What The Lakers Might Be Thinking And Pau Gasol’s Future In Purple and Gold

 

Ever since the Lakers failed attempt at trading for Chris Paul I’ve been trying to figure out what their plans are going forward. I’ve finally moved on from thinking about the trade and how great it would have been on so many levels. The beauty of the Paul trade was that it not only would have made them instant contenders and net the team a franchise player in the post-Kobe era, but it would have given them financial flexibility with which to improve the team for the foreseeable future.

But since that failed the Lakers have had no choice but to move on.

Remember that this is just speculation on my part. This is based solely on everything I’ve read, what the Lakers have done in the past, the team’s current financial outlook, and what they have and haven’t done so far this season.

So here it goes…

Every move the Lakers will make will be with an eye on the Summer of 2014.

Yes, that’s what I said.

The team would never admit it, Kobe would never tolerate it, and fans couldn’t bear the thought of it. But it’s seems to be where all signs point.

It doesn’t mean that the Lakers won’t try to make a move they think could instantly improve their title chances for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t mean they won’t make a move for a player like Dwight Howard or Deron Williams if they have the chance, it just means that fans need to keep that in mind as we continue to watch this boring group of occupied laundry and especially when we read the latest Lakers-related rumor on the Internet or float trade scenarios and free agent signings.

First the good news:

The Lakers currently have no one under contract for the 2014-15 season. Of the 14 players on their current roster, you can make the case that Andrew Bynum might be the only one changes that. If Bynum is traded then whoever he is traded for will likely assume that spot on the 2014-15 roster. I can’t see any trade scenario involving Bynum that doesn’t bring back another franchise building block.

If I had to bet, my guess is that the Lakers could be doing something similar to what Pat Riley did with the Heat when he started setting the table for the free agent class of 2010. Start with one franchise player, sprinkle in a few other guys who won’t take up much cap space, and give yourself the freedom to sign two or more significant free agents when the time comes. Remember that the only holdovers from the Heat’s 2009 roster were Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, James Jones, and Joel Anthony. Chalmers was still on a rookie deal, Wade took less money so that the team could re-sign Haslem, Jones was signed to a veteran’s minimum contract, and the team held Anthony’s Bird Rights so his cap hold was insignificant in their attempt to sign both LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

The new CBA has a whole new set of  luxury tax rules that will go into effect before the 2013-14 season. Starting that year, teams that are $0-$5 million over the luxury tax threshold will have to pay $1.50 for every dollar they’re over it. Teams between $5 and $10 million over will have to pay $1.75 for ever dollar they’re over, those $10 to $15 million over will owe $2.50 for every dollar, and those between $15 and $20 million over will owe $3.25 for every dollar they’re over.Tax rates will then increase fifty cents for every additional $5 million after that.

That’s not all.

Teams that are taxpayers in four out of any five seasons beginning this season (including the Lakers), will see an increase of $1 at each increment.

That’s a really big deal, even for a team that just signed a TV contract that some reports say will pay them $3 billion and others have said could net them $5 billion, over the next 20 years. That TV revenue is great when it comes to being able to retain your own great players still in their prime but it really does you no good if you don’t have the cap space or even a full mid-level exception to help lure free agents.

That’s because in the new CBA, only non-luxury tax paying teams who are over the salary cap will have access to the full mid-level exception. Luxury tax paying teams will only have use of the mini mid-level exception. There’s a huge difference between the two MLEs. The full mid-level allows teams to offer free agents $5 million for the first two years of a four-year deal with three percent increases in each of the final two seasons. The mini mid-level (also known as the taxpayer mid-level) only allows teams to offer $3 million with three percent increases and a maximum of three years.

Having said all of that, here’s what the next two summers look like for the Lakers:

The only Lakers who will be unrestricted free agents this summer are Matt Barnes, Jason Kapono, and Troy Murphy. Those three make less than $4 million combined. I’m assuming, of course, the Lakers exercise their team option on Bynum (if he’s still a Laker), that Derek Fisher  exercises his option for next season, and that Metta World Peace exercises his player option for the final two years of his deal (he’s crazy but he’s not that crazy. At least his agent isn’t).

