Throughout his career Kobe Bryant has rarely been one to hold his tongue when it comes to speaking what he sees as the truth, but over the past few seasons, that’s been even more true. Put a microphone in front of Kobe and he’s going to give you his unfiltered opinion on whatever topic he is asked about.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when Kobe announced he would not return this season he was very open about his thoughts on this season and what his expectations for the Lakers are moving forward. While the entire sit down is worth your time, the part that was most compelling, at least to me, was when he spoke about next year’s team and whether he could wait another year after this off-season to improve the roster:
No, nope, not one lick. Let’s just play next year and suck again. No, absolutely not, absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. You have to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, the same expectations I have for them up there. You have to be able to figure out a way to do both.
On top of those comments, were these given within the last couple of days:
The one sure-fire way to be a contending team is to have an abundance of talent (newsflash, right?). And in today’s NBA, the way you accumulate high end talent is by drafting it (the Thunder), signing it in free agency (the Heat), or trading for it (the 2008 – 10 Lakers). And once you have that talent in house, you have to be able to pay for it. It’s a pretty simple formula.
The problem for the Lakers is that none of those things are really possible next season. And a lot of it has to do with the CBA.
Let’s start with the draft since that is the one thing that the CBA really does not affect. The Lakers are primed to have a very good pick in the upcoming draft. That player should aid in bolstering the team’s core talent and, hopefully, be a building block player for years to come. But that player is only one guy. The Thunder didn’t get good with just Durant. They got good when Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka were added to Durant (not to mention the time that was given to let them develop). The only drafted players the Lakers will have on their roster next season will be whoever they pick this June, Robert Sacre, and Ryan Kelly. While I like Kelly and Sacre, let’s not confuse them with elite prospects.
But when it comes to trades and free agency, the Lakers are really stuck in dealing with the rules that govern the league.
While the Lakers have cap space to offer free agents or to use as a mechanism to absorb money in a trade for a high salaried player, the rules say the team cannot go over the salary cap unless they are using that money to sign their own players. That last point is a crucial one, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
So while you (or Kobe) can say “we just need to sign (or trade for) player X, Y, Z” it’s really not that simple. The Lakers can spend all their cap space on a marquee free agent (or two if those guys decide they want to take a bit less), but even in the most ideal world the roster would still be one built around Kobe and that marquee free agent (or two). The same is true for a trade — the Lakers can try to work a deal for a quality veteran (say, Kevin Love) and offer to sign and trade one of their own free agents (say, Pau Gasol), but even if that were to happen the Lakers would have Kobe, Love, and….not much else. Yes the could fill out their roster with role players, but the types of players they’d be signing are the exact type of guys they signed last off-season (guys like Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wes Johnson, and Chris Kaman; guys who took less money to play in L.A. for the Lakers or guys who no one else wanted and are looking to redeem their careers with no other option but to take the minimum).
Let’s go the other way, then. Let’s say the Lakers should maximize their spending by inking their own players via their Bird Rights and building up the roster that way. Only, if you do that, you’re essentially committing big dollars to the likes of Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, and Farmar. In other words, you’re going over the cap to keep the same team you had this year. This, as far as I know, isn’t what Kobe means when he says he wants a quick turnaround. In fact, I’d imagine it’s the opposite.
This is the part of the story where I tell you this is actually, at least partially, Kobe’s fault. After all, he took a huge salary in the coming seasons and that salary is what is eating away at the team’s cap space and limiting their ability to sign multiple high level players. And there is some truth in that. If Kobe and the front office had been able to agree on a contract that paid him less, those savings could have been transferred into the pockets of other players the Lakers would want to acquire.
That said, what’s also true is that the Lakers are simply in a position where the rules are somewhat against them. By having so many contracts expiring at the same time, the Lakers will fall beneath the salary cap. This, then, puts a limit on what they can actually spend on players this summer. (If you even wondered by Pau Gasol makes more money than LeBron James, this is why — LeBron took less than the maximum salary (just like Wade and Bosh did) so that their contracts could fit into the Heat’s cap space.) Further, because all those contracts expire at the same time and the assets they do have under contract aren’t that valuable around the league, they cannot easily flip those pieces into the better players that would accelerate the rebuild in the manner that Kobe describes in his quotes above.
This is the reality the Lakers face. And, ultimately, Kobe must face it too. There is only so much you can do when all your talented players diminish in quality at the same time while simultaneously lacking alternative assets to improve your roster via the other avenues the CBA allows. So, while Kobe can talk about turning things around quickly the fact is the Lakers aren’t in any position to actually make that happen. Unless you see LeBron, Bosh, and Carmelo all deciding they want to make $7 million a year to come play for the Lakers. Yeah, me neither.