Contending for championships in the modern NBA is expensive. It’s not just the salaries of the players. For teams that are over the cap but use Bird rights or exceptions to re-sign their own players and go further over the salary cap, there are also progressively increasing luxury tax payments to deal with. If the Los Angeles Lakers want to keep their current roster together next offseason, this soft cap — and the penalties for exceeding it — are something they’ll have to contend with.
If you want to dive into the minutiae of how a tax bill is calculated, Larry Coon has you covered in his CBA FAQ, but the main thing to know is that according to cap expert Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, the Lakers could be set to pay more than $100 million in tax payments — that’s on top of player salaries — if they attempt to keep this roster together this offseason.
For context, Pincus calculates they’re set to pay around $5 million in luxury tax this year, the first time they’ve dipped in since Lakers governor Jeanie Buss took full control from her late father. Anywhere near $100 million would be more than the Warriors team with Kevin Durant paid in their final year together ($51.5 million) and around as much as the title-repeating Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol paid in total tax from 2007-2014 ($105.6 million).
Would Buss pay that much to keep this team together this summer? We don’t know for certain, but her answer to a question on ESPN’s “First Take” about how she weighs a massive luxury tax bill vs. her family’s competitiveness was illuminating (emphasis mine):
“It’s difficult with the loss of revenue due to no ticket sales in the arena. We are in a league that is dictated by a salary cap, a collective bargaining agreement, so we have to abide by all those rules.
“But the luxury tax is for teams that have championship aspirations, and certainly that is something where we want to keep the Lakers at the top of the conversation. And once LeBron James decided to join the Lakers, the way he’s playing it doesn’t seem like he’s 36 years old, but when you have a player like LeBron James on your team, you’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to use that opportunity to win.
“So we’ll manage the cap like every other team in the league has to do. We play by the same rules.”
That answer would at the very least seem to suggest that Buss understands she has made a commitment to keeping this team as competitive as possible for as long as a star like James entrusts the Lakers with furthering his career and legacy. It isn’t exactly a promise that the team will pay whatever it takes to keep this roster together, but it’s probably as close as we’re going to get at this point, and at the very least a reason for optimism, especially when one remembers the bond she and James have built.
But as host Max Kellerman noted during his question to Buss, the Lakers are her family’s primary source of income. This team isn’t a toy or fantasy team come to life for her like it is so many of the new wave of billionaire owners.
So why pay more than she has to? It’s simple: Buss doesn’t feel like the Lakers are just her family business. To her, they’re a public trust that she’s just fortunate enough to oversee:
“That came from my father. It’s about inclusion. It’s about everybody coming together and doing great things, and the Lakers have that ability. It’s a platform that’s bigger than any one owner, any one player, any one coach, it belongs to Laker Nation. Laker Nation is the heartbeat of the Lakers and what it stands for. They’ll be around a lot longer than I’ll be around, and this is my time to make sure I protect the brand and make sure to protect what our fans have come to expect from the Buss family and this organization.”
Again, that’s not a “yes I will pay whatever it takes to compete for titles,” but coupled together, both answers suggest that doing so is exactly what Buss plans to do. There is still half a season and a playoff run that has to take place before free agency, but these comments are worth noting from the primary decision maker of this ownership group as we monitor what the Lakers will look like moving forward.