/Los Angeles Lakers Face Unprecedented Challenge at a Pivotal Moment

Los Angeles Lakers Face Unprecedented Challenge at a Pivotal Moment

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: General Manager Rob Pelinka of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks to the media during media day on September 27, 2019 at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES — What now?

As an organization, the Los Angeles Lakers are reeling after the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven other victims in Sunday’s helicopter crash that stunned the world. The Lakers, at their heart, are a family business, and Bryant was a larger-than-life central part of the franchise, even in retirement.

The loss is hard to put into words. The Lakers are overcome. So is the city.

“[We’re in] unprecedented territory,” one person familiar with the organization said.

Specifically, with the intense bonding the team has forged over the past week, it’s difficult to imagine trading or even cutting any of the team’s 15 fully rostered players. Chemistry is extremely fragile in the NBA. Before the tragedy, the Lakers were a close-knit group. With emotions so raw, a trade could be detrimental to the team’s already-weathered emotional health.

And yet, Rob Pelinka is faced with making significant decisions ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline. The Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager recently released a statement on Bryant, which read, in part, “I lost my best friend and my sweet goddaughter. With that, there has been an amputation of part of my soul.”

With that burden of grief, asking Pelinka to shift gears and spend the next week on the phone shopping players? That may be too much to ask, and we can only guess how Bryant would’ve handled a similar duty. 

The NBA wisely postponed the Lakers’ Tuesday night battle, a key game to help determine if the Los Angeles Clippers truly hold a head-to-head advantage after winning the first two meetings. Without that litmus test, Pelinka will need to operate on faith—either that his team has enough on the roster as is, that he can fill the holes via free agency or that the players on the squad can handle a trade.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 25: Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 25, 2020 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees

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The name bandied about on the rumor mill over recent months is Kyle Kuzma, but the third-year forward is under contract for just under $2 million. In almost any substantial trade, Los Angeles would need to include additional players to match salary.

There may be no simple trade that makes the Lakers better. Under the circumstances, Pelinka may not be in a position for anything more than a simple move.

Perhaps the path of least resistance would be to waive injured center DeMarcus Cousins, but with arrangements that would allow him to continue his knee rehabilitation with the team. The Lakers cannot make any promises to bring him back in free agency this July, but the general intention could be quietly expressed (not necessarily legal within the rules of the NBA but not outside the bounds of how teams operate).

That would open a roster spot for Darren Collison, the veteran point guard who abruptly retired over the summer after two quality seasons with the Indiana Pacers. He would help solve the Lakers’ biggest issue: production from the point guard position, which needs to provide scoring, shooting and playmaking to help spread the floor for LeBron James, relieve him of significant ball pressure and help carry the second unit when he’s resting.

And while the team could still stand to improve on the wing defensively, especially against more powerful players like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Pascal Siakam and Ben Simmons, that may be an issue to resolve via free agency in a month instead of disrupting the team’s chemistry with a trade. Solutions may present themselves after the trade deadline when teams outside the playoffs might cut veterans to focus on developing younger players.

It’s not fair to ask Pelinka and the Lakers to make significant decisions over the next week. A franchise built for basketball must tend to more important matters than just basketball.

Starting on Friday, the Lakers will get back on the court when they host the Portland Trail Blazers. Heavy hearts aside, the focus on winning a championship will return. Bryant would accept nothing less.

“It’s my responsibility to put this s–t on my back and keep it going!!” James wrote on Instagram. “Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here!”

Though there was initially resistance to James from some Lakers fans who felt the younger star was infringing upon Bryant’s legacy, it’s beyond moving that the late star’s final tweet was in honor of James passing him and moving into third place on the all-time scoring list Saturday night. 

The Lakers will only go as far as James can carry them, though he will receive significant help from fellow All-Star Anthony Davis. At 36-10, they have the second-best record in the NBA behind the Milwaukee Bucks (41-6), but they’ve gone 0-4 against the Bucks, Toronto Raptors (34-14) and Clippers (33-14). They were recently blasted by the rival Boston Celtics (32-15).

The franchise may simply need to rally behind its leaders in James and Davis. That, in and of itself, may be enough to get all the way through the playoffs en route to a championship. Every organization has weaknesses, but none have an All-Star combination on par with the Lakers. 

It’s up to Pelinka to decide if they can better reach their goal by honoring the humanity of the moment or by potentially disrupting the team’s chemistry to make a move that gives the team a better chance, one that’s worthy of the risk.

Perhaps the loss of Bryant will fuel the team to play at its highest level. Emotion can only carry a franchise so far, but the Lakers have been excellent for most of the season. With two of the top players in the league, a scrappy, defensive-minded veteran roster and the motivation to win for Bryant, that may be enough.

It remains to be seen how the Lakers will respond. And while they may not be ready for it, the Blazers will be in town Friday night at Staples Center.

          

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.