a superior low-post player, a proven playoff guy and a perennial staple on the NBA’s “Most Fun Guys to Play Basketball With” All-Stars. Why not use your excess cap space to upgrade from Anderson Varejao ($9.8 million expiring) to Gasol ($19.3 million) and flip the Lakers your 2014 no. 1 pick for their trouble? The Lakers save $30 million in luxury tax money, add a first-rounder and willingly worsen their team. Cleveland becomes a pseudo-contender while preserving their cap space to get their hearts broken by LeBron again next summer. Everyone wins!
Even better — this trade gives the Lakers a low-post combo of Chris Kaman (always gets hurt) and Varejao (always gets hurt). They could be the Twin Owww-ers. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) You’re not getting more than 75 games combined from Kaman and Varejao next season unless they’re borrowing copious amounts of PEDs from the Seattle Seahawks defense. And even then, you’re probably not getting there. Who’s ready for a little Robert Sacre next season! Check that — who’s ready for A LOT OF ROBERT SACRE next season!
• Destination No. 2: Flip Gasol’s expiring contract to Chicago for Luol Deng’s and Kirk Hinrich’s expiring contracts. Just a fascinating trade. The Bulls know Jimmy Butler can replace Deng’s minutes, and that a crunch-time five of Gasol, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Butler and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (to spread the floor) would be more potent than Noah, Carlos Boozer, Deng, Butler and Rose. They’d have to say yes.
For the Lakers, they’d keep Deng for a couple of months before rerouting him to a contender for expiring deals and a pick. (You don’t need Deng in a contract year making you slightly better than you need to be.) But here’s the crucial part …
The Lakers can’t sign LeBron after he wins his third straight NBA title for the simple reason that, in the history of basketball, the best player on a championship team has NEVER subsequently ditched that team. Shit, even Wilt wouldn’t have done that. LeBron would get crucified for turning his back on a chance to win four straight. No competitive person would ever, in a million years, do something like that. That’s why the Lakers need to improve the Bulls — they can’t get LeBron unless Chicago, Houston, Oklahoma City, Indiana or Golden State beats the Heat. And Chicago’s the best bet of them all.
(Wolf Pope Simmons’s recommendation: Make the Deng-Gasol trade.)
5. Don’t amnesty Metta World Peace unless you absolutely have to.
I hate losing Metta when he’s the Kendrick Perkins of small forwards. Ideally, we’d need him playing 35 minutes a game, missing 60 percent of his shots, throwing passes into the third row, getting dumb technicals, and letting faster small forwards blow by him for six solid months. He’s a big part of Riggin’ for Wiggins. So if the Bulls won’t flip Deng and Hinrich for Gasol, you make the Cleveland deal, save $30 million in luxury tax and keep Metta around.
6. Since you’re sucking anyway, bring back as many popular former Lakers as possible.
I’m convinced that the Lakers bugged my house because, ever since I started working on this column on Monday, they signed Jordan Farmar (someone Lakers fans irrationally loved because he’s a UCLA guy) and they’re courting Sasha Vujacic (another guy the Lakers have irrationally loved, while the rest of America irrationally hated him). I’d go further than that — I’d also bring back beloved veterans Derek Fisher and Luke Walton for the veteran’s minimum, then keep my 15th roster spot open and spend the season signing old Lakers favorites (Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Michael Cooper, Sam Perkins, etc.) to a series of 10-day contracts.
Important note: Lakers fans would LOVE this. Shit, they’d even enjoy 10 days of Slava Medvedenko. As long as Kwame Brown and Smush Parker aren’t involved in 10-day roulette, we’re good.
7. Tell Jack Nicholson to stay away for the entire season.
We don’t want Jack sitting there and enduring a willfully bad Lakers team. It might kill him. You know, assuming he’s still alive and they haven’t been propping up his body for home games like he’s Bernie Lomax.
Initially, I was thinking that Jack should turn over his 2013-14 tickets to this guy …
… just to bang home to everyone that we’re having the most depressing Lakers season ever. But clearly, there’s a better answer. You know who should be sitting in Jack’s seat all year? Phil Jackson. With one of those smug half-smiles on his face that says “Can you believe this shit?” crossed with “Can you believe my idiot brother-in-law didn’t hire me back?” And what could be better than that the crowd chats “PHIL! PHIL! PHIL!” 10 times a game? Jack, you’re giving Phil your seat. See you in October 2014.
8. Keep Mike D’Antoni for the entire year.
When I was going over my tentative “Save the Lakers” plan last night with my friend Lewis (a Lakers nut who’s onboard with everything you just read), I jokingly asked him, “OK, what would you do with D’Antoni?”
