Sometimes, the person in the middle of everything is the last to know.
It’s been clear for a while that the long shadow of Kobe Bryant was slowing the Lakers transition to their next iteration. However, the Lakers themselves have strong financial (he packs Staples Center, brings in the sponsors, etc.) and emotional ties to one of their all-time greats. They weren’t ready to move on. So the Lakers brought in a coach with ties to their history and have sold the fleeting visions of past glory while starting the rebuilding process with young stars.
But with Kobe stepping away at the end of the season, Laker GM Mitch Kupchak admitted to season ticket holders the franchise needed Kobe to retire to take the next steps. From Eric Pincus at the Los Angeles Times:
“We cannot move on as a team until Kobe leaves,” Kupchak said. “Part of that to me is painful because I’ve been here 20 years with Kobe.
“This is a year that’s dedicated to Kobe and his farewell. From my point of view, it gives me complete clarity. … We know what our [salary] cap situation is going to be like…. “We feel in the last two years that we’ve gotten at least five attractive young players,” said Kupchak, listing Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown.”
The Lakers do have a nice young core to start their rebuild; now they just have to develop them. Kobe helps with that by example, but having him dominate the ball on the court retards the process (already coach Byron Scott is trying to split time between Russell and Kobe). They also need to add to the mix of young talent — which they can do if lottery luck holds and they can keep their 2016 draft pick in the top three (if it falls to fourth or later in the draft, the pick goes to Philly).
The Lakers have the cap space and brand to be players in the free agent market — they can get interviews. However, the pool of game-changing free agents is small this summer, and the Lakers are unlikely to land one of them. Rebuilding going to be a process that requires patience and player development from the organization.
But without Kobe’s shadow, it is something the franchise can better focus on.