Building a team is as much about the assets you have as the ones you hope to obtain. You want more shooters? How about a lock down wing defender? What about a hustling big man who does all the dirty work or a shot creator from the back court who can generate offense when the shot clock is winding down?
Join the club, everyone wants more of those things. And with a high demand for players with those skill sets, getting them is easier than simply asking.
In order to get those types of players you need assets to obtain them. Be it trade pieces or the salary cap space (or exceptions as an over the cap team), you need to give something to get something. The Lakers, meanwhile, don’t have a lot of assets to work with to get the skill sets they’d like to add to the roster. That means the ones they do have need to be used carefully and maximized if the team hopes to take a step forward rather than simply treading water (or even taking another step back).
In an attempt to gauge how the Lakers will move forward this off-season, it’s best to look at some of their most valuable assets (while speculating how they might be deployed) and how they can contribute to building a viable contender next season. Let’s get to it…
1. Dwight Howard’s Bird Rights. The Lakers’ chief goal this off-season is to sign Dwight Howard to a new long term contract, ensuring he’s a Laker for the next 5 seasons. As the team that holds his Bird Rights, they have a financial leg up on any free agent suitor simply because they can offer him a 5 year deal (as opposed to the 4 year deal any other team can offer) and can give him larger annual raises than any other team. If you’re looking for the best reason Dwight will be wearing a Lakers’ jersey next season, this is it. Players rarely leave money on the table in free agency. (Sidenote, before you say LeBron, Wade, and Bosh took less money understand that both LeBron and Bosh were signed and traded to Miami. And while they did take less per season to move to South Beach, they did use their Bird Rights to get the larger raises those rights afforded them in their new contracts. This stuff matters.)
I’ve no clue how much those larger raises and the extra year would matter to Dwight Howard. There’s an argument to be made that he’s still so young that he could recoup that extra year on his next contract and not lose a penny of salary over the life of his career. However, it’s also important to note that when Dwight’s next contract expires, teams will have a much better understanding of how the new collective bargaining agreement affects team building and roster construction. The 5th year on the contract the Lakers will offer Dwight will be around $30 million. Will another team really pay him that much a season heading into a new contract with CBA negotiations on the horizon? This is just one variable Dwight will need to consider and taking the bird in the hand may be better than seeking the two in the bush 4 years from now.
2. Pau Gasol. We touched on this briefly already, but it bears repeating: Pau Gasol is the Lakers’ best trade asset and will be treated as such. Whether that actually leads to a trade is another story entirely. As we all know, Pau was traded once already in the deal that shall not be named. The key to that deal, however, was that the Lakers were getting the best player in the trade. Ninety-nine percent of the time when that’s the case you win the deal.
A trade of Gasol this summer wouldn’t be nearly as clear cut. The Lakers would likely be seeking multiple pieces who better fit the style they want to play. When you trade one player for multiple players, the odds of you receiving the best player go down dramatically. For the Lakers, they’d have to measure whether depth is more important than a player who still has great talent when deployed in a manner that maximizes his skills. They also need to gauge whether they’ll be able to actually deploy him in that manner considering the rest of the talent already on the roster.
Further complicating a Gasol trade is the idea that the Lakers would like the opportunity to reload their roster in the summer of 2014. Pau’s expiring contract (as well as Kobe’s) is a key part of that plan. Would the Lakers forfeit some of that financial flexibility for the right trade? What type of piece would they be willing to add on in that scenario? How much would they be willing to pay that piece?
The answers to these questions are unknown to us, but they will shape whatever decision the front office makes on Gasol.
3. Jordan Hill. I think most Lakers’ fans really like Hill (I know I do). He’s a hard worker who knows his role on both ends of the floor. He’s really come into his own in recent seasons and finds a way to contribute to the success of the team. I don’t think many people would be happy to see him go considering his style of play and his affordable salary. That said, the same things that make him a desirable player on the Lakers make him an asset to other teams.
Many of the same questions about Gasol apply to Hill. His contract expires at the end of next season. And while there’s some positional and skill overlap between Hill and Dwight, the value of keeping him on the roster is real. That said, if he could be flipped for a better fitting piece on the wing or in the backcourt I’d think the Lakers explore that option. Of course Hill is coming off a major injury and though he returned early there will be lingering questions about his health until he proves he can perform at his pre-injury level. But, Hill has value and that can’t be overlooked when thinking about what next year’s team (and beyond) will look like.
4. The mini-mid level exception. Because the Lakers are a tax paying team, they don’t have the full mid-level exception available to them. This puts them at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to acquiring those players who are definite contributors but who may require a bigger salary than the veteran’s minimum. The mini-mid level is around $3 million per season and, just as the full mid-level, can be broken up in order to sign multiple players. (The Lakers used part of their mini-mid level last season to sign Jodie Meeks after his agent made it clear he wouldn’t sign for the minimum.)
At this stage of the off-season, it’s difficult to say who would be available to the Lakers at this contract price. However, every year there are players who end up taking less on the market than you’d think they’re worth simply because the demand for their services isn’t as high as originally thought. That said, whether the Lakers are willing to use their full mini-mid level remains to be seen. Last year Mitch Kupchak hinted that they may not use this exception at all, only to use part of it to sign Meeks. If the team takes that same approach this off-season, they may not find a good market of players who would take less than the already reduced amount they can offer as a tax paying team.
5. Players w/ non-guaranteed contracts. The NBA trade market isn’t just about acquiring talent. Sometimes it’s also about cutting salary by trading away one of their own players for a player who has an non-guaranteed deal in order to waive that player for salary savings. Next season, Chris Duhon’s contract is only partially guaranteed. This instantly makes him a candidate to be traded to another team for a player whose contract is of similar value (but runs longer) so he could then be waived at a cost savings. (Note: if the Lakers don’t trade Duhon, he’s also a candidate to be waived outright so the Lakers could get those savings on his contract.)
The larger point in all this is that the Lakers are working with a limited number of assets when trying to improve their team. And, even with those assets, there are caveats and circumstances that must be taken into account when thinking about how those can be deployed on the court or flipped on the market for different (and maybe better fitting) pieces. It’s not so simple to say the Lakers should “just do X” because there are too many moving parts that affect how the team should move forward depending on the status of the assets listed above.
This is why whether or not you like Dwight Howard, think he’s a max player, or any other misgivings you have about him are irrelevant. He’s a key asset in helping the Lakers build a viable roster in the short and the long term. Signing him is important just for that reason. Not to mention Dwight’s status could affect what the Lakers do with Pau or Hill, who they target in free agency, or whether or not cost cutting moves become a priority. The same can be said of how Pau’s status affects Hill and so on and so forth.
We have a long summer to try and sort these things out, but the starting point is clear. In order to obtain assets you need assets to work with. The Lakers, for all their top end talent and high payroll, don’t have as many assets that you’d think. How this affects them remains to be seen, but it is the reality of the situation.