Heading into the offseason the Los Angeles Lakers were sitting pretty.
Not only did they have the second pick in the draft, but also Los Angeles was sitting on an abundance of cap space (they’re more than $30 million below the cap) and had the financial means to offer a max deal to any free agent.
Adding a star through the draft and at least one through free agency should have been the minimum for the team’s offseason—and after getting future star D’Angelo Russell in the draft, the free agency part seemed like a slam dunk.
After all, they seemed to have a lot to sell.
Arguably, the Lakers are the NBA’s premier franchise with 16 championships (only Boston has more with 17), 31 conference titles, numerous Hall-of-Famers, and a fan base with more A-list celebrities than the rest of the league combined. This is the same franchise that convinced Shaquille O’Neal to leave Orlando in 1996.
But beneath the surface, there are clearly some red flags being put out.
For one thing, there’s the problem of the ownership. Former owner Jerry Buss presided over 10 of the Lakers’ championships but since his son Jim took over following his death in 2013, LA has had their worst two seasons since 1958.
Under the younger Buss’s watch, the team passed over hiring 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson for Mike D’Antoni early in the 2012-13 season. D’Antoni was gone after less than two seasons with the purple and gold.
Jim Buss then had to watch franchise center Dwight Howard bolt for Houston that summer and much-coveted power forward Pau Gasol leave for Chicago in 2014.
Meanwhile, the team re-signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million contract (through the 2015-16 season) ensuring that this is still his team—for better or for worse.
But Bryant, not known for his passing or general friendliness, was rumored to be a big reason why Howard bolted Hollywood in the first place.
Ironically, it was the summer Bryant first came to Los Angeles (1996) that the Lakers were hoping to re-create this offseason.
Five years after Magic Johnson’s abrupt retirement had left the Lakers as a suddenly-average team, the Lakers rolled the dice on a trade that sent Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for the 13th pick in the draft that summer—amazing Bryant was there for the taking.
Meanwhile, they gave O’Neal a seven-year, $121 million deal in free agency to come to LA and suddenly the Lakers had a pair of stars that were the foundation for a trio of titles from 2000-02.