The Lakers: Looking good now and down the road

Your Los Angeles Lakers: The gift that gives now, and should continue giving well into the future.

So say the analysts, at least, who believe the Lakers will age more like Catherine Deneuve or Helen Mirren than, say, Kathleen Turner. ESPN.com's Chad Ford and John Hollinger have published the newest edition of their Future Power Rankings- "ESPN Insider's projection of the on-court success expected for each team during the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons"- and while the Lakers don't top their list (an honor quite reasonably going to the precocious, cap-space-n'-draft-choice-laden Oklahoma City Thunder) they do land at a very close #2. (Note: Insider required to see the whole story.)

Write Hollinger and Ford:

The Lakers seem to have everything going for them -- they are the defending champs, have the league's second-best record, and seem set for the next few seasons, with a nucleus of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. And while the Lakers won't have salary cap space this summer to join the superstar free-agent chase, the game remains rigged in their favor, money-wise: L.A. produces the most revenue of any team and can easily stomach paying luxury tax to keep the likes of Gasol and Lamar Odom....

It's hard to argue the Lakers aren't well-set for the next few seasons. Kobe may have a lot of wear for a guy barely into his 30s, but what athlete is more dedicated to preserving his body than Bryant? Everyone ages, but relatively speaking he'll go slower than, say, the rest of humanity. Gasol is in his prime, while Bynum is growing into his. Sixth-man status should help preserve Odom, and while Ron Artest is likely to lose some agility over the next couple of years, limiting his general versatility as a defender, his size and strength ought to preserve much of his value on that side of the floor.

And in the meantime, it would be hard for Artest's game to get less vertical than it already is.

The key to the equation is Bynum. While he's a pretty productive player now, there's certainly a lingering sense he could be much, much more. If Bynum develops into a true monster, the Lakers are in great shape. Alternatively, he represents L.A.'s most appealing trade asset. In one way or another, Bynum will play a massive role in determining how good the Lakers are three or four years down the road.

More from HollingFord:

"...Still, they're only second overall in our rankings because of the uncertainty about coach Phil Jackson's future and how that might relate to Bryant's. Jackson has yet to re-up for next year, and the smoke signals coming from L.A. make one wonder whether the team will look for a less expensive replacement. If so, Bryant could play the ultimate trump card by opting out of his contract and signing elsewhere. Is that far-fetched? Perhaps, but as long as it's in play, it's a risk that warrants mentioning..."

I didn't expect PJ to sign for next year until this summer, and still don't. But I believe he'll be back, probably for more than one more year, and that Dr. Buss will pay him. For Kobe, the lack of an extension agreement (which everyone thought earlier in the year to be a formality) is a little more unsettling for fans. Until he's signed, there's always a chance, I guess, he could go. But it's a small one. The odds are overwhelming he'll be a Laker next year. My take is Kobe is waiting to find out as much information as possible about what a new CBA could look like before making his move. Purely a guess, but that's my thinking.

Fordinger's final words:

"...The other concern is a paucity of quality young talent. Bynum is the only starter who is likely to get better, rather than worse, over the next three years, and the bench doesn't appear to hold any future stars. With no first-round pick this year, the Lakers will have to hope the current core ages well as they look for opportunities to make trades and sign inexpensive free agents..."

If there's a major concern for the Lakers projecting forward, this is it. Should the current nucleus underperform or age faster than anticipated, it'll require some deft management from Mitch Kupchak and Co. to keep the team competitive. Outside of Bynum, the Lakers lack young, core-worthy talent, and barring disaster won't be in a position to replenish through the draft. Kupchak has shown an ability to find good pieces for flotsam and jetsam (Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown), but it's not easy.

Another concern: Rising payrolls could encourage Jerry Buss to squeeze the back end of the roster, creating less depth to carry them through injuries or declining performance. Often observers look at what's going on at the top end of a team, but it's easy to erode a squad from the bottom, too. It just takes longer.

Finally, who knows what happens in the new CBA, and how that could affect the way in which the Lakers do business?

But as always seems to be the case, it's good to be a Laker fan. Yes, there are questions, but far fewer than other teams face. Certainly there aren't many (any?) franchises who wouldn't swap lots in life with the purple and gold, both for this season and beyond.