When prospective free agents once walked into the Lakers’ facility, the visuals spoke for themselves.
The Lakers’ 16 NBA championships in Jeanie Buss’ office sit outside of a window overseeing the practice facility, reinforcing what drives the franchise. The Lakers’ championship banners and retired jerseys hang on the walls of the practice court, showing the opportunity and pressure to follow along the strong lineage of NBA greats. Outside of the Lakers’ headquarters stood the rest of the city of Los Angeles with beautiful beaches, Hollywood marketing opportunities and perfect climate provides the perfect backdrop on what becomes available as a Laker.
But the times have changed. The Lakers are coming off their worst season in L.A. franchise history. A new labor deal constructed three years ago has both ensured harsher penalties for high-spending teams and a more competitive landscape. As much as the Lakers’ brand remains global, such prospective free agents have reached their own brands in that stratosphere even without playing in a big market.
So once free agency hits Monday night at 9:01 p.m., how will the Lakers sell their franchise beyond just pointing to their trophies?
“We do more than that. It depends,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday following the NBA Draft at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. “Sometimes you have to go to their city and you can’t point to the trophies. Sometimes they come here. Sometimes you have to go to an office in Beverly Hills and meet there. Every situation is different too and unique. Every player looks at things differently. A lot of times free agencies are conducted by phone at midnight and sometimes it’s a process that involves a presentation and a trip on an airplane.”
So what will that process entail for high-profile agents, such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony? The Lakers want to meet with both prospects, but have not received clarity on if that would happen. But Kupchak said in general terms that the Lakers are fully ready to make their pitch to players of such star caliber if given the opportunity.
“If any of those players want to make a move, we’re prepared,” Kupchak said. “When we get word, when we’re allowed to get word, we’ll go all out.”
What that would entail remains to be seen.
It appears unlikely the Lakers would launch a billboard campaign after they saw that strategy fail to convince Dwight Howard last summer to stay. Kupchak downplayed whether free agents could influence the Lakers’ coaching search. Bryant’s expected to recruit James and Anthony, though Kupchak said he cannot force the Lakers’ star to do anything until after free agency begins.
The Lakers are aware James may have opted out of his contract with Miami just to restructure it to enable the Heat to have more money upgrade its roster. The Lakers feel fairly lukewarm on Anthony, whose friendship with Kobe Bryant still may not overcome the reality that both players are high volume scorers.
Bryant’s two-year, $48.5 million contract enables the Laker to only sign one max-level player instead of two. Even if the Lakers find a trading partner to shed Steve Nash’s $9.8 million contract, it appears likely James and Anthony would have to take a paycut to join the Lakers.
Yet Kupchak emphasized, “we’re prepared with enough space to be aggressive.”
Kupchak also downplayed concerns surrounding how healthy Bryant and Nash could stay next season. Bryant missed the first 19 games last season while rehabbing his left Achilles tendon and played in six games before suffering a season-ending left knee injury. Nash played in only 15 games after experiencing never-ending issues surrounding the nerve irritation in his back.
“Kobe’s fine. He obviously has to prove that,” Kupchak said. “But he’s been here working out. He looks great. He has to perform at a level to prove that. But he looks great. Steve Nash’s injuries are well documented. He wants to play, though. He comes by from time to time and he says he feels great. I don’t think it’s a position we can rely on right now. I think we have to look at that position and make sure it’s covered.”
Amid Kupchak’s talk about pursuing high-profile free agents beginning next week, he emphasized the Lakers still have a big picture outlook beyond this offseason. The 2015 free agency class will include candidates, such as Minnesota’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Rajon Rondo. The 2016 free agency class will include Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant.
“It’s a good class. But in terms of today of who might be at the very top, it might not be as large as next year and the year after,” Kupchak said. “Keeping that in mind, we structured our salary knowing you might not get two or three guys. But we have enough room to get at least one. If we don’t have one and choose to, we can go down the road and have flexibility the year after that.”
Amid all the uncertainty, Kupchak held firm the Lakers will be able to accomplish one ambitious goal.
Said Kupchak: “We’ll be able to attract and develop good players here.”