Barring some magical turn of events, the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans will be in a situation they haven't seen in nearly two decades next year. They will play (or watch) the entire season with hopes for success, but they will do so with one eye firmly cast on the year ahead. Steve Nash will still be trying his hardest, of course. We hope Kobe Bryant will make an appearance, and we hope Dwight Howard decides to stay, too. Combine those three players with either Pau Gasol or whatever more suitable pieces can be found for him, and you have the foundations for a formidable roster on paper. Sure, we now know just how badly "on paper" can go, but it is still the only way you can assess how good a team can be in advance while you prepare for the season to come. Under normal circumstances, making sure they have the best team possible for next year would be the only consideration of the Lakers front office for the next few months, but circumstances are not normal. In fact, they may never be "normal" again.
Winning as much as possible in the 2013-2014 campaign will not be the sole motivation of the Los Angeles Lakers front office this summer. It will still be the primary goal, but in considering off-season moves, the Lakers front office would normally consider only one question: "Will this make our team better?" Now, there is a second question to take into consideration, a question that will inevitably trump the first one: How will this move affect our cap space in the summer of 2014? The Lakers sure could use a knockout deep threat like Kyle Korver to space the floor next year, but there is little chance they sign him because he would be unwilling to take a one year deal. There are some decent options out there for the Lakers to trade Pau Gasol and get back some players who are more suitable to what the Lakers want to do, but the biggest stumbling block to any trade for Gasol might be that the players coming back in the trade will have multi-year deals. Taking on salary for 2014 and beyond is almost a non-starter at this point.
There are two reasons for this, and both of them are directly related to the new CBA. The first is obvious; sometimes, you have to save money to spend money. If the Lakers would like to avoid pinning all their hopes and dreams on the luck of landing a franchise player through the draft, the only way they can acquire a new franchise player (or two) to lead the way in the next era is through free agency (under the new CBA, sign-and-trades are essentially dead). And the only way they can be a force in free agency is to be far enough below the salary cap as to be able to offer one (or two) franchise players the appropriate salary.
But it is the second reason that represents the biggest change to the way the Lakers normally do business. 2014 represents the best chance the Lakers have at maintaining a roster which will not be subject to the luxury tax. The new CBA has harsher luxury tax penalties for the most expensive teams, with escalating penalties depending on how much over the cap a team is. Still, even with those penalties, I doubt the Lakers would be too troubled if not for the dreaded "repeater" penalty. The repeater penalty, in which a team that is over the luxury tax threshold in four out of five years has their tax bill substantially increased, is a killer. With it in place, the Lakers are no longer free to ignore the luxury tax, which means the Lakers are no longer free to just keep throwing money at their roster in times of need. I love the Lakers, and I think the moves the front office has made over the years to keep LA at the top of the heap have been underrated and ignored by the NBA masses, but there is no getting around the fact that having a bigger pile of money than anybody else was an effective tool for the Lakers. That pile of money is still an effective tool, but its utilization must be far more strategic now. Gone are the days in which the Lakers can lead the league in player salary every single year.
But here's the thing: That money isn't gone. The Lakers are still one of the wealthiest teams in the league. They can still afford to out-spend their small market brethren by a country mile. They still have the most lucrative local TV deal in the entire league. They can't (vastly) out-spend their counterparts in paying for player services because the economics of doing so (in which the Lakers might have to spend $4 or $5 for every extra dollar they spend on players) no longer makes sense. But they still have the financial power to vastly out-spend their counterparts everywhere else. They can still hire the most expensive coaches, the largest network of scouts. Or the best training staff.
Just a few hundred miles to the east, the Phoenix Suns training staff has become legendary in a way that is not normally reserved for that element of the game. They have created a mythical aura about themselves through their miraculous ability to keep players healthy. Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, Amar'e Stoudemire ... all of them had (relatively) healthy careers in Phoenix (Shaq was only there for a short while, but still). All of them were falling apart when they arrived (except for Amar'e, who was a rookie) and all of them fell apart the moment they left. The Suns staff is so good, you know who they are. I have no idea who has the best training staff in the NFL. No clue who does it best in the NHL, or MLB, but even the most casual of NBA fans knows that Phoenix has the best training staff in the league. In case you might be thinking the rest of the league would surely have caught up to them by now, here's an article from just three months ago, talking about how the Suns staff continues to maintain a technological advantage on the rest of the league. They are the best of the best, and everyone knows it. So why don't they work for our team?
The Lakers just went through one of the worst, most injury-plagued seasons in the history of this sport. Would the Suns training staff have made a difference? Who knows, but they have a pretty fantastic track record, and they sure couldn't have made anything worse. If Mitch Kupchak called every single member of the Suns training staff tomorrow and said "Whatever you are currently making, I'll double it", at least some of them would have to say yes, right? If he told them they would have nearly unlimited funds for medical technology that is deemed important to the cause, wouldn't they have to consider the offer? Everybody has a price, and the Lakers have won for years, in large part, because they were able to meet the price of more and better players than everybody else. That ship has sailed.
But the money used to buy the ship hasn't. If the Lakers want to maintain their advantage over the rest of the league, they need to find new and smarter ways to spend their money. Buying the Suns training staff is just the next evolution of big market muscle.