In other words, the Lakers payroll won’t change much between this year and next, in terms of flexibility. They’re still going to be a luxury tax paying team and they still won’t have the full mid-level exception with which to offer anyone.

The Summer of 2013 doesn’t look much better. The only Lakers of note on course to become free agents then are Andrew Bynum (unless he signs an extension before then), Luke Walton, Derek Fisher (assuming he exercises his option before the season), and Josh McRoberts. Lamar Odom would have been on this list had he not been traded (more on him later). Walton, Fisher, and McRoberts make about $12.5 million combined next season –a nice chunk, but insignificant when you consider how far they’re still over the luxury tax with just Kobe, Gasol, World Peace, and Blake’s salaries. Even with Odom’s expiring contract they still would have been way over the luxury tax.

Even if the Lakers allowed every one of their free agents in 2012 and 2013, including Bynum, to flee they would still have $61.5 million for 2013-14 committed to only Kobe, Gasol, World Peace, and Steve Blake. So if Bynum makes $16 million in the first year of his next contract, the Lakers are looking at a minimum payroll for 2013-14 of $76.5 million for just five guys.

This is where Lakers fans cry and those who hate them cackle.

The salary cap for this season is $58 million. The luxury tax threshold is $70 million. How much more can we expect either to increase annually over the next two seasons? For a team that is still good enough that they will be drafting no higher than 15th over the next two years, it’s not as if they can count on draft picks to help replenish the system. The mini mid-level exception is there but, in all likelihood, it is probably just enough to get them more guys like McRoberts (the guy who has played in only four of their last nine games and for no more than five minutes in any of those four).

Now you know why the Lakers didn’t hesitate to move both Gasol and Odom for Chris Paul.

Before the Odom salary dump, the Lakers were looking at having to extend contracts for both Odom and Bynum no later than the Summer of 2013. That’s not a big deal where Bynum is concerned, considering he’s 24 years old and now an All-Star. But Odom is 32. With the new luxury tax rules in place, it would be hard to fathom the Lakers giving Odom an extension and committing themselves to paying him that much money at 34. There’s a good chance they would have exercised the buy-out in his contract for next season and allowed him to become a free agent anyway, especially since Odom’s contract would have cost the them more than $16 million next season with the luxury tax.

Had the Lakers been able to pull off the Chris Paul trade they would have removed Gasol’s $19 million from the 2013-14 payroll and removed the headache of what to do with Odom after this coming season. I’m fully aware that they would have replaced Gasol’s contract with Paul’s contract (of equal or slightly lesser value) but Paul is five years younger than Gasol.

Now that they have something around $76.5 million for 2013-14 committed to just five players, a few things are evident:

As of right now, using the amnesty provision on Walton, World Peace, or Blake this summer makes almost no sense since removing any of their contracts still doesn’t take the Lakers under the luxury tax or allow them to use the full mid-level exception. The only benefit is that it would reduce the luxury tax bill by the value of whichever contract they amnestied. It’s way too valuable a piece for them to use it for just that. It also means that there are only two other Lakers currently signed through 2014 who they could use the amnesty provision on — Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

We can immediately remove Kobe from consideration since he’s still a fan favorite. With the Clippers now loaded, the Lakers cannot afford to lose their only real box-office draw. If I had a pie chart to illustrate the likelihood of either getting amnestied, 95% of my pie chart would be labeled “Gasol”.

If that’s the case, then the Lakers have two options: trade Pau Gasol or amnesty him.

Amnestying him before the final season of his deal means they would still owe about $58 million to the other five guys who are currently under contract and likely to still be on the team in the Summer of 2013. I know that it doesn’t sound like there would be a lot of leftover cap space but they would at least be able to add one low-cost free agent before Bryant, World Peace, and Blake’s deals expire. They would also be able to use the $2.5 million room exception for teams under the cap. That’s still not a lot to work with.

