Even before Kobe’s knee injury and the rapidly approaching comical injuries resulting in a revolving door backcourt rotation, consensus held that the Lakers had painted themselves into a corner. With Kobe’s extension, we were led to believe, LA was left to pursue one item from a menu of more or less unpalatable options. Max out Carmelo and surround two aging gunslingers with D-league talent. Extend Pau and watch the Laker duo age gracefully in pursuit of an eight seed. Preserve cap space and cross your fingers that the cavalry, in the form of Westbrook and/or Kevin Love, arrive to save LA several years from now. Of course, Kobe’s rusty form and subsequent injury did nothing to discourage those projections.
Admittedly, those championship parades feel far more distant than 2010. But I can’t agree with these shrilly, dire analyses. Largely built upon unwarranted assumptions wrapped in faulty reasoning wrapped in groundless predictions, the doom and gloom casts a fog concealing both the biggest threat to the Kobe era and the considerable upside for the Lakers should they overcome it. The Lakers’ problem is not Kobe’s extension. Nor is evidence remotely close to sufficient to conclude that his performance will decline to the degree that it will become one. And the deduction that LA is no longer a free agent magnet simply does not follow from Dwight’s departure. The paralysis of indecision is the Lakers true nemesis. For Lakers fans, the good news is that the troublesome degree of uncertainty can be reduced rather easily. The bad news is that the decision-makers have shown little inclination to to do so.
Sacrificing Certainty for Flexibility
“I don’t know where we’re going to be six weeks from now and certainly we’re going through a very rough time right now, but we’re going to monitor the team closely and look for opportunities to help the team either in the short run or the long term.” – Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.
The dance that began with Dwight persists today. Without his long-term commitment LA could not, or more accurately, would not pursue any particular result with the vigor required to achieve it. Hedging against being spurned by the big man, LA was reluctant to move Gasol. With that ship having sailed, and the Achilles torn, the Lakers’ trajectory became no clearer. A steadfast resolve to avoid commitments beyond this season signaled intent to rebuild. LA suggested just the opposite by adding to Kobe, Nash, Blake, Meeks, Hill and Gasol productive veterans (Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar) and talented, if disappointing youth (Wes Johnson and Xavier Henry).
From any perspective but that of those with access to the master plan (assuming there is one), it would appear that the Lakers wanted to have their cake and eat it too. LA preserved both its cap space and its punchers chance to make noise in the West in the event that Kobe and Nash returned to form. And this is understandable. You try telling Kobe that after months of intense recovery, he’ll be spending his 18th season toiling amidst the league’s bottom dwellers. But in the NBA, to waver in commitment to any one mission is to play with fire.
It should be no surprise then, that the Lakers are getting scorched. With and without the Mamba, Blake and Farmar managed the reigns well enough to ensure that the upstart trio of Young, Meeks, and Henry scored often enough to make the impressive contributions of Hill, Johnson, and Sacre just enough to offset a mostly lackluster campaign from Gasol. And give credit where it’s due: with more pieces that fit-in, and commit-to his offense, D’Antoni’s system looks surprisingly credible. For all of those promising developments, the Lakers remained on the periphery in the West, with the consolation that the East’s third seed would be within reach. Injuries to Farmar and Henry have made those seem like the good ‘ol days, as LA has fell farther and farther away from the playoffs.
Succinctly put, the Lakers are in no man’s land. But they’ve maintained their treasured flexibility.
Flexibility facilitates acquiring assets. It is not an asset in and of itself. So while the Lakers backup claims to agility by straddling the line of relevance, the savvier among fans have been left to alternate between rooting for a surprisingly lovable cast and finding satisfaction in its failures. The salient question becomes, are Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak doing the same thing? I cannot say.
If they are inclined in a particular direction, this season has been a miserable failure. Pau Gasol’s on-again-off-again availability is a microcosm of the alternating direction of LA’s season. For all the respect he deserves, so too is Nash’s will he or won’t he (to be clear, let’s hope he wont) rehabilitation. Maybe it’s all been a preamble or an experiment, the end of which will reveal the road ahead.
One thing is certain: if LA was waiting for some sort of sign, a guiding light to emerge in the distance, we’ve seen it. Forgive them for resisting Kobe’s first misfortune, but not his second. Injuries to all three of its point guards aren’t a flickering light, they’re a damn lighthouse.
