It likely would not be an overstatement to say that no one expected this. For the past few years, the Lakers franchise has meticulously planned a rebuilding process whose central aspect would be the presence of massive cap space in 2014 and possibly 2015. They went to significant lengths this past summer following Dwight Howard's departure to ensure that every player that signed with the team was on a one-year deal or otherwise did not overly infringe on their available cap space. Even if it was a huge long shot that the blue chippers of the free agent class in LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were highly unlikely to leave their current locales, the Lakers would have had sufficient space to chase a number of other value signings, lob huge money at one of the many attractive free agent options, re-sign the parts of what appears to be a fun and surprisingly competent supporting cast, and retain flexibility for potentially a more attractive set of free agent options in 2015.
At the very least, that was until the Lakers decided to make life much harder on themselves by re-signing Kobe Bryant to a massive extension. Certainly, no one thought that the Lakers would not bring back Kobe barring complications from his Achilles injury, but it was supposed to be a seamless part of the overall framework in which the Lakers' flexibility would be preserved. Would it probably end up being an overpay strictly speaking anyways? Sure, the Lakers could have thrown a few additional millions Kobe's way and given him a marginally richer late career deal than the most relevant comparisons in Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett accepted. It would have still sufficed as a sign of the franchise's trust in him as well as ensuring that the 2014 plan was still moving forward without hitch.
And make no mistake: this is quite the hitch. It doesn't make the Lakers' job impossible, but it reduces the margin for error, one that was considerable 72 hours ago, into a very thin line. To illustrate this, let's look at the contracts that the Lakers will have on the books in the offseason:
|Cap holds (7)||$3,551,352|
With regards to the cap holds, recall that for every unfilled roster spot up to twelve, there is a cap hold for an imaginary player at the NBA's rookie minimum salary. For the preexisting player cap holds, we will get to that in a moment. In any case according to Larry Coon, the cap for next season should be around $62.9 million. If we run the numbers:
|Lakers 2014-15 payroll||$39,712,062|
|2014-15 cap number||$62,900,000|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space||$23,187,938|
There's one last wrinkle in this, however, and that's the Lakers' 2014 draft pick, which could have a wide range in expected salary depending on how the Lakers finish the year off. As of now, the team appears decent enough without Kobe to stay out of the top seven or so: they currently would draft eleventh considering that every single non-playoff team in the East would go before them. Barring a rash of injuries or trading parts of the current core -- more on this later -- this is likely going to continue to be the case. Even if you believe that they can get into the playoffs after Kobe's return, however, let us use the eleventh pick as a benchmark because of the larger salary requirements. This gives us:
|Eleventh overall pick projected salary||$1,898,300|
|Lakers 2014-15 payroll||$41,103,026|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space||$21,796,974|
If you're crunching the numbers along the way while reading, note that the pick eats up one of the minimum cap holds, so it technically is a $1,390,964 net cap hit. Anyhow, the Lakers are now left with roughly $21.8 million in cap space, which is kind of bad if you ever had illusions of them chasing the blue chippers in free agency. This is because the NBA's maximum salary changes depending on your years of service in the league; a player coming off his rookie deal makes much less than a ten year veteran, represented by 25% and 35% of the total cap respectively. That Kobe takes up 37.4% of next year's cap is pretty informative for how far above the norm he's being paid. If you're wondering how this is the case, players are entitled in maximum deals to at least 105% of their previous salary, which means that two of the free agent targets are technically out of the Lakers' price range:
|2014-15 ten year veteran maximum salary||$22,015,000|
|Carmelo Anthony maximum 2014-15 salary||$22,458,400|
|2014-15 zero to six year veteran maximum salary||$15,725,000|
Because of the lower contract number he took in order to help fit everyone into the 2010 cap in Miami, Bron's 105% salary figure ($20,020,875) is technically less than the ten year max, which makes it a bit of a moot point since he'd be able to make up to the ten year max salary. So, the Lakers are in a bit of a predicament here. It's not necessarily that the team is slightly under the max since it's not that important to concluding a contract with one of these guys. It's the simple fact that in order to sign a ten year max player, the Lakers would have to renounce the Bird rights to literally every single free agent on the roster in order to actually claim the $21.8 million in space. Needless to say, neither Melo nor Bron is coming here to play with Kobe, Nash's broken down body, and a bunch of minimum salaried options.
