Next summer was going to feel uncomfortable if Kobe Bryant hit free agency. Instead, he decided to retire and the Lakers can now make moves to advance the franchise.
General manager Mitch Kupchak understands that his last-ditch effort to form a competitive team around Bryant failed miserably. So he has to start from scratch, attracting a big-name free agent who can be the next identifiable Laker.
That was supposed to be Dwight Howard, but it didn't work out. The Lakers are a lost organization, living off their glorious past. And current players don't view Los Angeles as the destination their predecessors did.
"It didn't make it any easier for [Bryant to stay] with the group we have on the court," Kupchak said. "That's not to say that they're not a talented group of players, but they're certainly young and unaccomplished. And at an advanced age, I think we witnessed that it's difficult to play this game, and he's certainly struggled to play at a tempo and pace that the game is being played today."
Kupchak signed veterans to join Bryant to compete for a playoff spot. Rookies D'Angelo Russell and Larry Nance Jr., and second-year forward Julius Randle were supposed to be complements. Instead, the Lakers started poorly, Bryant was erratic, and any playoff hopes were extinguished with a 2-15 start.
"It's awkward," Kupchak said of Bryant's presence among such young players. "But there was really no way to go about it. When you have a player of Kobe's caliber that wants to continue to play and you think he can play at a high level, you're going to let him play until he no longer wants to play.
"Yet it's clear that we had to begin the process of rebuilding the team. We were hopeful that we would get off to a better start this year. I thought we'd be better. So clearly we're not playing at the kind of level where a player of Kobe's age and experience finds challenging, kind of like there's no light at the end of the tunnel."
The Lakers will have potentially $60 million in available salary cap space to pursue free agents this summer, with Bryant's $25 million and Roy Hibbert's $15 million coming off the books, along with the cap increase. That's enough to sign two maximum free agents, but who will they be? Who wants to be the first post-Kobe free agent with the pressure of leading the Lakers back to prosperity?
"I'm not going to say we were going to win 50 games this year," Kupchak said. "Even 45 would be something that would be on the upper end. If we got to the point where we could win half our games, that would be a good season. That was our expectation going into the season.
"This is a process with the rules as they are today, and drafting players who are 19 years old, it's a process. And you really can't hurry the process. We can try to push it along but you really can't make it happen at the snap of your fingers anymore."
Kupchak doesn't appear to have regrets. But in an NBA in which free agents don't jump teams as often as in the past, it will be a challenge to attract that next great Laker. And the league is better when the Lakers are significant.
Bass wishes he had never left
Brandon Bass wanted to remain in Boston. He had found a home, a place where he enjoyed his greatest NBA success. So when free agency arrived, Bass believed he would re-sign with the Celtics.
Instead, the Celtics immediately chased Amir Johnson, whom they signed to two-year, $24 million deal. That left Bass to sign a one-year, $3 million deal with the Lakers.
"I would have never, ever thought I would not be in Boston," Bass said. "I thought I was going to retire a Celtic, even when it was coming up to me signing with the Lakers. I just thought I'll still be a Celtic. Boston was my home, man. I had a great experience, family loved the town. I loved the town, really got comfortable there. It feels surreal, but it's definitely part of the business."
Bass said it took him awhile to accept that the Celtics were moving on. Bass was attached to Boston and he wanted to be part of the team's ascension.
"It was nothing against the organization, Danny [Ainge] and those guys," he said. "It was tough for me to move on from being there so long. It wasn't about the team or the coach, it was just tough for me to leave because I always felt I'd be there. It's hard just to turn that switch off. The ticker comes across and it says, 'Celtics playing such and such,' and you say, 'Oh, I'm playing against them tonight.' It's just been tough. I still felt like I'd be a Celtic today, but I'm a Laker. I've got to embrace this part of my journey."
A top perimeter shooter off the pick-and-roll as a power forward with the Celtics, Bass is playing backup center for the Lakers. Through 19 games, Bass had taken just 25 shots outside the paint. He is going up against bigger players in the paint, struggling for rebounds and putbacks, hardly what he was accustomed to with the Celtics.
"First, it's been an honor to play for the Lakers," Bass said. "It's a historic franchise as well as the Celtics. I thought what a great opportunity, what a great franchise. It's been an honor to play with Kobe [Bryant], being that it's his last year. It even feels better for me to experience this year with him."
The Lakers have started 3-20, and their first-round pick in 2016 will go to the 76ers if it is outside the top three. Bass was signed to help the Lakers make a playoff run. Along with Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams, they were expected to add experience to a young roster.
But it was apparent after the first week of the season that the Lakers were far short of a playoff contender, meaning the minutes and responsibility for players such as Bass — signed to a short-term deal — would change.
"It's a challenge for me," Bass said. "It's not really foreign territory for me because I kind of went through the same thing in Boston, and I think those young guys are on the up and up right now. I would say I contributed a little bit to that. Here, I want to kind of do the same thing, help the younger guys in any way I can, especially by example."
Playing with Bryant has been a positive experience. Bass also has played with Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
"I think us as players, we really don't appreciate things as grown-ups as when we were kids," Bass said. "How I give appreciation for Kobe is hearing family and friends say, 'Damn you play with Kobe, man.' That's how I get a sense of being in the moment. That I'm really playing with one of the greatest of all time."
Kings are not getting along
The Kings are trying to bounce back from a 1-7 start, and a nationally televised victory over the Knicks on Thursday didn't hurt. The Kings are an interesting bunch of personalities, most of whom feel they are game-changers.
But the combination has been wildly inconsistent and volatile. When the Kings played the Celtics Dec. 3 in Mexico City, they were hardly interested in making a true effort. Rajon Rondo was ejected, and on Friday earned a one-game suspension for what the NBA described as "directing a derogatory and offensive term towards a game official and not leaving the court in a timely manner." DeMarcus Cousins was frustrated from the start against the Celtics and picked up five fouls, while Rudy Gay hung around but had little impact.
