Winning an NBA championship is hard. Rebuilding is also hard. Trying to do both at the same time is close to impossible. But that's the needle Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers' front office are attempting to thread.
At their disposal is an old, expensive roster that won 57 games last year. Franchise god Kobe Bryant is still good enough to be the cornerstone of a championship team, and given what he's meant to the Lakers and the city of Los Angeles, helping him to add one or more titles to the tail end of his career is a moral imperative for the organization. Going all-in on the here and now, though, risks an ugly collapse in a couple years' time. When the 2013-14 season starts, Kobe will be 35 years old, Pau Gasol will be 33 and Andrew Bynum's knees will be in God knows what condition. The future looks a little terrifying, if such a thing can ever be said about a franchise with the Lakers' extraordinary resources and knack for on-the-fly reinvention.
Kupchak's initial attempts at closing the circuit between winning now and winning later have seemed ungainly. That his deal for Chris Paul got scotched by David Stern is absurd, but giving up Pau and Lamar Odom for CP3 wasn't an obviously great trade-off to begin with. It was actually possible to think Stern saved the Lakers' brain trust from itself until the deeply bizarre goings-on of last Saturday night, when the team donated Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks. That move created an $8.9 million trade exception the Lakers can use to acquire an Odom replacement, but as the days go by without news of a follow-up deal there's growing concern among Laker fans about where this team is headed. In part it's because few of us know exactly how much influence Jim Buss is wielding and even fewer of us have much confidence in him. We don't know how the front office makes decisions under the new prince regent, but we have our suspicions. The swelling panic, though, is about more than Jim Buss. The Odom trade is a genuinely puzzling move that no one seems all that sure how to rationalize.
In principle, trading Odom makes a certain sense. At age 32 he's a bad bet to duplicate the career year he had last season. The 38 percent he shot from three-point distance last year looks especially flukey. At the same time, his contract (which pays him $8.9 million this season and is only partially guaranteed for next) made him affordable for a number of different teams. If you believe in selling high, which all smart GM's do, Odom's precisely the kind of player you put on the market to see what he can bring back. Last spring there were rumors Golden State would bite on him in return for Monta Ellis. Right before the June draft there was talk of sending him to Philly for Andre Iguodala. Maybe those deals were never realistically in reach but there was never any doubt that if Odom were traded, the Lakers would come away from the deal with something pretty useful. Dumping him for a nonpremium draft pick wasn't part of the plan.
Lamar got all out of joint over the aborted CP3 deal, but it can't be about that. It just can't. Every NBA player feels disrespected by his team at some point or another and 99 percent of the time they get over it because that's what professionals do. Making him feel loved again would've been easy enough if that was the issue. If you drew up a list of the most disruptive dramas in Laker history, Lamar feeling miffed over a non-trade wouldn't crack the top 50.
Over at HOOPSWORLD writer Eric Pincus has sketched out what the Lakers might be thinking, and it's as plausible a rationale as any. The idea goes something like this: let's say the Lakers would like to replace Odom with someone younger but in the same neighborhood in terms of overall value. Paul Millsap or Anderson Varejao, for instance. Those guys aren't on the market right now and even if they were, their teams probably wouldn't want Odom in return since they're rebuilding around youth. The trade exception created by the Dallas deal provides the Lakers with the flexibility to add a Millsap or Varejao down the line. So why not wait until those guys are actually available? Because it's hard to create a trade exception midseason. Once teams have filled out their roster, very few will have the cap space to absorb Lamar Odom's contract. Without the trade exception the Lakers wouldn't be able to acquire Millsap or Varejao without jumping through some complicated and maybe impossible to negotiate hoops.
Eric might well be right that this is the strategy. It's certainly a more satisfying explanation than "Lamar was sad so now he's a Maverick." But even so... hoo boy, is this risky. To begin with, there's no guarantee that Millsap or Varejao will ever be available in trade or that if they are their teams will be happy sending them to the Lakers in a salary dump. What if another team makes a better offer? It's not like the Lakers have a stash of quality youngsters or draft picks to sweeten a deal. The trade exception might turn into something but it might not, and in the meantime you've got a big hole in your front line. Not to mention, you've lost an asset that could've been used to help score Chris Paul or Dwight Howard. Most reckless of all, you've put in jeopardy one of the last seasons of Kobe Bryant's prime.
It's a hell of a gambit on Kupchak's part. My nervousness is tempered by faith in his skills as a GM and by a recognition that he has far more information about the trade market - who's coming available and when and at what price - than we do. Regardless, he's up on the high wire now. In time we'll find out whether he's pulled off something dazzling in its foresight. If he doesn't, we'll have a strong candidate for the worst trade in Lakers history.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.