LOS ANGELES – In fact, there’s no conclusive evidence that the world ends in the spring of 2014, or even that the NBA will be disbanded and forgotten on or around that date.
None at all.
And yet somehow, the Lakers seem to have built their roster believing that to be true — or perhaps believing that there would never be a punitive new CBA, and once said CBA was put in place that it was simply a joke that would disappear in a puff of smoke. (all false.) Now, consequently and unfortunately for the memory of the late, great Jerry Buss, the Lakers are left with a roster that’s either injured, unwanted, elderly or unknown, all the while cloying for Dwight Howard’s fleeting love.
That’s not exactly ideal for a franchise that’s made its name on being a perennial contender, one that’s missed the playoffs once since 1994 and only four times since moving to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season. Now, going into the offseason after their hard-won playoff berth lasted four games at the murderous hands of Gregg Popovich and the seemingly immortal Tim Duncan, the Lakers will be hemmed in by the CBA and the mammoth contracts they currently have on the books as much as they’ll be constrained by the fact that they have, as of now, just one player signed through the 2014-15 season: Steve Nash, whose immortality rather demonstratively failed to keep pace with that of Duncan.
There’s so little cap room, and then so much, and in this interim year, it’s a question as much of logistics as it is of philosophy. Do the Lakers, with Kobe Bryant injured likely into next season with his ruptured Achilles and unlikely to ever be quite the same player as he was on April 12 cling to their former selves, retaining their core no matter its limitations, claiming as always to be chasing a championship? Or do they stall? Do they chalk 2013-14 up to a rebuild, hoarding cap space for a new iteration of themselves, led by Howard and perhaps that other big-name free agent – you might have heard of him, he’s with some team in Miami now – and supported by the rest of the team’s hefty, freed-up payroll?
If the Lakers are smart, they pick some version of that second option, but they do it quietly. They pretend Bryant will be a contributor, even if he might not, and if they struggle, it’s because he isn’t, and the blame is funneled that direction. They sign Howard — not necessarily because it’s the best thing to do, but because they kind of have to — and trade Pau Gasol for spare parts that can push them through the season. They amnesty Metta World Piece if he picks up his player option, perhaps, to save some luxury tax payments, and they cobble together the better parts of this year’s bench with some free agents to plug the rest of the holes.
Nothing long-term. Nothing risky. Nothing dumb, or the whole thing collapses.
There’s no guaranteeing they’ll take that path. (One guarantee, though: They won’t amnesty Kobe.) This is a team that’s never had much of an issue paying luxury taxes, and even now as the penalties get steeper – they’ll lose the ability to receive players in sign-and-trade deals this season, for one – it’s not hard to imagine that they’d be willing to take a season of massive hits in order to get themselves through to the promised land of 2014-15. So maybe the Lakers keep the old gang around for the sake of their image, even if the roster may have outgrown its championship aspirations. No matter what happens, the team will need to reassemble its supporting cast, and even those minor decisions could figure big time into the Lakers’ long-term success.
If the Lakers were to pick up no options, re-sign none of their free agents, restricted or unrestricted, they’d still be committed to about $78 million in salary next season, and that’s before signing Howard, if such a thing comes about. (The NBA cap was $58.044 million last season and will remain in that ballpark.) Even if they manage to trim away here and there – cut Chris Duhon, amnesty World Peace, trade Gasol – the team will still be far above the luxury tax threshold and poised to pay exceedingly punitive rates and a repeat offender in 2014-15. Oh, and that $78 million number covers just seven players, when the team will need about 14 under contract.
There’s work to be done this summer, a project akin building a papier-mache house and hoping it survives a hurricane. But these are the Lakers, so who knows. It can be amazing the genius that gobs of money can wrought.
Who’s back, barring an unexpected trade or cut:
Steve Blake, G, $4M next season, signed through 2013-14: Blake is relatively inexpensive, under contract for just this final year and has done nothing to make the Lakers want to get rid of him. Plus, with Bryant out, he’s even more in demand.
Kobe Bryant, SG, $30.5M next season, signed through 2013-14: The great one will be back, in some form or another, at some point or another next season. Probably better and sooner than conventional wisdom might dictate.