For all of my conviction about the optimal decisions then, it may indeed be curious that I wouldn’t fault LA for pursuing just the opposite course. (Such a course both merits and needs its own post, which is forthcoming later this week.) The only truly bad outcome is achieved by failing to make any decision at all.
The Optimal Path Forward
At 10-24, LA stands six games out of the playoffs, and possesses the 10th best odds of landing the top pick in the lottery. Mt. Everest six games is not (it feels like LA should be no less than ten games out), but things are likely to get worse before they get better with tough opponents and a long-road trip beckoning prior to the arrival of backcourt reinforcements. A realistic record of 3-7 in the next 10 games likely would push LA past the brink of recovery.
The flirtation with Cleveland about swapping Pau for Bynum suggests sobriety is gaining momentum at Lakers’ headquarters, and these next ten games should be a splash of cold water to Kupchak’s face. It just ain’t happening this year.
It’s one thing to recognize it, and another to do something about it. Five steps comprise the optimal course for the Lakers.
First, move Pau to a contender. We know they tried. And without knowing precisely what they sought from Cleveland, I won’t criticize them for seeking an asset in addition to cap relief. LA gets cap relief (but no shelter from the repeater’s tax) by doing nothing. Cleveland needed to kick in something. Of course that didn’t make sense for a team with struggles of its own.
LA needs to focus on contenders, for whom Pau could tip the competitive balance this spring, and thus place a higher value on his services than also-rans like the Cavs. Just don’t tell that to Tom Haberstroh who suggests that the Lakers trade Pau for a 2nd round pick. (Gee golly Tom, you really think we could?) No, neither Kevin Love nor a lottery pick are on the table. That doesn’t mean that OKC wouldn’t consider this deal that beats the hell out of a 2nd round pick: (Some variation of Pau for Perkins, Thefalosha, and a #1 pick).
And I’d bet good money that Indiana’s not hanging up the phone when Mitch makes this offer of Pau and Meeks for Granger, Scola, and Indiana’s 1st rounder. Not only would Gasol mark a major upgrade over Mahinmi and Scola, imagine what Frank Vogel could do defensively with two 7 footers around the basket. No one is inclined to part with a first in this draft, but that sentiment has to change if we’re talking about becoming the title favorite. (I’d suggest this move does just that for the Pacers.) That same logic applies to the San Antonio, where I’d expect Pau to thrive amidst all the quick reads and ball-sharing, who could package a first rounder with the no longer effective Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner (all three would be prime candidates for buy-outs.)
Second, move Jordan Hill. To where, it matters not so much here. Hill’s a favorite of Lakers fans, but two compelling reasons justify moving him: (1) He has a $7 million cap-hold this offseason, and (2) Mike D’Antoni doesn’t like him. The first is a fact. The second is subjective, but after withering under D’Antoni in New York and seeing his minutes come and go this season, I feel confident about the second too. Unless LA hires a coach who will play Hill, there’s no way he merits restricting that amount of cap space this summer. LA could reduce that hold by signing him to, let’s say, a more reasonable $4 million/year deal. But if you’re Jordan Hill, why would you sign up for more bench time when you could easily get that deal elsewhere?
Given his strong play when he’s seen steady minutes, Hill undoubtedly has value around the league. LA needs to cash in on it. He’d fit well in Miami, which needs a rebounder with the athleticism and jump-shot to play its style of defense and offense, respectively. Maybe Miami refuses this deal including the expiring deals of Rashard Lewis and James Jones, plus its #1 pick (which almost certainly will fall between 27 and 30). But maybe not. Things aren’t clicking for Minnesota’s frontcourt rotation – could Alexy Schved or Dieng be had? Check in across town with the Clips, who are desperate for some front line help. OKC, Portland, and San Antonio could also use an infusion of energy at the 4. Dangle him out there, and I think LA comes away with either a very late 1st rounder, an early 2nd, or a decent young player without the problematic cap hold that Hill has.
Third, decide who’s staying and move those who are not. LA can fill in the mid to back end of its roster next season with several guys on expiring deals who’ve either exceeded expectations or at least proven worthy of minutes this season. That group includes Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wes Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, and Chris Kaman (perhaps even add Kendall Marshall to that list). The downside to especially strong showings by Young, Meeks, Johnson, and Henry is that LA probably couldn’t, and almost certainly won’t keep all four with Kobe due to return at the wing. The same logic applies to its three point guards, albeit to a lesser extent.
