What Might The Lakers Be Thinking Now

The 2011-12 Lakers went out in much the same way as the 2010-11 squad, with a second-round loss to a team that was just superior. The major difference was this season’s team wasn’t defending a championship nor were they favored to win this time around.

The only thing we know now is that change is coming. The only question is how big a change are we talking about?

The Long-Term Outlook

Back in February, I wrote about what I thought the Lakers might be thinking in terms of short-term and long-term strategy. To summarize, my guess was every move they make would be with one eye on 2014 and the free agent class that could feature the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Luol Deng.

With the clock winding down on Kobe Bryant’s career, with nothing but the mini mid-level exception to work with and upcoming luxury tax penalties, the Lakers have very few options.

The one thing I was pretty sure of in that February piece was that Pau Gasol would not play out the final season of his contract (2013-14) in a Lakers uniform. I predicted if the Lakers are unable to move him in a trade before the start of the 2012-14 season then they will probably have to amnesty him. That’s because the Lakers already have over $75 million committed for 2013-14 for just Kobe, Pau, Steve Blake, Metta World Peace, and a (most likely) re-signed Andrew Bynum.

If the Lakers can’t trade Pau and decide to amnesty him, the team would still be responsible for his $19.2 million salary but without the burden of it counting against the cap or having to worry about the luxury tax penalties associated with it.

The events that have taken place since I wrote that piece in February have done little to change my stance on Pau. While the Lakers did a great job in clearing the contracts of Luke Walton and Derek Fisher from next season’s payroll, they were forced to part with two first-round picks to make it happen. In addition, they also gave the Cavs the chance to swap Miami’s 2013 first-round pick with their own 2013 pick as part of the Ramon Sessions trade.

**It isn’t that far-fetched to envision the Lakers having to swap the 17th or 18th pick in the 2013 draft for the 29th or 30th, depending on what they do to improve the team for next season.

As of right now, the Lakers still have nobody under contract for the 2014-15 season. The only player on the current roster that we can say is likely to get an extension before then is Andrew Bynum. Ramon Sessions could be added to that list since he can opt out of the $4.5 million he’s scheduled to make next season, but his disappearing act in this year’s playoffs might have him thinking twice about that.

Another factor that might have Session reconsidering opting out is the number of quality free agent point guards on the market this summer who could all be considered more desirable. Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Goran Dragic, Kirk Hinrich, Andre Miller, Raymond Felton, Chauncey Billups, Randy Foye, and Jameer Nelson are just nine that I would rank ahead of him. So while the Lakers can’t afford to sign any of those other guys for fair market value, the teams that do have the cap space to do so would probably prefer every one of them to Sessions.

How many teams would start Sessions at point guard next season? More importantly, how many teams would pay him more than the $4.5 million in his option to come off the bench? There’s always the possibility that Sessions’ agent could try to force the Lakers hand knowing they don’t really have the means to replace him with someone better without a trade.

One other thing I touched on in February was that it would be in the Lakers best interest to try and get under the luxury tax before the 2013-14 season when the incremental luxury tax penalties go into effect. In Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ, he uses the example that a team $12 million over the tax level in 2013-14 pays a $21.25 million tax. If the Lakers are going to pay over $75 million for just those five aforementioned players, then you can imagine the type of tax bill they’re looking at once they fill out their roster. So using the amnesty on either Blake or Metta isn’t going to save them much. In a perfect world they would find a trade involving Gasol that would could reduce the team payroll as well as enable them to save their amnesty for either Blake or Metta.

**Barring any type of serious injury, they’re not using the amnesty on Kobe.

If that’s not enough evidence for you, there is one other reason why I think the Lakers will try to trade Pau. Because they already tried to.

Let’s say the Lakers can’t find a trading partner for Pau. Say they amnesty him. The $75 million they have committed for five guys goes down to about $56 million for four guys and while the team might get worse, it’s better for the long-term health of the franchise. If they can get under the luxury tax it would give them use of the full mid-level exception — a valuable addition for a team that might only have one player under contract for the 2014-15 season. Amnestying Pau might also give them a little bit of  cap space with which to bid on a player who is amnestied by one of the other 23 teams who have yet to use their amnesty. So while amnestying Pau hurts the Lakers chances for 2013-14, it accelerates their ability to reload in the long-term. The full mid-level exception is only available to teams over the salary cap and below the luxury tax. With so much cap space for 2014-15, the summer of 2013 might be the Lakers only realistic chance to add a quality role player with the full MLE going forward.

None of this is great news for Kobe and quest to add a sixth ring right now. But let’s face facts. He has a much better chance of winning a sixth ring by taking a 66-75 percent pay cut on his next contract than he does of winning one in these last two seasons of his current deal.

