The Lakers’ 16 NBA championship trophies, the sunny skies and proximity to Hollywood once represented the only visual selling points they needed to land their next star.
But then something happened. The Lakers missed the playoffs for the past three seasons because of rosters that both lacked health and talent. The current labor deal has imposed more stringent spending limitations. It no longer has become necessary to latch onto the Lakers’ global brand in order for a star to maximize theirs.
So, the Lakers struggled to retain their own star free agents, including Dwight Howard (2013) and Pau Gasol (2014). The Lakers also could not attract stars from other teams, including LeBron James (2014), Carmelo Anthony (2014), LaMarcus Aldridge (2015), DeAndre Jordan (2015) and Greg Monroe (2015).
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak conceded things “might not be different” when free agency begins on July 1. After all, the Lakers finished the 2016-17 season with its worst record in franchise history (17-65). Yet, Kupchak argued that the Lakers “have more to sell.”
“Our asset allotment is better,” Kupchak said. “Our circumstances are better.”
The Lakers have a young developing roster in point guard D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown. They just selected Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 pick. They just hired a young up-and-coming coach in Luke Walton. They also have about $60 million to spend partly because of Kobe Bryant’s retirement following a storied 20-year NBA career.
Before, the Lakers faced other restrictions. They only had room to sign one player to max contract. Concerns persisted about Bryant’s durability after suffering season-ending injuries in three consecutive seasons, including his left Achilles tendon (April 2013), right knee (Dec. 2013) and right shoulder (Jan. 2015).
“We just didn’t have that much to sell,” Kupchak said. “‘I’m going to come to Los Angeles, but who am I going to play with? Last summer, you get to play with Kobe. But Kobe’s been injured. Is Kobe going to be healthy, Mitch? I don’t know that. Who else am I going to play with? You’re going to love playing with Julius Randle. But he only played one game. You’re going to love playing with the No. 2 pick, but he hasn’t played at all. We didn’t have as much to sell last year and the year before.'”
So how will the Lakers sell themselves to free agents this time around?
Said Kupchak: “It’s going to depend on the free agent.”
There are a number of possible candidates that all vary by talent level.
Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant represents the top target, though he may just still with the Thunder considering it advanced to the Western Conference Finals. Or the Lakers could target Toronto forward and former USC standout DeMar Derozan, though the Raptors also advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Other options could include Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, Atlanta’s Al Horford or Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum.
Yet, Kupchak strongly suggested the Lakers will change any potential pitch meetings. They fielded strong criticism for focusing too much of their first meeting with Aldridge on branding opportunities instead of basketball. That meeting featured the Lakers’ front office, former Lakers coach Byron Scott and Bryant as well as Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and representatives with Time Warner Cable and AEG.
“I don’t think we’re going to have to rely on our partners as much as we have in the past,” Kupchak said. “We can focus a little bit more on the basketball side of it. We do have more to sell. The franchise and the city have always sold themselves. I’m not sure we’ll concentrate on as much as that as we did last year.”
Kupchak then suggested that any meetings will mostly feature pitches from himself, Walton and Lakers executive Jim Buss.
“There may be meetings; there may not be meetings,” Kupchak said. “I think things could be done quickly. It could take a week or two. There may not be face to face meetings. Maybe a couple. It depends on how quickly things move at 12:01 a.m [on July 1].”