Make no mistake; these guys are crucial components to rebuild the Lakers. Except for Blake, each has a cap hold right (or in Young’s case, and option) near $1 million. That allows LA to use its cap space to acquire higher level players before resigning these guys to more lucrative contracts via Bird rights. I’d rate the importance of retaining these players in this descending order:
(1) Wes Johnson. His stats don’t warrant the top spot, but it’s too hard to find young, talented players with his length, athleticism, and defensive mindset who don’t need the ball to compliment Kobe.
(2) Nick Young. His ability to create his own shot gives him a slight edge as a bench scorer over Meeks.
(3) Xavier Henry. Just scratching the surface of his potential, I’d hate to see this two way player realize it elsewhere.
(4) Jordan Farmar. Creates, shoots from distance, and defends at average to a little above average levels. Those guys don’t grow on trees.
(5) Jodie Meeks. I’m thinking Meeks is the casualty, despite a career year and his outstanding fit in D’Antoni’s scheme. Could come down to $$$ between him and Young.
(6) Steve Blake. Unless he’s willing to take a home town discount for say $3 million/yr., his health has been too unreliable to make him worth what his production this season would seem to merit. A cumbersome cap number of $7.6 million means LA could be forced to relinquish his Bird rights if he doesn’t take such a discount almost immediately after free-agency opens.
(7) Chris Kaman. He’s looked serviceable in limited minutes, but can’t be considered part of the future.
Ideally, LA could choose any three of the four wings on that list. If it’s Wes, Young, and Henry, all the better. Some other combination won’t have earth moving consequences. What’s important is that LA gauge both who it wants to resign and who it can resign. Then, the rest, each of who have varying degrees of value, need to be moved. Again, we’re not talking about swinging a deal for Utah’s 1st rounder or even a guy like Harrison Barnes. Rather, until and unless someone gets desperate, or LA strikes a lopsided deal, we’re probably looking at 2nd round picks. And again, LA needs to target teams that are a player or two away (or at least those who believe this to be the case.)
Indiana and Memphis both need another scorer on the perimeter. Could LA interest them in Young or Meeks — and in Indian’s case, perhaps even in combination with Jordan Hill? Then, we just might be looking at a very late 1st rounder. Golden State and Minnesota would stand to improve from the presence of a healthy Steve Blake. And there’s certainly no harm in finding out what exactly is the asking price for Dion Waiters.
A couple of deft moves would both bring back modest assets, and more importantly diminish LA’s performance this season. Which brings us to the next step.
Fourth, embrace the downward spiral. Call it tanking, Riggin’ for Wiggins, Sorry for Jabari, Scandal for Randle, or Bleed for Emblid. (Thanks to Jalen for letting me borrow those.) Call it pitiful. Point out that it violates the spirit of the game.
The rules are what they are. Teams must play within them, not within those that they wish existed. So until the NBA does something to diminish the powerful incentive to avoid the middle, it’s irrational for a team like the Lakers that has zero chance to contend to strive for those 5-10 extra wins that will decrease the count of their Ping-Pong balls.
At present, nine teams have more Ping-Pong balls than LA. Of them, it’s not hard to envision Detroit, Cleveland, and New York (whose pick goes to Denver) eclipsing LA in the standings based on the teams’ current trajectories. That puts LA at #7. That’s not a bad place to be with scouts generally in agreement that at least seven players – Wiggins, Parker, Randle, Emblid, Smart, Exum, and Gordon – have all-star potential. Yet, I’d feel better if I could get somewhere between 1 and 4 both to get the better player and to protect against a diluted talent pool should some prospects elect to stay in school. Only Milwaukee appears out of reach at seven games behind LA. Philly, Utah, and Orlando boast superior talent, but will nonetheless very likely be formidable opponents in the race to the bottom. That leaves Sacramento and Boston, the latter who now appear poised to max out in the loss column, and the former who seem less wed to the idea of another trip to the top of the lottery.
Realistically then, by moving Pau, Hill, and perhaps two more rotational players, and letting Kobe bide his time recovering, depending on how the lottery shakes out, LA stands to land a top 5ish pick. Flank Kobe with Marcus Smart or Dante Exum. Pass the torch to Wiggins or Parker. Snag Randle to play the Amare role for D’Antoni next season. Let Emblid add to the lore of Laker big men. In any event, it is no novel notion that LA’s future begins to look a whole lot brighter with a budding star on a rookie scale contract.
