Kobe Bryant surgery: Where do the Lakers go from here?


What's next for the Lakers now that their franchise player's future has been put into question?

With the career of cornerstone player Kobe Bryant winding down the past few years, the Los Angeles Lakers always needed some semblance of a long-term plan to transition the franchise into a new era.

Now that Bryant has officially torn his left Achilles and undergone surgery, potentially ending his run as an elite player in a single moment, the question remains: How does this affect the Lakers' plan going forward? Without a healthy Bryant, L.A. could be tasked with radically changing the look of the franchise soon.

While the Lakers' situation for the 2013-14 season is pretty locked in -- assuming the team re-signs Dwight Howard, what you see now is essentially what you'll get -- the following summer provides some potentially franchise-changing opportunities.

More specifically, it could provide an opportunity at pairing Howard with LeBron James.

Entering this summer, the free agent class of 2014 is the one that really has teams salivating. The likes of Howard, Chris Paul, Josh Smith and others are expected to be available this offseason, but the really big names (Howard, Paul) are expected to stay put, leaving only second-tier stars for teams with cap space.

In 2014, the Lakers could be looking an entirely different situation. Assuming Howard is still around, the big man and point guard Steve Nash will be the only two players remaining on the team's books. That leaves the team with enough money for a second max contract, which could potentially go to LeBron.

The idea might sound crazy, but with the uncertainty posed by Kobe's injury, these are the kinds of dreams Lakers fans might need to cling to next year. And while James could easily eschew L.A. in favor of sticking in Miami, or maybe even returning to Cleveland, other players in that year's free agent class could be huge additions.

Beyond LeBron, stars such as Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love could highlight an impressive group of players hitting the open market that summer. Even if the Lakers settle for a player like Love, pairing him with Howard going forward would be a pretty sweet consolation prize.

While the Lakers are in a pretty trying financial situation right now, particularly with Bryant's $30.5 million salary for 2013-14 looming, flexibility is coming soon. Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill all see their salaries, worth a combined $64.6 million, wiped off the books after next year.

For now, the Lakers will need something that has rarely been in the franchise's character: patience. Whether Kobe comes back full throttle or not, opportunities for change are coming soon.

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