Amnesty clause: What it means for 2013-14 Lakers

Nothing in sports is black and white.

We try to make it that way, of course, to say certain decisions are indisputably right and others unequivocally wrong. That’s just how this works. Compartmentalization is king.

But still, it’s hard to know what ligaments will snap and which bones will wear weaker than they should, which temperaments will suit a team and which will set it off. It’s impossible to monetize human production in a field that’s so dependent on something as fragile as the human body or to assess a team’s needs several years in the future. There are good decisions and bad ones, at least in retrospect, but it’s hard to label things right and wrong in the moment.

Which brings us to the NBA’s semi-solution to all this, a solution that was introduced in 2005 and expanded in 2011: The amnesty clause. In 2005, with the beginning of a new collective bargaining agreement, teams were allowed to amnesty one player that summer, and only that summer. In doing so, a team would wipe a player’s contract from its books with regard to the salary cap and luxury tax hits, but it would still have to pay him. It was a way for any team, that summer at least, to get rid of a burdensome contract that looked poised to ruin its financial flexibility for years to come.

It was a kind of take-it-or-leave-it quick fix, but in 2011, the new — and current — CBA added a wrinkle. The amnesty still existed, but this time, each team would have one per CBA. They could use their amnesty whenever they wanted from the conclusion of the 2011 lockout until the CBA ends, either in 2017 if either party opts out or in 2021.

The catch, though, is that the amnesty clause can only be applied to contracts signed before the current CBA and for players who remain on the same team that signed them (amnesty rights are not tradeable), which means time is ticking as we inch closer to the 2013-14 season. It’s not that teams have to use their amnesty clauses — in theory, if they’re well run, they shouldn’t have any of these behemoth contracts dragging them down — but rather, that it’s an option to be explored.

It’s not that the amnesty clause was designed to kick terrible players out of the league. Rather, it was put into place to allow teams a mulligan, and the players they overpaid could in theory go on to play again, for another team at a far lower salary. In fact, of the 15 players amnestied since 2011, only four — James Posey, Charlie Bell, Josh Childress and Ryan Gomes — were not picked up by another team. Granted, just seven of the 15 were actually playing at the end of the 2012-13 season, but among them are names like Chauncey Billups, Chris Andersen and Andray Blatche, all contributors on playoff teams.

It’s not that amnestied players are by nature terrible, or even that they’re massive salary dumps anymore. They’re just another way to finagle the system, in some cases, and they can be a bit of added flexibility to get rid of a player who in some way doesn’t fit.

Which in turn brings us to the Lakers, who have been at the center of the amnesty discussion since even before their season ended in the first round of the playoffs.

It all started with Kobe Bryant’s torn Achilles. Theories began to pop up about how the Lakers could amnesty him, in theory, if he were to miss all of the 2013-14 season, and then re-sign him for 2014-15. It sounded crazy and it likely would be, but it still would be a viable theory if all parties were on board with it.

In fact, the Kobe amnesty plan shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone who’s looked around the league at how the clause has been used. In many instances, the term “strategic amnesty” has cropped up, essentially meaning that teams are using the clause to facilitate deals rather than simply dump big contracts. Teams have found it’s possible to use their amnesty to create cap space and sign another player, and the contracts being amnestied are hardly the mammoth, $15-20 million-per-year deals that the league imagined when it invented the clause.

The Kobe amnesty would fit neatly into the strategic amnesty concept. He’s the Lakers’ best player, the face of their franchise, and they in no way want to dump his contract and be done with him. It would be a matter of twisting the amnesty to fit their needs, and it’s hard to imagine there’s ever been better timing in terms of an injury and a contract’s expiration that might actually make the thing work.

That said, it’s probably not going to happen, and if the Lakers are going to use their amnesty, they’re going to have to use it this summer. After that, they will have no player on the books who signed before the 2011 lockout and thus, no amnesty candidates. For a team that’s so bogged down by expensive contacts and impending luxury tax bills, it would seem wise to use the amnesty, even if the Lakers and the Buss family seem impervious to such mortal concerns as financial stresses.

Here, then, are their options, with the exceptions of Bryant, whose case has been laid out above, and Chris Duhon, who can simply be bought out for just $1.5 million:

Steve Blake, G, due $4 million next season before becoming a free agent

Blake would seem a very unlikely candidate for the amnesty, and not just because his salary is relatively small. (Honestly, for the Lakers, getting any contract off the books would correspond to a much bigger savings that it appears at face value, what with the luxury taxes the team is paying. Tax rates for the Lakers next season will be $1.75 per dollar over the luxury tax threshold.) But beyond the financial aspects of this being a dumb decision, it’s also not going to happen because of Bryant’s status. Even though he’s saying he wants to be back for opening night, Bryant could easily miss a month or two of action, and Blake, an effective veteran, will be needed to pick up the slack.

Pau Gasol, F/C, due $19.3 million next season before becoming a free agent

By the sheer size of his contract, Gasol seems like the kind of player for whom the amnesty clause was made. Getting rid of his salary would net the team more than twice his salary in savings, but Gasol getting the amnesty is still almost as unlikely as it is Blake. First of all, the Lakers may very well need Gasol’s skills next season if they can’t retain Dwight Howard, and even if they do somehow entice Howard to stay, Gasol still retains enough value to be a decent trade chip. The trade could be a massive salary dump and could return picks and the kind of young, cheap players the team needs to pad its roster next season. Taking all of that into consideration, applying the amnesty to Gasol seems only like it would be a last-ditch and highly improbable outcome.

Metta World Peace, G/F, due $7.7 million next season — if he exercises his player option as expected before becoming a free agent

Here, though, is amnesty gold. World Peace’s $7.7 million salary is hardly astronomical, but players making far less have been hit with the clause. (Darko Milicic, ladies and gentlemen.) Plus, as was already mentioned, to amnesty World Peace would be to save more than twice his actual salary, and unlike Blake, he’s not the most crucial of pieces next season, nor is he the kind of trade piece that would return much. In an ideal world, he’d simply decline his player option, but in this situation, World Peace has exactly zero incentive to do so.