Fifth, spread the wealth. Many an analyst espouse the wholly unsubstantiated, conventional wisdom that LA will either strike out or shackle itself with Carmelo and nothings else. Events may conspire to make Carmelo part of the Lakers solution – I certainly wouldn’t write it off. But to characterize the Lakers’ plight as Carmelo or bust is about three bridges too far for this writer.
For one, it requires indulging the assumption that Kobe’s extension will hamstring the Lakers ability to add multiple talents. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the ensuing rant:
Color me a contrarian. I’m good with Kobe’s extension. Sure, as a Laker fan, I would’ve preferred to see Kobe take a bit less. Candidly, however, any rationale Lakers fan should prefer to see Kobe take a deal for the vet’s minimum, leaving an extra $22 to fill out the roster around him. That line of thinking extends to any star player on any team in any sport: If the goal is to win a championship, signing premier talent on the cheap is the best way to assure it.
It follows that any star player who cares only about championships should sign for the minimum salary to optimize his odds of winning. If that’s what Lebron wants, he should join the Pacers for the minimum and make his promise of “…Not 4, Not 5, Not 6” titles a realistic prospect. In so much as it might be selfish to take $23.5, it’s equally so for Lakers fans (and ownership) to ask for a tremendous discount.
I would have preferred an extension that paid him $18 million per season. Asking for a deeper discount than that for a still great player whose global draw remains unmatched simply is unrealistic. What we’re bickering about then, is a difference somewhere near $5 million. That’s not nothing. But it also doesn’t transform a great deal into the franchise-crippling contract its bee portrayed to be. Take a closer look at the Lakers’ cap situation, and you’ll see why.
Let’s start from the top. Next summer, the salary cap is projected to be at roughly $63.5 million. Kobe’s cap number next year will be $23.5 million. That leaves $40 million. Nash is somewhat of a variable quantity. If he doesn’t play this year, he could pursue a medical retirement, the terms of which would require payment of his full salary, but count zero of it for cap purposes. Even without that windfall, LA has the “stretch” provision available which allows it to spread Nash’s cap number next year across the following two seasons, netting a reduction from $9 million to $3 million next year. That leaves LA with $37 million.
Not to be forgotten, Robert Sacre’s $900,000 must be subtracted. From that realistic number of $36 million, it remains to deduct cap holds. Here’s the cap holds for LA’s remaining players: (Note: generally, the cap hold for each of 12 roster spots is the greater of $500,000 or a specific player’s cap-hold. The rules for calculating cap holds are complex, and can vary significantly from player to player. To see how I’ve reached these figures, see Larry Coon’s discussion on cap holds here. And a big thanks to Eric Pincus at the LA Times for helping me with the rules’ intricacies.)
Pau Gasol: $20.2; Steve Blake: $7.6; Jordan Hill: $6.6; Chris Kaman: $3.8; Jodie Meeks: $2; Nick Young: $1; Ryan Kelly: $1
(Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Kendall Marshall): $900,000
Pau’s not coming back at that number (or perhaps any number). Blake and Hill each will either agree to a more reasonable figure on the eve of free-agency, or see their rights relinquished. I assume the latter. Ditto for Kaman. Since Young has an option, his cap hold remains low, even if he’s unlikely to exercise it.
And let’s assume that LA keeps the rights to four players from the group of Meeks, Kelly, Johnson, Farmar, Henry, and Marshall. That’s roughly $4 million, from which must be subtracted the minimum roster spot holds of $500,000 per player, or $2 million. LA is now $33 million under the cap . To complete accounting for cap holds, suppose LA picks between 3 and 8 in the draft. That pick carries an average cap hold of roughly $3 million. Now, with Kobe, Sacre, Young, lottery pick X, and retained players A, B, C, and D, the Lakers have eight players, and four roster spots that collectively amount to a $2 million cap hold.
After all of these transactions, the Lakers have more than $28 million left over to spend on free agents. Hence, Kobe’s contract hardly leaves LA in dire straights. Rant concluded.
With $28 million in its war chest, it is true that LA could afford just one max player. Carmelo, for instance, could command $24 million. Given the reigns, I’d prefer to divide that $28 million amongst three impact players. Here’s who I have in mind.
