The Lakers' Long Game
As their current season continues to disappoint (largely), we have seen an increase in talk about the Summer of 2014 for the Los Angeles Lakers. That offseason holds great importance to the NBA because it marks the likely next point where the best player in the sport today, LeBron James, can become a free agent and potentially switch teams.
The rumblings have already started that the Lakers have made a priority of ensuring that they have the flexibility to sign James at that time, potentially forgoing the acquisition of other assets because increasing their long-term money outlay would make acquiring James more difficult or even nearly impossible.
Unfortunately for their fans, the decisions the brass has already made will make bringing James into the fold prohibitively difficult from a salary cap perspective.
In order to fully explain this, the most important concept to outline has to be the cap hold. When looking at a team’s salary structure in relation to the cap, the contracts actually on the books for that season mark the first step. For the Lakers, the only contract signed with guaranteed money for 2014-15 belongs to Steve Nash at $9,701,000 for that season.
Beyond the numbers firmly on the books, the second thing to consider is that the league counts a prospective salary for players whose contract has expired but the team holds the rights to retain that talent. This exists because otherwise a team with deep pockets could fill up their cap with new players and then just blow through the cap (and presumably the tax) by using the Bird and other exceptions to retain their own guys.
Holds also exist for draft picks and cap exceptions like the Mid-Level Exception (in many circumstances) in addition to those for players previously under contract. Interestingly, since the cap hold ties to a player’s last salary figure, a cap hold keeps a number on the books that could be more or less than what the player actually signs for. In certain cases, most notably just-drafted players since they get paid more than their hold and max-level players coming off their rookie deals, these holds can actually help a team out because they get “credit” for an amount for a player which they then can exceed using rules like Bird exceptions, allowing some teams to time signings right and get a little more out of the salary cap room they have.
There are only three ways for a team to shed a hold for an unsigned player:
(1) Sign the player to an actual contract (the terms of that deal replace the hold)
(2) The player goes under contract with another team either by leaving as a free agent or through a sign and trade
(3) Renounce the free agent, meaning the team voluntarily gives up the ability to use various exceptions that would allow them to go over the cap to sign the player.
The reason cap holds play a large part in the Lakers’ 2014 comes in the form of Kobe Bryant. As someone who has been paid the maximum in the league for an incredibly long time, it follows that Bryant possesses an incredibly high salary. In fact, Bryant is the highest-paid player in the entire NBA by more than $6 million this season and that gap will only expand for 13-14. Having a huge salary also means having a huge cap hold and since Bryant will be paid $30,453,805 in 13-14, the league’s cap hold rules dictate that his hold number for the summer of 2014 will be $31,976,495. While we do not know where the salary cap line will be that season, it was $58.044M this season. Even if using an incredibly charitable $70M as the cap line, just Bryant and Nash take up nearly 60% of the Lakers’ cap space.
That number does not include any other holds (such as minimum salary ones for the rest of the roster spaces, other potentially retained players, or unsigned draft picks) and includes one other major gap: Dwight Howard. The Lakers' biggest acquisition last summer has not factored in yet because his time as an unrestricted free agent comes this summer rather than next summer like Kobe and LeBron. If the Lakers re-sign Howard, their chance of signing LeBron outright goes from slim to none.
Now, there most certainly is a chance for the Lakers to sign James- it just requires a few things to happen that Laker fans may not like.
First, Bryant could take a pay cut. If Howard and the rest of the other current Lakers leave when their contracts expire, Bryant would not have to take a huge reduction in salary in order to bring James aboard. However, if Howard, Pau Gasol, or anyone they trade for gums up the books, the Lakers would have to ask Bryant to take a gigantic (likely $10M or more) cut from his current salary in order to make it work. Once his new contract was signed, it would replace the cap hold and potentially give the team space to use.
Secondly, the Lakers could use a sign-and-trade to acquire James. Unfortunately for them, this would require both a hearty amount of salary to send over (Nash would be insufficient) and a willing just-scorned Miami Heat organization. Extremely unlikely at best unless the piece moving to South Beach was a re-signed Howard.
Finally, the Lakers could renounce or trade all of their big cap hold players. This would mean Bryant, Gasol, and Metta World Peace (oh no!) would leave the Lakers with minimal benefit to the team since they would need to maintain the salary flexibility and take very little in return. While an abrupt ending of an era might be what’s best for the Lakers, it would be extremely tough for Lakers fans to see Bryant leave in such an unceremonious way.
Keeping all of this in mind, the way Jim Buss has chosen to take the Lakers forward will force him to make some very difficult decisions in the next twenty months and potentially leave a dramatically different sports landscape of Los Angeles than we have seen for the last decade.
What all of this means
Now, some may see this as a gloom and doom piece. That should not be the case. After all, no team in a salary capped sport in North America has pulled more rabbits out of their hat than the Lakers. The challenge in the world of the new CBA is that management must make difficult choices. In effect, they should be deciding now (ideally with the players in question) how much importance Bryant places on retiring a Laker and winning a ring.
If either of those answers appears less strong than the team needs, they have to know if they are willing to incur the fan wrath that would come from it, especially if the team does not have the next marquee superstar on lockdown.
While maneuverability provides a hollow promise to most NBA franchises, the Knicks, Nets, and especially the Heat have shown that desirable destinations generally work out when given the chance to woo. If Jim Buss wants that opportunity, he can have it if he has the guts to risk it.
If I were in control, the best tack seems to find out exactly what Bryant wants with the rest of his career and see if that meshes with what the organization wants. Some mutual sacrifice could lead to a worthwhile situation even if it means choosing between Howard and another high-level guy.
That said, the Lakers face the challenge most elite teams face at some point between sentimentality and continued success. As sticky as it can be sometimes, history has shown that the people of Los Angeles prefer a winner to everything else and the Clippers being as good as they are should drive their co-tenants to strive for future triumphs instead of clinging to previous ones.