Kobe or Not To Kobe…..

Kurt —  June 17, 2007

In the wake of all the Lakers news of the last few days, commenter Reed sent in a very good breakdown of the Lakers options now including suggestions if the option is to trade Kobe. I think the underlying premise is the key — the Lakers have to chose a direction and go that way, and do it fast. Also, if trading Kobe, the key is the big picture. Here are Reed’s thoughts:

The plot thickens. After weeks of silence, Kobe reaffirms his trade demand to Dr. Buss. As noted everywhere, the Lakers are at a critical crossroads this off-season. They are not built to immediately contend, with extensive youth and pieces that don’t quite fit. But, they also have the league’s preeminent superstar. Kobe has issued an ultimatum to bring in contending pieces or move him. The Lakers and Pacers are at an impasse. Other desired stars do not appear available or are too costly – Garnett, Kidd, Gasol, etc. Where does that leave us? With Kobe’s demand looking increasingly firm and no impact trade in sight, the Lakers need to more seriously consider their options before heading into the draft and free agency. As I see it, the Lakers have four options this summer.

Option 1: Build a Contender Around Kobe Now

This surely remains options one, two and three with Lakers management. The Lakers need three things to become legitimate contenders: 1) Defense, particularly in the paint and at point guard; 2) Two all-star level players around Kobe (Odom would count as one), and; 3) Veteran role players who can defend and make open shots (think Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw). It is possible for them to accomplish this. They do have significant assets (Odom, Bynum, #19 pick, Kwame’s contract, Farmar, Walton). However, in moving their assets for the right pieces, they would have to take on enormous risk, trade away their young players, and tie up their cap indefinitely. Every attainable veteran star carries substantial risk in one form or another (O’Neal, Artest, Kidd, Randolph, Camby, Gasol, etc.) It is an extremely high-risk, high-reward path. We need to understand that it could all blow up, leaving us with nothing if the team doesn’t win and Kobe opts out. As other teams appear very hesitant to trade with the Lakers without bleeding them dry, this option appears less and less likely.

One possible silver lining in the recent Kobe-Buss meeting. As Kurt noted, Kobe’s public rantings stripped the team of its negotiating leverage. If teams feel that the Lakers have no other options to trading for a star, they will demand overpayment. Now, it is possible these teams recognize there is a growing alternative — trading Kobe. Indiana is desperate to move O’Neal’s contract. If they cannot find a better offer elsewhere, they may now feel more pressure to take one of Odom or Bynum. The Lakers should quietly use this card in negotiation — make it clear that they want to bring in veteran talent, but also disclose that if the price it too high they will trade their unhappy lightning rod.

Option 2: Trade Kobe

Putting emotion (and the front office’s likely resistance to moving Kobe) aside and looking at the long-term effects of realistic Kobe trades, what are the Lakers options?

First, possible trade partners. Rich Bucher of ESPN reports Kobe has an approved list of three teams: Chicago, New York, and Phoenix. Phoenix can be dismissed out of hand as the Lakers would never deal to a divisional rival. New York does not have anything close to an appealing package of good young players and expiring contracts. That leaves Chicago. They are the only eastern team that can offer the Lakers any type of value and give Kobe a big market, competitive team.

Second, it is axiomatic that in trading a superstar you simply cannot get full value in return. Indeed, it is difficult to get 50 cents on the dollar. The Shaq trade taught us that. Fortunately, it also taught us a few other things. Kupchak made one critical error in the Shaq trade. He focused too heavily on the aggregate talent he received in return and overlooked the bigger picture of the trade’s fiscal consequences. That trade was a disaster not because they “only” got Odom and Butler, but because they completely sacrificed the team’s cap situation for three seasons by taking on Brian Grant’s three-year, $45 million contract. Yes, it was necessary and difficult to make salaries match, but it was not necessary to take on an ugly three-year contract for a player with no value. I would have much rather seen the Lakers take back less talent in that trade — perhaps only one good player — but receive multiple expiring contracts. That would have given the Lakers more flexibility to build around Kobe and use their recruiting advantage in free agency. Remember, NBA players want to play in L.A.