That’s why trading Pau is a much better option. Not only would the Lakers not have to pay him to play for another team (as they would by amnestying him), but if they can trade him in a deal that gets them at least close to the luxury tax limit in the Summer of 2013, they could save their amnesty for either Blake or World Peace and get themselves access to the full mid-level exception. Keep in mind that the new mid-level exception is only available to teams over the salary cap but below the luxury tax limit.

The more the terms of the new CBA sink in, the more you realize how horrible it is for this particular team. By no longer having access to the full MLE, the Lakers will have almost no chance to improve this squad without trading Gasol. I wonder if there was a staff meeting at the practice facility in which every front office employee was forced to pinky swear they wouldn’t tell Kobe this.

These are all things I’m sure Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss are fully aware of. The most important being that it’s in the Lakers best interest to try and get themselves under the luxury tax before the 2013 season to avoid being a tax-paying team for four out five years and get penalized an additional dollar for every increment in which they are over the luxury tax. Other teams know this also. That’s why it wasn’t surprising to hear the Timberwolves are reportedly interested in trading for Pau (more on this later too).

It seems to me the Lakers are setting themselves up for the post-Kobe era while trying to maintain nothing more than a puncher’s chance of winning a title in the interim. The goal is to surround Bynum (or possibly Howard) with solid role players (like Haslem and Chalmers were for Miami) between now and the Summer of 2014 when there will be a slew of potential superstar free agents.

So what can the Lakers do to have a chance between now and then?

I will never defend the Odom salary dump so much as try to explain it. My opinion is that it can’t be fully judged until the Lakers do something with the trade exception. But until that happens, it was an unwise move and as uncharacteristic as anything we’ve seen from the Buss family in the past.

Something that’s been overwhelmingly under-reported is that the first-round pick the Lakers got from the Mavericks for Odom is not only top-20 protected but the Mavericks have from now until 2017 to convey it to the Lakers. Take into account that the Mavericks believe they will be major free agent players this summer. So there’s little chance they send it to the Lakers this summer. If the Mavericks think they can add Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard, then they might either need that pick to replace one of  the many free agents they will have to renounce to clear cap space, or more likely, if they think they are going to be legitimate title contenders then wouldn’t they be better off giving the Lakers the pick after a season in which they’ll finish with one of the league’s three best records — when the pick will be 28th, 29th, or even 30th?

That doesn’t mean that the Lakers can’t trade the pick and the conditions that come with it. But even if the Mavs pick isn’t in next year’s draft, the Lakers would still have their own first round picks and four second-round picks in the next two drafts. That’s six total picks in the next two drafts — seven if you include the Dallas pick. Not amazing assets for trying to make a trade but great for trying to help fill out a future roster on the cheap while trying to maintain maximum cap space for 2014 and beyond.

The Odom trade exception might sound like just a piece of paper but it really is a cheap attractive asset that can at least help them try to remain competitive in the interim — just as the Mavs did when they acquired Odom with the exception they got for Tyson Chandler.

Listening to sports talk radio out here since the season started has been nearly insufferable. It’s mostly because people either don’t understand the rules of the new CBA, think other teams are stupid enough to trade for Walton, World Peace, or Fisher, or because most don’t seem to see the big picture when spit-balling these ridiculous trades.

For example, Max Kellerman keeps proposing a trade in which the Lakers trade Gasol to the Rockets for Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and picks. He thinks the Lakers should then trade Martin along with their pick, the Rockets pick, and the Mavs pick (he thinks is) in next year’s draft for Howard. Besides not knowing the conditions of the Mavs pick, he completely ignores the fact that CBA forbids teams from moving players obtained in trades (in this case Martin) for two months after being acquired, unless they are traded by themselves.

That doesn’t mean that the Lakers, Rockets, and Magic couldn’t engage in a three-way trade but how often do three-team trades happen in-season? Not often.