#1 (With a Bullet): Lance Stephenson. Indiana’s bumping up against the tax even after shaving off the $14 million salary of Danny Granger who’s sure to be elsewhere. Lance has played himself into the 8 figure conversation — would the small market Pacers go deep in to the tax to pay him market value? I’m not so sure. Avoiding a heavy tax bill would mean moving another big contract. The downside of Larry Legend’s shrewd signings is that all of his players who command big money – David West, George Hill, Roy Hibbert, and Paul George – are also critical to the team’s success. Entering this season, perhaps Lance returns at a slight discount of $6 million for his mentor (Larry Bird). It’s harder to see him walking away from – or the Pacers matching – a Godfather offer in the neighborhood of $12-$14 million from the Lakers.
#2 Reggie Jackson. This scenario repeats the strategy of poaching a capped out, small-market team’s emerging talent. OKC’s maxed out with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka, not to mention the Perkins albatross. Even if they could afford to pay Jackson, they might be better off investing that money at a position that Westbrook doesn’t play for 40 minutes a night. An offer of $7-9 million lands the defensive ace and uber-athlete LA needs at point guard. To those less well acquainted with Jackson’s game, allow me to introduce you:
#3 Gordon Hayward. Slotting Hayward third results more from his attainability than his desirability. As a restricted free agent, teams pursue him with some peril in the form of tied up cap space. Having doled out big money to Favors and with a likely high draft pick, Enes Kanter, and Trey Burke more or less entrenched as part of its core, it’s unclear how far Utah’s willing to go to keep Hayward. Plus, Boston’s rumored to be enamored with the guy, and will have the space to make a big time offer, not to mention the allure of playing for his college coach, Brad Stephens. Based on pure speculation, I predict that it’ll take $15 to pry him away from Salt Lake City.
#4 Evan Turner. Philly’s tearing down the house and rebuilding around a core of MCW, Noel, and its two 1st rounders next year, one of whom is nearly certain to be a blue-chip prospect. I doubt that a big pay day for Turner fits in to those plans. One reason for caution here: Turner’s on horrible team, keeps the ball a lot, and thus may have inflated stats that could lead to an inflated contract. At $7-8 million, he’s worth the risk. Any more than that could be cause for regret.
#5 Kyle Lowry. In the process of turning in a career season, Lowry’s price no doubt has increased substantially. And it’s not totally clear what the Raptors are doing. We know they love the big guy, like Terrence Ross, overpaid an improving DeMarr Derozan, and not much else. If they’re rebuilding, Lowry’s gettable. If they think they have something, continuity might make Lowry more valuable to Toronto than the rest of the league. If they can’t bring Jackson into the fold, pull the trigger on Lowry at $7 million per, but no more.
#6 Big Man X. Unless Joel Emblid or Randle falls into the Lakers’ lap, they’ll need to replace the presumed to be departing Pau, Hill, and Kaman. Spencer Hawes and Marcin Gortat head the list of free agent big men, while guys like Channing Frye, Andre Blatche, Emeka Okafor, Ekepe Udoh, and Dante Cunningham fill out a something less than stellar class. Depending on how the chips fall with its top five targets, LA could either land one of the two big fish or be scraping the bottom of the barrel.
#7 Fillers. Lakers fans wouldn’t mind a Trevor Ariza reunion, and Rodney Stuckey, Darren Collison, and Aminu likewise present desirable targets for the middle of the roster.
The impact of $28 million wisely spent is nothing to sneeze at. In an optimal scenario LA’s 2014-2015 roster looks like this :
PG: Reggie Jackson ($8 million), Jordan Farmar, Kendall Marshall
SG: Lance Stephenson ($13 million), Nick Young, Xavier Henry
SF: Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Wes Johnson
PF: Julius Randle ($3 million), Dante Cunningham ($2.5 million) Ryan Kelly
C: Spencer Hawes ($7 million), Robert Sacre
(*Note: players without a salary figure carry roughly a $1 million cap hold. We’re not assuming that each resigns for that amount — because it owns their Bird rights, LA can exceed the cap to bring them back on more lucrative deals.)
Of course, it’s more likely than not that LA will draft someone other than Randle, whom most project to be a top five pick. Correspondingly, the optimal roster fluctuates depending on who the Lakers draft (e.g., Marcus Smart means no Reggie Jackson, Joel Emblid means no Spencer Hawes, etc.). But the possibilities created by those shifting pieces still harbor great upside. Keep it to yourselves Lakers fans, and LA just might take the league by surprise.