“Free” Agents

Kurt —  June 30, 2008

The term free agent applies to the players and their status, but for the Lakers any signings will be anything but free. Which is why we can expect limited if any action from the Lakers on the open market that starts tonight.

Let’s start with this — the Lakers payroll right now is about $75 million with 10 players signed. Next year’s salary cap will be about $58.5 million, meaning the Lakers can only resign their own players or offer the mid-level exception (about $5.6 million this year) to other team’s players. Those signings are allowed over the cap, which is a “soft” number.

However, the luxury tax is a “hard” number and next season should be about $71 million. For every dollar the Lakers are over that (and right now they are $4 million over it) Jerry Buss and friends will pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty.

So, resign Sasha to $4 million a year and that is actually an $8 million payout by the owners. Throw in Ronny at $1 mil + and suddenly the idea of the Lakers bringing in a big free agent seems less and less likely. Buss is willing to spend some over the tax number to win, but he has never gone Cuban/Knicks crazy with that philosophy. (And, both of those franchises have learned doing that is not the way to win anyway.)

So what do the Lakers do starting tonight at 9 p.m. (Pacific, midnight along the Eastern Seaboard):

1) Call Sasha Vujacic and his agent. There is going to be some interest in him, but the Lakers appear willing to go to up to $5 million a year to keep their key shooter off the bench. And they should keep him, because for all the ribbing Sasha took from fans, coaches and teammates he has developed into a very nice contributor off the bench, a guy who knows the offense and how to work in it. When you look at the list of free agents available, there is not someone out there who better fits the Lakers needs.

2) Call Ronny Turiaf. Like with Sasha there will be some interest in him, although not as much. Maybe his is worth up to $2 million a season. But his skill set is easier to replace, if it comes to that, but Ronny is a solid big off the bench. What would be harder to replace is the infectious energy and how much he is loved by the fans. And the dancing, it would be hard to replace the dancing.

3) Make a couple of free agent calls, and take any calls from agents, just to see what is out there. Don’t expect much, but you’ve got to look and listen. Reality just intrudes on deals. Lakers fans would love to see Posey in Lakers colors but look at the reality: 1) That is going to cost at least $5 million of the Midlevel Exception, which means a $10 million payout by the Lakers owners for a bench role player; 2) There is almost no way he leaves Boston.

Look up and down the list of available unrestricted free agents — it’s not a deep or exciting class. (Forget the restricted ones, anybody worth having the team would match what the Lakers can offer.) Who on that list really improves the Lakers and would really be worth double what you are going to have to pay him due to the tax? Not a lot of names leap off that list. Commenter Kwame a. suggested James Jones as a possibility.

A year ago I would have been thinking about Chris Duhon at the MLE to be at the point, but that doesn’t work well now. That said, in the next couple of years the Lakers need to decide what to do long term about that position — give Farmar the starting job and find a backup, or bring in some free agent and keep Farmar on the bench. Not a decision that has to happen now, nor should it (let’s see how Farmar grows from the playoff experience last season) but it has to be on the radar.

One thing the Lakers can consider is getting a cheap backup center, in case they think Mihm is not really going to be able to fill that role. Someone like Primoz Brezec of Toronto that you may be able to get for $1 million or so. Francisco Ellison and Pietrus may fit into that same mold, and there are other names out there. Again, that is only something to consider based on what the people who have seen more of Mihm think he can do next year. (Don’t base your thoughts solely on the Finals, that was a brutal situation to throw a guy into who hadn’t played in forever.)

The more likely option is the Laker roster looks exactly like last year’s with Sasha and Ronny back and the last two spots on the bench going to the inexpensive Coby Karl and Joe Crawford (both of whom should make the D-Fenders much better next season).

And that would be fine with me — I think some blew out of proportion what happened in the Finals. If the Lakers come back next year with a healthy Andrew Bynum in the paint, a healthy Trevor Ariza to defend on the perimeter and the lessons of the finals burned into those young players memories, they will be a serious title contender next year. And, going into the season, that is all you can ask.