The Lakers, with Kobe Bryant’s disastrous extension wiped away that summer, could sniff three max cap slots. The Lakers’ cap flexibility yielded nothing of note last summer, but a Lakers team with the ability to offer a package deal to multiple stars is the ultimate NBA bogeyman.
(via Zach Lowe: How the NBA’s New TV Deal Could Blow Up the Salary Cap)
In the coming summers, this upcoming one included, the Lakers should have immense spending power. They purposely built their roster to “maintain flexibility” and be able to be a major competitor on the open market for the league’s best free agents.
This upcoming summer, for example, should the team not exercise their team option on Jordan Hill and get two first round picks (their own — which is still in question — and the Rockets, which is not) the Lakers would have between $20-23 million in cap space come July 1st. This number would include cap holds for Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre, and Jabari Brown. Jump to the Summer of 2016 when, as Zach Lowe notes above, Kobe’s contract comes off the books, and the Lakers could be in a position to spend boatloads of money on free agents to rebuild their roster with an influx of amazing talent.
When viewing the team’s trajectory through this prism, visions of what the Miami Heat did in the Summer of 2010 becomes a model many fans hope to follow. Keep the cap clean — maybe even losing a lot next season to get another high pick — and then spend like crazy in the summer of ’16 when there will be a batch of free agents worth spending the cash on. There’s a seductive logic to this that is easy to be roped into. I get it.
And, for what it’s worth, Mitch Kupchak, hinted at this sort of plan (minus all the losing next year) during his exit interview. Baxter Holmes of ESPN has the quotes and the context:
For now, what the Lakers are planning on is spending wisely with an eye toward the future rather than trying to load up on veteran contracts in order to make a title run during what’s expected to be Bryant’s final year as a Laker.
“We’re not going to use cap room just to use cap room and maybe improve,” Kupchak said. “I can use the expression 20 games because we won so few games this year. We don’t want to end up using our cap room and winning 40 games. That year doesn’t get you in the playoffs. Oklahoma City won 45 games, and they still didn’t make it in the playoffs.
“You work hard to create a future, whether it’s draft picks or an opportunity to make a trade or free-agent dollars, and you don’t want to give it away just because you have it.
Again, I get it. The Lakers don’t need to chase veteran players who might have a positive, though not radical, impact on wins but still leave them short of the playoffs. They especially don’t need to do so as if the cap space they have this summer is burning a hole in their proverbial wallet. Patience — though not as much recently, for sure — has been a mainstay of the Lakers building of title contending rosters dating back to Magic Johnson’s first retirement.
Get good players, play good basketball, and when the opportunity to really make a splash comes, be in position to take advantage. From Shaq in ’96 to Pau over a decade later, the Lakers used this approach to build a winner. Getting back to those roots would be a positive. After the failed gambles on Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, one would argue it’s a necessity.
The above wasn’t all Kupchak said, however. He would add:
But you do have to weigh anticipation and your fans wanting to see some improvement. That is a challenge. That’s not to say the only player we’ll spend our money on is a max player. There may be better opportunities out there.
We don’t know that right now. We do have to balance how you use that money, and two years from now there’s a dramatic change in the landscape in terms of the cap.
In these comments, you see the path to the middle ground. Which is also the path Jerry West took when Magic was forced to step away. Get good players, play good basketball, and when the opportunity to really make a splash comes, be in position to take advantage.
The Lakers are in a unique position this summer. The cap will not yet explode, but they will have ample space to chase any type of player they want. If they want to go after, say, Kevin Love, they can. If LaMarcus Aldridge decides he wants to leave the Blazers, the Lakers could chase him too. Making the needed roster moves to offer any high priced FA all their cap space is certainly an option.
More realistically, though, the Lakers should be targeting high functioning role players who can fill in potential needs and do so at a salary that might seem a bit high now, but will come back to relative value once the cap jumps next summer. If they can lock them in at even lower rates (for example, could you get Ed Davis at the current MLE as Lowe implies in his column on great value free agents?), it’s even better.
The Lakers have an opportunity to try and add to their talent base now with younger veteran players who are free agents (either restricted or unrestricted) and do so without spending all their cap space. They can then roll over some of their money to next summer and add it to the lump of space all teams will get from the increase in the cap (as well as the bump from Kobe’s deal expiring). Make the team somewhat better and more attractive in the short term, to lure the big fish that makes them excellent in the long term. Chase the role player now, get the star later.
The success of the 2010 Heat’s summer has created, or at least strongly contributed to, an increase in large market hubris about their ability to nab multiple top level free agents. You can almost imagine the Knicks and Lakers of the world thinking “Hey, Riles did it South Beach, we can do it too in (Los Angeles or Manhattan)”. In reality, though, that leap of logic sort of misses the point. LeBron and Bosh joined Dwywane freaking Wade — a top 10 player still in his prime years at the time — to form the foundation of a team. Add in the side contracts that were working simultaneously with Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem and the core for a high functioning team was established. I’m of the mind that history will tell us this was a totally unique situation that will prove nearly impossible to replicate.
The Lakers, via the draft and this upcoming summer in free agency, would be better served thinking back to their own history — the years leading up to 1996. In the seasons right before signing Shaq and trading for Kobe’s draft rights, the Lakers stockpiled young players and made smart signings in free agency for young-ish players who would become the assets that were either traded for or directly contributed to the teams that broke through for a three-peat under Phil Jackson. Fast-forward to today and this team, with a little lottery luck and their spending power, could be in position to set a similar foundation.