The Kings followed that game with close losses to the Rockets and Thunder, before home wins over the Jazz and Knicks. There was also Cousins cursing out coach George Karl in front of the team following a loss last month, followed by a three-hour meeting between, Rondo, Cousins, and Karl.
"Even though I coached 30 games last year this was probably the beginning of a connection," Karl said. "The NBA is a challenge to get connected to the best players and also get connected to the whole team. We had a good training camp, everything looked like it was in a good place. We had a bad start."
The relationship between Karl and Cousins, which began in controversy when Karl said he was open to the team trading Cousins, decayed quickly. And Cousins reacted angrily to Karl's style and the mounting losses.
"I respect DeMarcus because he wants to win," Karl said. "He wants to win in Sacramento and he wants to stay in Sacramento. When you're starting 1-7, he got angry, he got angry at the world, he got angry at me, he probably got angry at himself. In my 20 years, it's happened every year with somebody, somehow, some way. A lot of times it doesn't come out, sometimes it does come out.
"In the end, I think it makes you move in a good direction, and I think we have done that. We're in a much better place than we were when we lost to San Antonio and it all happened. We're in a place where we can grow and progress and get better."
Sixers receive some needed help
It was about time the 76ers sought some help to foster their rebuilding process in a fourth consecutive season that will likely end in the draft lottery. It's amazing to think Philadelphia reached the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2011-12 and is now simply trying to piece together a roster of capable players.
At the NBA's urging, the 76ers hired USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations to team with general manager Sam Hinkie on personnel decisions.
Hinkie has been mostly responsible for the demolition of the 76ers, as the organizational philosophy has been to strip the roster of talent, draft well, and eventually improve.
It's the "draft well" stage in which the 76ers are stuck. They have added Everett native Nerlens Noel and former Duke standout Jahlil Okafor, but expected franchise center Joel Embiid has been out for two years with foot injuries, and the rest of the team consists of lower-level talent (Kendall Marshall, Tony Wroten), players who went undrafted and should be in the NBADL (T.J. McConnell), and players who should fill the end of benches but are receiving significant playing time (Robert Covington).
So the 76ers were urged to do something by commissioner Adam Silver, who got tired of being bombarded with negative questions about one franchise.
"I think there's something that I can offer that will be very helpful to the franchise," Colangelo said. "Sam has a plan and that's something we're going to continue to talk about. In Phoenix, I tore down the team four times, and came back four times. I think I can offer a lot of mentoring to Sam to help him in his job to make him even better."
The 76ers do have assets. They will receive the Lakers' first-round pick in 2016 if it lands outside the top three. The 76ers, who also own Golden State's first-round pick in '16, have the right to swap that pick with the Heat or Thunder. And they also acquired a future first-rounder from Sacramento.
Hinkie also has accumulated 12 second-round picks between now and 2021. So, the question is, what does Philadelphia do with all of these draft assets? It could eventually help a roster upgrade, but this was the season the franchise was supposed to take a significant step forward, and it is 1-23.
Owner Josh Harris said Hinkie will have the ultimate say in basketball operations decisions, with Colangelo making suggestions.
Will the 76ers make a trade to acquire a talented veteran for the express purpose of winning a few more games, even though they would still not come close to the postseason?
The 76ers are so entrenched in their plan it may be best to let it run its course and eventually sign a free agent. If they have potentially two lottery picks to add to Noel, Okafor, and Embiid, there is hope. But the 76ers need veterans to serve as leaders, as the recent fight involving Okafor outside a nightclub in Boston has showed.
The five-game suspension of Hornets center Al Jefferson was a stunner and will cost the big man additional time after he returns from a calf injury that is expected to keep him out two or three more weeks. Jefferson, a free agent at season's end, admitted to reporters that he failed a league drug test. What doesn't help Jefferson's value is the Hornets are 4-1 in his absence — with the lone loss to the Warriors — and have catapulted to the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Jefferson turns 31 in January and could be in for a big payday for a club seeking a traditional post big man . . . The Nets are playing better of late, much to the chagrin of Celtics fans who want the Nets to sink because Boston owns Brooklyn's first-round pick, but they will be hurt by the absence of rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who will miss 2½ months after ankle surgery. Hollis-Jefferson was averaging 5.2 points and 6.1 rebounds and was one of the Nets' best defenders . . . For those ready to already assess Danny Ainge's draft, just look at the minutes that first-rounders are playing this season. Boston's R.J. Hunter, the 28th overall pick, has played 151 minutes, while 16th pick Terry Rozier has played 94. From the middle to the end of the first round, there are a lot of rookies sitting on the bench or playing in the NBADL. Oklahoma City's Cameron Payne has played 44 minutes, Washington's Kelly Oubre 94, Houston's Sam Dekker 6, Toronto's Delon Wright 10, Chicago's Bobby Portis 22, and Minnesota's Tyus Jones 14. Memphis's Jarell Martin has yet to play, while Brooklyn's Chris McCullough and Golden State's Kevon Looney are recovering from injuries. Of the second-round picks, Philadelphia's Richaun Holmes has played the most minutes (199) . . . The Pelicans were projected to make a playoff run under new coach Alvin Gentry, but now it seems like they have a mismatched roster and need to make some moves. Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evens combined to go scoreless in last Monday's loss to the Celtics. It seems Gentry is still undecided at point guard, bringing the fragile Jrue Holiday off the bench and starting Evans, who is not a natural point guard. Gentry went deep into his bench in the second half against the Celtics and used Ish Smith, leading to even more confusion about his rotations.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.