Ah, but one counters that the Lakers could use the stretch provision on Nash in order to spread his remaining cap hit equally through the upcoming three years. Or even better, he could take a medical retirement -- that requires a lot of hoops to jump through; for one, the Lakers' doctor and a league appointed one have to declare that him continuing to play would be detrimental to his health -- that would clear his salary off the books completely. Let us examine both scenarios:
|Cap space||Cap space (Melo signing)|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space (Nash stretch provision)||$27,760,638||$5,302,238|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space (Nash medical retirement)||$30,990,638||$9,039,574|
For the sake of argument, let's assume the team signs Melo to the max since he has the higher salary figure. The stretch provision scenario still results in a fairly meager amount of space, and while the retirement scenario might seem marginally better, recall that the elephant in the room is that the Lakers would likely want to re-sign Jordan Hill to a new deal in the offseason. Hill has dropped off some from the All-Star caliber pace he was at for his first few games as a starter, but it's hard to imagine that he doesn't make somewhere around $7-8 million in the first year of his new deal.
If you are wondering why Hill and not Pau Gasol, the age difference is likely sufficient to explain this, not to mention that Pau's salary demands will likely be much higher. It was unlikely that the team was going to bring him back regardless of what Kobe's extension looked like, but this all but cements that it will not be the case. It didn't necessarily have to be such a foregone conclusion, however. Should Kobe have taken a contract similar to what Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett had in their later years, say $12 million a year, observe the difference in cap space:
|Cap space||Cap space (Melo signing)|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space (Nash stretch provision)||$39,260,638||$16,802,238|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space (Nash medical retirement)||$42,490,638||$20,539,574|
Now, the team probably moves on from Pau even in any of the above scenarios, although that's not really the point. The underlying issue at hand is that the team needed flexibility not to chase multiple max level players, but to be able to get one while retaining a decent supporting cast. That $11.5 million Kobe doesn't take in the above scenario goes a long way towards doing so, giving the team enormous wherewithal to basically make whatever move they humanely desire towards that end even after plucking the biggest fruit of the free agent tree.
To illustrate this, say that Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar both line themselves up for new contracts close to the midlevel exception as a result of their solid play this year. The Lakers would have the available flexibility to keep one of them, pursue a mid-sized replacement option in Kyle Lowry, or even throw a maximum offer sheet at Eric Bledsoe, the latter of which Phoenix probably matches regardless, but it at least is an option in this case. Under their current payroll situation, the Lakers would essentially guarantee that they lose both their starting and backup point guards in this scenario.
And signing free agents as well as keeping their own players are only two parts of the puzzle. As most have discerned upon closer examination of the free agent class in 2015, there are a greater number of possible options for the Lakers to pursue. In order to do so, the Lakers would have to ensure that their roster had anywhere from $15-20 million on one-year deals. Kevin Love, the prize of that class, would require near the latter end of that scale. That's a borderline impossible task to complete if you have any desire to sign a max player in 2014 and keep anyone important among the current team. This applies even if the Lakers settle for a cheaper max free agent in an effort to try to preserve more space.
The cheaper options would be players coming off their rookie deal. For the purposes of 2014, that means choosing between Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe, and Gordon Hayward. The only one of the three currently playing like a player worthy of that dollar amount is Bledsoe, who as mentioned is not at all likely to get filched away from Phoenix. Hayward occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, a player not at all worth $15 million a year, but likely obtainable if one is willing to cough up that dollar amount. As a result, this makes Monroe, the occupant of a happy middle spot between the two in terms of performance and availability, the most likely target. The presence of Josh Smith on a long-term deal, Andre Drummond requiring a large extension in the future, and the abject failure of the three as a workable lineup further works in the favor of any team wishing to obtain Monroe via a hefty offer sheet.