Starting with the 2014-15 season, teams that are over the luxury tax in three of the previous four seasons, including this current one, will have to pay an additional dollar on top of whatever penalty they are already accountable for — this is also known as the repeater rate. But here’s something that most people tend to forget: if the Lakers are able to get under the salary cap in 2014 then there’s a really good chance they can avoid the luxury tax in both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. That’s because there are only a few ways for a team to legally add enough payroll to jump from being at the salary cap limit or below it to going over the luxury tax.

Let me try and explain.

The salary cap for this current season is about $58 million and the luxury tax limit is $70 million.

Let’s pretend the salary cap in 2014-15 is $63 million and the luxury tax limit is $76 million. The Lakers decide they’re going to use every available dollar of cap space. So they have a $63 million payroll for that season. As long as they’re over the salary cap and below the luxury tax, they can use the full mid-level exception of about $5 million and the bi-annual exception of about $2 million and they still might not cross the luxury tax threshold — so long as they don’t have a free agent or rookie eligible for a hefty raise that summer. The only current Lakers that could possibly be due hefty raises that summer, depending on what happens with them between now and then, are Christian Eyenga, Andrew Goudelock, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks, and Jordan Hill — all of whom are even longshots to still be on the team three summers from now.

So if they’re not over the luxury tax in 2014 or 2015 then they won’t have to worry about the repeater tax for any of the following two seasons either since it only affects teams who are over the luxury tax in three out of any four seasons. So if the Lakers are able to get their 2013-14 payroll under the luxury tax, there is a real possibility that they won’t be a taxpayer in 2014, 2015, 2016, or 2017.

This might explain why the Lakers weren’t afraid to trade away those two first-round picks when they acquired Sessions and Jordan Hill since both of this summer’s first-round picks would have guaranteed contracts for the next two years — counting double with the luxury tax. Both picks would also contain options for the 2014-15 season with cap holds that would cut into their available cap space.

The Short-Term Outlook

Nothing the Lakers did at the trade deadline changed as far as their financial commitments for 2014-15 are concerned. However, things have changed a little as far as next season is concerned. By shedding themselves of Derek Fisher and Luke Walton, the Lakers have saved themselves a decent amount of  money that could be used to not only re-sign Sessi0ns and/or Jordan Hill but also make it a tad more likely they use all or part of the $8.9 million trade exception they got when they traded Lamar Odom to Dallas.

It’s been widely reported that the Lakers are going to have to improve while simultaneously trying reduce payroll. I don’t necessarily agree. For starters, the Lakers already trimmed a good amount of money for next season when they dealt Fisher and Walton away. Second, the clock is ticking on Kobe Bryant’s career so what’s the point in paying him close to $60 million over the next two seasons if the team has a chance to add a quality player and contend for a title? Third, the Clippers are only getting better and the Lakers don’t need another summer of them monopolizing the positive headlines. Last and most important, this current Lakers team was not a lot of fun to watch and the enthusiasm has waned dramatically.

It can’t be lost on the Buss family or the team’s front office that there wasn’t really anything enjoyable about this past season. I don’t remember a Lakers team I enjoyed watching less — the double-digit leads they squandered, the dozens of games with 20+ turnovers, the Kobe isolation plays with his teammates just standing around watching, the 32 percent 3-point shooting, as well as the way they seemed to fall apart at the end of every quarter.

Sure there were some games here and there that were exciting. It was fun to sweep all six games against the Mavs and Celtics. But more often than not, watching the 2011-12 Lakers was an exercise in futility — even the wins sometimes felt like losses.

Options To Improve

So what can they do to try to improve this team?

My guess is the first thing the Lakers will try to do is see if they can persuade Steve Nash to join them for the mini-MLE. Other teams can offer him (a lot) more money but few can offer him the proximity to his three kids (assuming they live in Phoenix), a well-respected training staff, or the chance to compete for a championship right away. Marc Stein reported on Monday that the Blazers, Raptors, and Nets would come hard after Nash should he decide to leave Phoenix. That comes on the heels of other reports which have cited potential interest by the Bulls, Mavericks, and Knicks. Nash, who already has a production company, could also use the time in L.A. to help transition to his post-basketball career.

The addition of Nash would provide the Lakers with four glaring positives: he wouldn’t require more than a two-year deal with so he wouldn’t disrupt their long-term plans the way Sessions might. The Lakers also wouldn’t have to trade Gasol or Bynum but might actually be able to peacefully coexist. The truth is that Bynum and Gasol had not played anywhere close to the number of minutes they shared on the court before this season. That was mostly because of Bynum’s injuries but also because of the absence of Odom and Bynum’s increased role in the offense.  Nash would also allow Mike Brown to take the ball out of Kobe’s hands as often which would probably make the team enjoyable to watch again.

Should that fail, the Lakers could always decide to use Pau in another trade for a point guard the same way they tried to in the failed Chris Paul deal. The Lakers could hope that Deron Williams is so willing to be a part of their future that he forces the Nets into a sign-and-trade involving Gasol — a deal that Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News wrote would be “adamantly shot down” according to Nets insiders.