It’s no secret that the Lakers biggest concern is point guard. But Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss also know that Steve Nash, Raymond Felton, Kirk Hinrich, Andre Miller, Aaron Brooks, Chauncey Billups, Baron Davis, and Leandro Barbosa are just a few of the names that will be available this summer. And while the Lakers probably won’t be able to offer any of them more than the $3 million mini mid-level, they do have something that a lot of teams can’t offer a couple of these guys — the chance to start on a contending team.

Wile Nash might be the only really exciting name on the list, is there any possibly available point guard — outside of Deron Williams — that would make them a legitimate favorite right now anyway? So why compromise the big picture by offering a first-round pick for any available point guard when they can just hope to sign one I listed above, without losing a valuable pick?

Everything about this season has been wacky. The schedule, players returning from China mid-season, Gilbert Arenas working out fo the Lakers at the home of a season ticket holder. There’s no sense in making any panic moves that jeopardize what this team is trying to do long-term. So when Lakers fans hear that the Cavaliers want a first-round pick for Ramon Sessions and jump on it, step back and think about it for a second.

It’s been reported that Sessions plans to opt out of a contract that would pay him $4.6 million next season. Is it worth it for the Lakers to trade a first-round pick — one that could be as high as 15 —  to rent Sessions for 6-10 weeks if they don’t plan to re-sign him? I can’t imagine he signs a two-year deal at 26-years-old. So if he isn’t part of the franchise’s future why have him eat away at valuable cap space when there are guys who are just as good who can be had this summer for fewer years and fewer dollars?

The only realistic deals that make sense for the Lakers right now are ones that would only cost them part or all of the Odom trade exception and possibly a pick, depending on the player.

The rumored Minnesota deal involving Pau and Derrick Williams makes zero sense. At least not today. Not unless it’s a three-team trade that involves the Lakers getting Dwight Howard. It isn’t even possible for the Lakers to trade Gasol for just Williams and picks given the difference in salaries. Why would the Lakers do it now when they could probably make that deal with Minnesota this summer?  The only TWolves on their current roster who will be free agents this summer — and thus can’t be traded — are Brad Miller, Anthony Tolliver, Anthony Randolph, and Michael Beasley. The Wolves also don’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft unless the Jazz make the playoffs (their own pick went to New Orleans in the Chris Paul trade).

That doesn’t mean that a Gasol trade with Minnesota won’t make more sense this summer. After the draft, the Wolves will be able to move their 2013 first-round pick and still have the right combination of young players, low-salaried contracts, and expiring deals to maximize the Lakers flexibility going forward. But those that insist that that Kevin Love must be a part of any Gasol trade, good luck with that. The Wolves are not trading a 24-year-old All-Star, who just signed a new contract, for the right to pay a 34-year-old Gasol $19.2 million in 2013. Not with this new CBA they aren’t.

Barring the chance to get Dwight Howard, wouldn’t the Lakers be better off keeping Gasol for the remainder of this wacky season and trying to sign someone who might be waived before the deadline to add playoff-eligible players — someone like Leandro Barbosa who can give them a puncher’s chance to get past the second round but won’t cost them any real assets or jeopardize the big picture? Then they can use their trade exception next summer and also go after one of those aforementioned free agent point guards with the mini mid-level and a starting job to offer.

The bottom line is that Pau Gasol won’t be a Laker two seasons from now. I can’t envision any scenario that proves otherwise. Not with the clock ticking on Kobe’s career. They can’t sit by and watch this current group rot for two more seasons. Ideally, Gasol would be moved in a deal that brings them back a good-to-great player and I’m not willing to rule that out. But if all they get back is a collection of bits and pieces just make sure you remember the rules of the new CBA and the big picture, and judge those moves accordingly.

Andrew Ungvari is a screenwriter and co-lead blogger for Sir Charles In Charge. Follow him on twitter @DrewUnga.

 

Topics: Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Lakers, Mitch Kupchak, Pau Gasol

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