Third, trading Kobe would be easier than trading Shaq. He is younger, has more value, and his contract is smaller (making it easier to match salaries).

Three approaches to trading Kobe:

Path A: Seek a superstar in return. Chad Ford suggested the Lakers could push for either Arenas or Pierce in a three way Kobe trade with Chicago, perhaps netting the Lakers a lottery pick as well. This is the 80 cents on the dollar route: Replace Kobe with a “star,” even if not quite as good, and continue as before. Going this direction makes much more marketing than basketball sense. Dr. Buss knows that it is Kobe’s star value that keeps fans and sponsors committed to the team — even in losing times. If Buss feels that the team would be deserted without a seat-filler, then he may demand a high profile personality in any deal. This approach overlooks the Lakers fundamental flaw: veteran stars help create wins in the present, but the Lakers are a young team that needs time to develop. Adding Pierce, who is older and less skilled than Kobe, would just transform the Lakers into the 2006 Celtics. While Arenas is a little younger, it is extremely unlikely the Wizards would trade him and he is focused on more immediate success. So, adding a big star for Kobe would really just make the Lakers a less potent version of their recent teams. They would be running in place.

Path B: Acquire as much young talent as possible and watch them develop with Bynum, Farmar, Walton, and the Lakers other young players.

Path C: Acquire one good young player, draft picks, and position for big salary cap room. Develop Bynum and the young players for one year and then make a big splash in free agency.

These last two paths make more basketball sense as they would add pieces that are at the same developmental stage as the Lakers’ core. Two Chicago trades exemplify possible players and the future consequences of each path. As Chicago is the most likely trade partner in any Kobe deal, I will examine these trades in more depth.

I will assume three things in any Chicago trade: 1) The Bulls would be willing to take Radmanovic to get Kobe; 2) The Bulls would not trade both Deng and Hinrich in the deal; 3) PJ Brown would agree to a sign and trade and buyout to make the salaries match. For the trade to occur before July 1, Ben Wallace would have to be in the deal to make salaries work. While there is a rumor the Lakers desire Wallace, I will assume Mitch understands that taking on Wallace’s monster contract would be a disaster. Therefore any trade would have to occur after July 1 and include PJ Brown in a sign and trade. As this is after the draft, if the Bulls #9 pick is involved, the Lakers would not be able to choose the player.

Two realistic trades that work (i.e. trades that the Bulls would actually make):

Path B Trade: Kobe and Radmanovic for Hinrich, Gordon, Brown, and the player picked ninth in the draft or Tyrus Thomas.

The Bulls are the favorites in the East with Kobe, Deng, Ben Wallace, and other nice young players.

The Lakers have a core of Hinrich, Gordon, Walton, Odom, Bynum, Farmar, the number nine pick or Thomas, and the nineteenth pick. If they trade Cook before next summer, do not use the midlevel this summer, and renounce all other free agents, the Lakers will only have $38.1 million in salaries committed for 2008-2009. The salary cap projects to be around $57-$62 million. They would thus have $20-$24 million to resign Gordon and fill two other roster spots (leaving about $8-$12 million for a big free agent, depending on Gordon’s salary and draft signings).

Path C Trade: Kobe and Radmanovic for Deng, Thomas, Brown, Duhon, and the player picked ninth in the draft. If Thomas and the number nine is too much, Seflosha could be substituted for one of them. The key is Deng and expiring contracts.

Again, the Bulls rule the East with Kobe, Hinrich, Gordon, Wallace, and nice young players.

The Lakers do not receive as much pure talent back in this deal, but they receive a better player (Deng) and set themselves up for a big time salary cap run. If they move Cook, do not use the midlevel, and renounce all non-core free agents, the team would have only $31.41 million in committed salaries for 2008-2009, leaving $26-$31 million in cap room. If they resigned Deng for $11-$12 million, they’d have somewhere between $15-$20 million leftover in cap room to use on three roster spots. So, they have a core of Deng, Odom, Bynum, Thomas, Walton, Farmar, Turiaf, the number nine and 19 picks, and cap room for a max-level free agent.