Jordan Hill, C, $3.6M next season, signed through 2013-14: Hill suffered a hip injury on Jan. 6 that was termed season-ending, but he managed to return for the playoffs. That injury will make him hard to deal, and — you’ve heard this before — he’s cheap and under contract for just this year, making him an attractive piece to keep around. Jodie Meeks, SG, $1.5M team option next season, if exercised, signed through 2013-14: He’s cheap, they know him, and the Lakers will need some help at shooting guard with Bryant’s uncertain situation. It seems logical for them to pick up his option. Steve Nash, PG, $8.9M next season, signed through 2014-15: With the team’s lone contract that extends past next season, Nash could be the longest-tenured Laker a year and a half from now. His deal, though, is looking like not quite an albatross, but at least a nuisance, with his production having fallen off mightily along with his health. He’ll be back, though, eating up a good chunk of cap space.
Who should be back:
Earl Clark, F, restricted free agent: The Lakers would be wise to bring back Clark, who was one of the more pleasant surprises of last season and who shouldn’t come at too hefty a price tag, perhaps between $2 and $4 million a year. Other teams might outbid them, though, which could leave them powerless. Andrew Goudelock, G, RFA: Goudelock is a restricted free agent, and as a pleasant late-season surprise, he’d be a great candidate to return as a role player to develop, perhaps even past next season. Plus, he’ll cost less than a million.
Who maybe shouldn’t return, for various reasons, but still could:
Chris Duhon, PG, $3.8M ($1.5M guaranteed) next year, signed through 2013-14: With just $1.5 million guaranteed, Duhon might be a viable option for the Lakers to cut to save cap space. There’s no compelling reason to keep him, besides the mediocre depth he provides, and cutting him could save the team upwards of $9 million in luxury taxes.
Pau Gasol, F-C, $19.3M next season, signed through 2013-14: Gasol has been at the forefront of trade rumors for two seasons now, and his injuries last winter and spring are one of the biggest reasons he’s still wearing the purple and gold. If the Lakers bring back Howard, it’s not a long shot to say that Gasol is likely gone, even if his trade value has diminished. Metta World Peace, F, $7.7M player option, next season, signed through 2013-14 if exercised: Here’s the catch, though: World Peace, if he exercises that option, becomes the most likely Laker to be amnestied. It’s not that they don’t like him or that he isn’t a talented player, but what with the injury, his age, his salary and the luxury tax savings associated with getting him off the books (close to $30 million), World Peace is an easy target – especially if the Lakers are really gunning for 2014-15. Darius Morris, PG, restricted free agent: Morris has said he would like to return to the Lakers next season, but letting him go would be an easy way for the team to cut down on its luxury tax payments. (It could also save some money by letting Morris test the market and then signing him to a minimum contract if he were willing.) The issue will be a matter of how much upside the team sees in the young player, and keeping him around another year might solve some depth problems without creating any more long-term commitments.
Robert Sacre, C, restricted free agent: He spent much of the season in the D-League, and if Hill is healthy and Howard is back, it seems like the luxury tax hit involved with retaining him would likely outweigh the small benefits.
Who the Lakers want back:
Dwight Howard, C, restricted free agent: You know the drill. The Lakers want him, covet him, even, despite the dysfunction that the Dwightmare has wrought. Maybe bringing him back has its flaws, but at the same time, how do they not? At this point, things are in Howard’s hands, and he’ll have to weigh whether the extra money the Lakers can pay him is worth it. (Side note: After the past year and a half, how disturbing is the phrase “things are in Howard’s hands”?)
Who’s most likely gone:
Devin Ebanks, SF, unrestricted free agent
Antawn Jamison, F, unrestricted free agent
The chips could begin to fall soon as far as trades are concerned, and the draft may figure into the team’s plans, although that’s highly unlikely. (The Lakers hold the 48th overall pick this year.) The big decision, Howard, will have to wait until July to be finalized, and in the meantime, the Lakers better come up with a vision of where they’re going.
A vision, that is, beyond throwing a massive payroll at anyone and everyone. In today’s NBA and with their stars aging and injured, that simply won’t work – at least not to the extent that it has before.