The Nets have unsuccessfully reached out to every significant free agent over the last two years and have been rebuffed by every one of them. So if D-Will is dead-set on leaving, wouldn’t the Nets be better off trading him for Gasol, Sessions, and another asset or two than seeing him leave for nothing? The Nets are moving into a new arena in a new city and they traded their lottery pick for Gerald Wallace. Is anyone buying a ticket to see Brook Lopez, Anthony Morrow and MarShon Brooks play? Gasol might not be D-Will but he’s not a bad consolation prize compared to the cap space that has only been able to lure guys like Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, and Johan Petro.

If Bondy’s report is true, would the Lakers be willing to trade Andrew Bynum for Deron Williams? While that’s a much more attractive deal for the Nets, is it a much more attractive deal for Williams? It’s one thing to commit long-term to a team that has a 24-year old All-Star center. It’s another thing to commit long-term to a team that will be starting 34-year-old Kobe Bryant alongside 33-year-old Pau Gasol and 33-year-old Metta World Peace next season. I’m not saying they couldn’t contend for the next two seasons with Williams at point guard. I’m just wondering how he feels about the two or three seasons after that.

While the chances of Williams as a Laker aren’t necessarily out of the question, it’s far from an inevitability. However I don’t think the Lakers are any less attractive than the Dallas Mavericks — the team most are convinced Williams will sign with this summer.

The Lakers can also re-explore trade talks with the Rockets with Gasol and Kyle Lowry at the center of a deal. Lowry has let it be known that he fears he and Rockets head coach Kevin McHale might not be able to work things out and he might be better off elsewhere. A trade of Lowry, Kevin Martin, and Luis Scola for Gasol, Blake, and Josh McRoberts works. The combined salaries for next season are almost identical but the Lakers could reduce their payroll for 2013-14 by about $7 million just by trading the two years left for Gasol and Blake for Martin’s expiring contract and the two guaranteed years left for Scola and Lowry. Trading Gasol and Blake would also allow them to keep their amnesty to use on the $7.7 million owed in the  final year of World Peace’s deal.

There are other deals the Lakers could explore. Maybe a Gasol for Josh Smith and Marvin Williams trade that would give the Lakers some much-needed athleticism. The Lakers were the worst team in the league this year in turnover differential. They committed 3.54 more turnovers than they were able to force, 1.24 more than the next-highest team on the list. Smith only has one year left on his current deal and has reportedly been asking for a trade for some time. The Lakers might have to take back Williams and the last two years remaining on his deal in order to get the Hawks to take on the $40 million Gasol is owed over the next two years. But like the previous deal, the Lakers would still have their amnesty to use on either Blake or World Peace.

A third deal that makes sense would be a combination of three players from Minnesota for Gasol, with Derrick Williams as the centerpiece. Perhaps Williams, Luke Ridnour, and a re-signed Michael Beasley. It’s not the best deal out there but it would at least add depth and assets to a team sorely lacking both.

Is The Glass Half-Full Or Half-Empty?

The optimist in me can acknowledge that this team still finished tied for the NBA’s sixth-best record in a wild and wacky season with a new coach, a new philosophy, a short training camp, one trade that didn’t happen, and three trades that did.  This condensed season wasn’t well-suited for a team that lacked the youth and athleticism of Oklahoma City, the depth of San Antonio, or the continuity of any of the four conference finalists. Maybe a normal season would better suit them, even if they are all a year older. That’s assuming, of course, they add a valuable piece or two next season.

The optimist in me can see that even though the Lakers current payroll is bloated both next season and the one after it, the situation could be a lot worse. With so much cap space in 2014, the opportunity for them to adjust to this new collective bargaining agreement and position themselves for the long-term isn’t really that far away.

Now the pessimist in me sees these last two years of Kobe Bryant’s deal ending with consecutive first-round exits and/or another trade demand. The pessimist sees the Mike Brown Era continuing to be as frustrating and miserable as the first season was. The pessimist sees the Lakers trading Pau Gasol only to see his new team get the better end of the deal. The pessimist sees the Clippers convincing Chris Paul to stay long-term, Deron Williams signing on with the Mavericks or Nets, and Phil Jackson coaching in another city.

The only real advantage the big market teams have with the new CBA is in their ability to retain their own free agents. While that advantage was also there under the terms of the last CBA, teams over the luxury tax also had a full mid-level exception to work with. That’s no longer the case. Teams over the luxury tax now must be creative if they want to improve and history has proven that the other 29 teams aren’t usually in such a rush to help the Lakers.

Whatever the case, there hasn’t been this much uncertainty with the Lakers since 2007. All we can do is wait and see.

Follow Andrew Ungvari on twitter @DrewUnga.

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