The key to any Kobe deal is the Lakers getting both talent and positioning the team to quickly get under the salary cap. That is the only way to get full value for Kobe. Moving Radmanovic’s contract is critical. If he is not included in the Bulls deal, the Lakers may need to offer a draft pick with him to a team giving an expiring deal.

Why seek all this cap room? Because the free agent class of 2008 is going to be very Laker-friendly. Possible free agents: Garnett, Arenas, Brand, Baron Davis, Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, Maggette, and Kidd. Several of these players have strong L.A. ties. The Lakers could sign one to a max contract and offer to make them the face of a franchise loaded with young talent. Add Garnett, Arenas or Brand to a core of Odom, Deng, Bynum, the draft picks, and the other young players, and you have a very bright future for a long, long time.

If it came to trading Kobe, I’d push for Path C. Take less talent, but set the team up for max cap room the following summer. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the Shaq trade. Yes, Deng, Thomas, Duhon, and a draft pick is 50 cents on the dollar for Kobe. But, look at the bigger picture. Deng, draft picks, and a max free agent not only replaces most of Kobe’s value, it allows the team to put together pieces that fit and develop on the same timeline. With an assortment of valuable young assets, Odom’s expiring contract, and big cap room, the Lakers would be incredibly well positioned next summer to trade, consolidate talent, sign free agents, etc.

Option 3: Overpay to Keep Kobe Happy

If the Lakers cannot bring in two stars (or one and keep Odom), but absolutely refuse to trade Kobe, they are in a no-win situation. If they stand pat, Kobe will likely demand out. If teams demand the house for a star (i.e. Odom and Bynum for O’Neal), the Lakers are left without enough to break into the top tier of the West — meaning they have traded away their assets for nothing. The one possible good outcome here is if overpaying for O’Neal placates Kobe and then someone like Garnett comes to the rescue for the midlevel next summer. While this would be wonderful, it is extremely unlikely and not the type of path a GM can reasonably take.

Option 4: Maintain the Status Quo, Develop Bynum

If there is no golden trade to be made, the Lakers may feel their best option is to keep the team intact, bring in an NBA-ready player in the draft, sign a point guard with the midlevel, resign Walton, hope Bynum develops quickly, and use Kwame’s contract at the trade deadline. If the 26-13 first-half team is the real Lakers, this option makes sense. If the under .300 second half team is reality, this option would be a disaster. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. In any case, Kobe will not endure another off-season of tweaking so the question is moot.

Final Thoughts

In order of preference, I rank the options: (1), (2), (4), (3). Kobe is a special talent and he provides the team its best opportunity to win a championship. He is simply that good. But, the team should not abandon all caution in trying to build around him. They should draw a firm line in the sand when negotiating for O’Neal and other stars this summer. They should flood teams with offers for O’Neal, Gasol, Garnett, Artest, Bibby, Camby, etc., but refuse to overpay.

I hope the Lakers can find a way to contend with Kobe — I am an unapologetic Kobe apologist — but I equally hope they don’t panic and ruin the future of the team. If they cannot reasonably build a contender around Kobe now, they should quickly seek to rebuild by moving Kobe to the Bulls. Do not handcuff the future of the franchise by overpaying for players that cannot take us to the next level. Instead, take Deng and draft picks, be disciplined financially for one year, let Bynum and the other young players develop, and then make a big free agent splash next summer.

Unfortunately, the Lakers may need to commit to a path quickly. What they do in the draft and free agency hinges on whether they are trying to build around Kobe or retool. If Kobe is staying, they need to use their midlevel to bring in a point guard or other needed help. However, if Kobe is traded, signing a role player to a four- or five-year midlevel contract would be disastrous to any effort to get under the cap. Whether they keep their draft pick and the type of player they select also turns on their future plans. The draft and free agent signing period are weeks away, so the team needs to quickly evaluate its options.