Even if you are somewhat skeptical as to whether it would be worthwhile to give Monroe that much -- and it's hard to separate his decreased production from Detroit's sheer dysfunction; he previously seemed like an assured 19-20 PER player who was a jump shot and improved defense away from superstardom -- let us assume the Lakers move to acquire him in free agency if only to show how the process proceeds with a max contract on the team from this point forward. Whether the team keeps say Hill and Farmar for the long-term instead roughly accomplishes the same purpose, but is neater in the following scenarios under one name:
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space||$21,796,974|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space (sign Monroe)||$6,579,310|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space (sign Monroe + Nash stretched)||$12,551,974|
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space (sign Monroe + Nash retirement)||$15,781,974|
Both scenarios with Nash give the Lakers some breathing room for re-signing Hill and possibly one or two non-minimum contracts. However, this would immediately preclude the Lakers from being active players in the 2015 free agent class. Assume that Hill is re-signed to a $8 million per year extension and Nash takes a medical retirement, giving you the following scenario:
|2014 first round pick (11th)||$1,898,300|
|Total non-expiring salaries||$49,123,300|
|Total current expiring salaries||$2,959,710|
|Remaining total cap holds (5)||$2,536,680|
|Total one-year deals added||$10,825,990|
|Total expiring salaries||$13,785,770|
To put it simply, you can't get enough expiring salaries in order to clear sufficient space for a 2015 max free agent if you bring Hill back in this case. And this is under an ideal situation in which Nash takes a medical retirement and the Lakers gain cap relief as a result. If the stretch provision is used here, you can tack on an additional $3.23 million in non-expiring salaries, which only adds insult to injury. In order to claim the necessary amount of expiring salaries, the Lakers basically have to repeat what they did this past summer and keep essentially no one on anything longer than a one year deal. In this case, it becomes irrelevant whether Nash takes a medical retirement or stays on the team because he becomes more cap space for one year deals or a large expiring contract himself respectively. For the purposes of this scenario, we'll assume the latter:
|2014 first round pick (11th)||$1,898,300|
|Total non-expiring salaries||$41,123,300|
|Total current expiring salaries||$12,660,710|
|Remaining total cap holds (5)||$2,536,680|
|Total one-year deals added||$9,115,990|
|Total expiring salaries||$21,776,770
And this is also assuming that the cap goes up in 2015, which it should by all accounts, but there is the possibility the Lakers get especially screwed even in this scenario. Regardless, if the Lakers want to be players in 2015 free agency, the path is fairly clear: should they sign one of the restricted free agent options to a max deal, they cannot retain anyone else past 2015. This means that essentially everyone that is a relevant player on the current team has to go, from Hill and Pau to Farmar and Meeks, unless they're willing to accept one-year deals. Consider it this past offseason redux.
So the end result will be Kobe, Monroe (or whomever they end up getting), the 2015 maximum player, their 2014 draft pick (see why this selection is so important?) and a bunch of minimum salaried guys. Should they manage to make it that far, we can probably see the 2015-16 Lakers being fairly competitive if Mitch was especially good at picking at the bargain bin that very offseason. Note that for the Lakers to pursue this scenario, they cannot sign either Bron or Melo, as their salaries combined with Kobe would exclude the ability to offer the max to Love, for instance, not that the Lakers would mind all that much in the former situation.
The problem is that barring Bron coming out of the blue 2014-15 becomes essentially a wasted year; the Lakers gave up their 2015 pick -- with top five protection that will likely go unused so long as Kobe is present -- to Phoenix and they can't keep anyone besides Kobe, Monroe, and their 2014 first rounder in order to open up max space in 2015. Unless that 2014 first rounder is one of the elite prospects at the top of the draft such as Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle, there's not a whole lot to play for in 2014-15 besides developing this rookie and their 2014 free agent acquisition, seeing as there's little hope of the team being competitive enough to contend.
It is this issue that is at the core of the problem with the Kobe extension: the Lakers are robbed of all available flexibility during the course of this plan. They have to follow this strict cap regimen and can't deviate from it so long as they are targeting max players in each of the following summers. And before you claim a possible upside in Kobe's massive deal expiring in 2016, the same summer the league's second best player in Kevin Durant becomes available, the Lakers could have easily ensured that space opened up with Kobe at a lesser salary figure by signing guys this offseason to two year deals or having someone like Hill have a team option or non-guaranteed money in his third year.
As a result, Kobe's extension has essentially made the results of this season and next meaningless for the team in the long-term past their 2014 first rounder. There's simply no room to include anyone else in this plan. Sure, they can forgo signing a max guy in 2014 and re-sign guys on this team they prefer instead, but that's just moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic insofar as moving the needle on the team getting back to contention. If anything, one comes away with the impression that the team's 2014 first rounder is more valuable than ever in determining how the franchise does in the near future and with nearly the entire Eastern Conference below .500, the Lakers would need an incredible amount of luck to emerge as one of the top teams the lottery, assuming that the team doesn't edge their way into the playoffs after Kobe returns.
So unless LeBron makes a shocking swerve to come to LA, the Lakers have basically locked themselves into being a fringe playoff team for at least this season and next with a very limited ability to better their situation by sifting through reclamation projects and the like because they can't really keep them in the process should they pan out. If they do, they either lose the ability to sign a max free agent in either 2014 or 2015. The advantage of having Kobe at a lower salary was that the Lakers could have their cake and eat it too, namely the opportunity at max free agents and ability to keep all the decent subsidiary players they discovered along the way. In order to properly contend without a truly transcendent player, you need both and that's simply not an option for the team at the moment.
One hates to cast aspersions on a guy who is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, player who has ever worn the purple and gold, but Kobe has essentially torched his own chances of getting ring six save for things going exactly right in the upcoming summers with regards to the two maximum salary acquisitions and the 2014 draft pick. Perhaps it's more correct to blame the Lakers front office for this seeing that they gave Kobe that contract offer, although at this point, it's just a matter of semantics. The reality is that the Lakers dug a huge hole for themselves and there's only a very thin light at the end of the tunnel before Kobe calls it a career.
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