“Are you kidding?” Lewis yelped. “YOU KEEP HIM! YOU KEEP HIM THE WHOLE SEASON! WE WANT THE WORST COACH POSSIBLE!!!!! WHY WOULD YOU EVER FIRE D’ANTONI!”
(Ladies and gentlemen, the Mike D’Antoni era!)
9. Delay Kobe’s return for as long as possible.
I’m not gonna lie — this is the shakiest part of my rehab plan. Too many people have said publicly that (a) Kobe can’t return in less than 10 months from that torn Achilles, and (b) even if he DOES come back, he’ll never be the same. He’s one of the 10 most competitive people alive. He’s not going down like this. He’s just not.
I’d believe anything about Kobe’s summer rehab process. He’s sleeping in a hyperbaric healing chamber underneath a pile of broken deer antlers? Absolutely. He’s on a beach right now running wind sprints against Carl Weathers? Sure. He figured out a way to steal hemoglobin from his daughters, then have that hemoglobin injected right into his healing Achilles, but this procedure is only legal in Austria so he’s been flying there twice a week? You can’t rule it out.
Kobe cares about two things right now: Ring No. 6, and Kareem’s record. In that order. We could talk him into playing for a historically lousy Lakers team for one season if Ring No. 6 (and maybe LeBron) was the carrot dangling on the other end. But giving up a chance at Kareem’s record? That’s a tougher ask. Our all-time scoring leaders right now …
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 38,387 points
- Karl Malone: 36,928 points
- Michael Jordan: 32,292 points
- Kobe Bryant: 31,617 points
So he’s 6,770 points away. To put that in perspective, he scored 2,133 points in 78 games last season before his Achilles ripped. This is doable … you know, assuming he recovers from that devastating leg injury. I bet we see him sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Noted.
10. When Kobe comes back, allow him to hog the ball to alarming degrees.
Wait until he’s fully healed. And when he comes back (to what you’re hoping will be a 0-12 team), here’s what you tell him …
Kobe, remember your ball-hogging binge in 2006 when you averaged 27.2 field goal attempts and 10.2 free throws a game because we didn’t have anything else? Now we REALLY don’t have anything else. We just gutted our team. Other than watching Bieber lapse in and out of consciousness in Jack’s seat, Sasha and Jordan high-fiving, and Big Shot Rob cramming himself into a Lakers jersey, your scoring binges will be the only thing that keeps this godforsaken season even remotely interesting. Go for the scoring title. Play 70 games to qualify for the scoring title, then try to average 37 a game. Only Wilt and MJ have ever done it. More importantly, that’s about 2,200 points in the bank. You’ll pass MJ and move within 4,600 of Kareem. Shoot every time. We don’t care.
You know what the best part of that plan is? Kobe’s quest to score 40 every night will inadvertently become one of the more entertaining subplots of the 2013-14 season. I’d flip over to every Lakers game just to see how many points he had. So would you.
And after the regular season ended and Kobe won another scoring title, Lakers fans could spend May and June rooting against Miami, sweating out the lottery and watching DraftExpress YouTube clips. Of course, they’d still be hoping that Jimmy Buss hired the right coach, made the right lottery pick, lured LeBron, kept Kobe and spent $60 million in cap space in the best possible way … while deep down fearing that this moment might be coming.
Removing all the hypotheticals, what will the Lakers ACTUALLY do? Nothing I just laid out — that’s why I didn’t mind laying it out.
See, you need a strong owner or a front-office voice to execute a long-term plan — like what Miami had with Pat Riley and Micky Arison four years ago. These Lakers don’t have that voice. Kobe will convince them to compete next season because he’s nearing the end of his career, and he wants to shove it in Dwight Howard’s face, and he probably believes that he and Pau can still battle anyone on any given night. That’s what makes him Kobe. And that’s why I didn’t mind trying to “save” the Lakers. I know they won’t do the right thing.
You know who they SHOULD be emulating, actually? My beloved Celtics. In the span of five weeks, Boston mortally wounded next year’s team by dealing Garnett and Pierce (improving their Riggin’ for Wiggins chances); turned the roster over to Brad Stevens (the perfect guy for a rebuild); stockpiled nine first-rounders over the next five years (along with the right to swap first-rounders with Brooklyn in 2017); and set themselves up to flagrantly stink (with the inevitable Rondo trade being the final piece).1 That’s a team that knows who it is, and where it is, and where it needs to be.
Can you say the same about the Lakers? My gut feeling is no … and that in April, we’ll be watching Kobe and Pau fighting for a no. 8 seed. Just know that this sounds great to me.