A 91-79 loss to the San Antonio Spurs to open up the 2013 NBA playoffs all but confirmed what we already suspected about the Los Angeles Lakers: that they're not long for the postseason and, as such, that a lengthy summer of shakeups likely awaits them. As with any offseason changes, those the Lakers eventually pursue (or don't) will be dictated by the goals of the franchise (realistic and otherwise) and the available means by which those goals can be achieved.
Should the Lakers "go for it" with a roster that, chaotic caveats aside, fell far short of the championship expectations it originally set out to fulfill? What moves, if any, can the team make to retool in time for another run in 2013-14? Would the Purple and Gold be better served scrapping their failed pursuit of the Larry O'Brien Trophy and refocusing their efforts on a long-term rebuild? And what role will the team's finances play in all of this?
The answer to that last question may well be "a big one." Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers' luxury tax bill figures to balloon from $30 million this season to upwards of $85 million in 2013-14 if their payroll remains around $100 million with Dwight Howard back on the take (per Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times).
The Lakers are capable of absorbing such a blow to their pocketbook—for a time, anyway. Though their new TV deal with Time Warner Cable is incredibly lucrative (it's worth approximately $3 billion over 20 years), the Lakers will see a significant chunk of the profits derived therein diverted from their coffers on account of league-mandated revenue sharing. And because the Buss family, unlike most other ownership groups in the NBA, doesn't have a secondary business enterprise from which it draws its financial might, the Lakers cannot afford insolvency for any extended period of time, lest Jeanie, Jim and their stake-holding relatives be forced to auction off their only true moneymaker.
More importantly, the results so far have hardly merited the expense and may not next season even if everyone involved opts to take a mulligan on 2012-13. A 28-12 finish helped to vault the Lakers into the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, though the team's porous defense and inconsistent all-around effort hardly screams "championship."
All of which would seem to point toward the front office exercising the one-time amnesty clause to clear up the books in the months to come...right?
Not so fast. For one, there are only four players whose salaries the team can remove from luxury tax consideration: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake. Those are the only guys on the roster whose current contracts predate the 2011 lockout, which serves as the cutoff for amnesty eligibility.
In cold, calculating terms, Bryant's would seem the one best suited for excision. He's slated to be the NBA's highest-paid player, with a salary well north of $30 million. He'll also be 35, fresh off a torn Achilles and with 17 years of pro basketball mileage to boot. Clearing Kobe's salary would drop the Lakers to within sniffing distance of the luxury tax line while absolving them of (perhaps) up to $80 million of that presumptive penalty.
But L.A. would still be on the hook for the Mamba's actual take, minus whatever salary he'd draw from the new team with which he'd (somewhat sacrilegiously) sign thereafter. Beyond that, the Lakers would have to deal with all manner of backlash and public vitriol for willingly parting ways with arguably the greatest player in franchise history, healthy or not.
Not that the Lakers are even entertaining such a possibility at the moment. As general manager Mitch Kupchak said about the idea of amnestying Kobe shortly after Bryant went down (via Mike Bresnahan):
That's not even something that we've discussed. That's the furthest thing from our mind right now.
Assuming Kobe's off-limits, the Lakers might logically turn their attention toward Pau Gasol. They've dangled the slender Spaniard in trade talks for nearly a year-and-a-half now and had his bags packed for good before David Stern put the kibosh on the Chris Paul trade.
Gasol's "old" (he's 32), expensive (he's owed more than $19 million for 2013-14) and coming off the most injury-riddled and least productive campaign of his 12-year NBA career. In combination, these factors make Pau difficult to move, at least without bringing back significant salary that would: A) do little to alleviate the team's existing luxury tax burden, and B) probably clog up the chasm of cap space the Lakers are counting on come 2014, when only Steve Nash and (maybe) Dwight Howard will be on the books.
Except, amnestying Gasol is hardly the solution to the Lakers' problems, either. He came into training camp worn down from the 2012 London Olympics and has looked far more like his old, skillful self since late March, now that he's healthier than he's been in months. The rest and relaxation imposed by a torn plantar fascia appears to have done Pau plenty of good, as has Mike D'Antoni's late epiphany that Pau and Dwight can, indeed, play together.
Now that Pau's playing well, he should have value enough to either merit a prominent spot on the Lakers roster or make a blockbuster trade worth L.A.'s while.
Financially speaking, giving up Pau for nothing in return is a hefty price to pay for tax savings, significant as they may be. Dumping Gasol could shave around $60 million off the Lakers' bill, though again, they'd have to pay out whatever portion of his salary isn't covered by the next team with which he'd sign.
Even after all that, the Lakers still won't have reduced their payroll enough to be able to sign players to fill out their roster for anything more than the veteran minimum. That same point holds true in Kobe's case, as well as in those of Metta World Peace, who'll take home $7.7 million next year, and Steve Blake, who's owed $4 million in the final year of his contract. Both are overpaid, given the decline in their respective games, but neither can even come close to wiping away the Lakers' daunting debts.
And if the team can't find comparable replacements on the open market who are willing to play in L.A. at a severe discount, then it might just behoove the Lakers to stand pat and hope that a year of healing and gelling under Mike D'Antoni will allow this group to manifest its presumed destiny.
Such is the "hidden" cost of doing business above the fray in today's NBA; no longer can teams deep into luxury tax territory fall back on all manner of exceptions with which to trade for and sign new players. Now, the tandem of a harsher tax and the restriction of roster-building mechanisms all but forces teams like the Lakers—who are already drowning in red ink—to ride out the storm and make wise personnel choices once the waters recede.
For the Lakers, that moment is scheduled to arrive in the summer of 2014, when nearly the entirety of their current roster will be off the books. Until then, they may have little choice but to see this mess through to whatever conclusion lies ahead without using the amnesty clause.
Assuming, of course, that the goal is still to push for one last title before Kobe's farewell tour comes to a close, be it following next season or sometime thereafter. Chances are, too, that any plans to pare down the roster could impede the Lakers' ability to re-sign Dwight Howard, who will be a free agent this summer and would be loath to "waste" his prime on a team whose collective gaze is fixed on anything other than a title.
Should Dwight return, the Lakers will have a chance to be significantly better next season, with a summer spent healing, a training camp to better coordinate with Mike D'Antoni and a system of some sort that takes full(er) advantage of the Lakers' size and skill on the interior, with or without Kobe Bryant at peak capacity.
Shaving salary wouldn't help matters on the court. And though doing so would make perfect sense for just about every other NBA franchise, for the Lakers—who've never been shy to spring for a winning cause—pinching pennies would be well out of character.
Far more so than a first-round exit at the hands of the Spurs would (and probably will) be.