The past few days the Lakers have been keeping a pretty low profile, hoping the endless whirlwind of proposed trades big or small will wind down a bit so the team can finally get to business. In the midst of the endless fan debates (‘blow up the team!’, ‘go after Dwight Howard!’, ‘beg Phil Jackson to come back one more time!’) the Buss family and General Manager Mitch Kupchak have probably been looking over the Lakers’ past few years worth of success, heartbreak, and growing finances…. and wondering what to do next. Even I have been tossing trade deal after trade deal onto the table, making cases for ‘smart trades’ that benefit the Lakers’ championship-chasing efforts and finances, and that of their partners. Each deal has it merits and its drawbacks, as well as varying degrees of likeliness given numerous factors including financial flexibility, rapidly expanding player egos, team chemistry, rebuilding phases vs. win-now modes, etc.
Listening to the Kamenetzky Brothers’ Land O’ Lakers podcast this past weekend I came across a developing rumor that not only made sense, it seemed to almost make too much good sense for both teams involved. The proposed trade idea involved the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets each swapping an all-star and solid team player… each swapping a center and a point guard… and each doing so while preventing any key drop off in big name talent while addressing team needs. The Lakers would receive Deron Williams and Brook Lopez from the Nets, while the Nets would get Andrew Bynum and Ramon Sessions from the Lakers. That’s right, Pau Gasol is NOT the Lakers player being sent packing. Despite the increasing trade talks supposedly involving the Spaniard (and the Lakers exercising their $16.1 million 2012-13 option on Bynum) it’s well known that Bynum is the more desirable target for other teams, and if the Lakers are willing to put him on the trading block they can net a much better return.
One major caveat to note, however, is that much of this deal happening depends on several IFs:
- IF Deron Williams demands to go to the Lakers, thus forcing the Nets to attempt a sign-and-trade
- IF Brook Lopez recovered enough from his broken foot for the Lakers to take a chance on him
- IF Andrew Bynum has worn out his welcome with the Buss family, yet still gets Nets billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov excited about having him as the new Brooklyn star
- IF Ramon Sessions either exercises his Lakers’ contract $4.5 million player option (making him tradable) or re-signs with the Lakers for no more than about $5.5 million next year (much higher complicates the possibility of the trade)
Should all the stars align and all 4 of the IFs become certainties then this almost too-good-to-be-true trade could go down. But first things first. Before we get to the financial ramifications for the Lakers let’s take a quick look at the statistics and chemistry factor, starting with the big men in the deal:
The 2011-12 season was a rough one for Brook Lopez, and mostly quite the opposite for Andrew Bynum. While Lopez was on track for a promising season before breaking his foot (and most certainly killing the Nets chances to swap him and other pieces to assemble a Dwight Howard-Deron Williams super duo), Bynum was having a breakout season with nearly all career-high stats and playing in every game this season. In a Bynum-for-Lopez trade the Nets initially seem to be getting the better end of the deal. Bynum is arguably the best or 2nd best center in the league (behind, ahead of, or tied with Dwight Howard depending on the NBA fan) who’s finally come into his own after 7 years of developing ‘promise’. He’s a better defensive presence than Brook Lopez, generally stronger and quicker, and though in the league a bit longer is roughly half a year younger too. Drew’s increasingly frequent ‘immaturity’ issues are leading to an ever-growing call to ship him out by the Laker faithful… calls that Jim Buss have long ignored given his growing dominance and superstar moments. But those moments of personal frustration and lackadaisical attitude are growing too (from a ‘what the hell?’ 3-pointer to avoiding the team huddle, from ‘getting my Zen on’ to ‘I’ll play anywhere’), making the primary target of trade rumors Pau Gasol seem like the more dedicated Laker teammate with outrageously greater professionalism.
But that’s not to sell the Lakers short with Lopez. The Nets’ current center anchors the paint well, has better scoring averages than Bynum (much of which likely outstrips Bynum because Drew shares the middle with Pau Gasol), and comparable careers rebounds, blocks, and efficiency ratings. Brook has also been in the league for fewer years, meaning he’s had the benefit of the college team ‘education’, has less wear and tear on his body, and will likely continue to grow into a better player… all for MUCH less than Bynum earns annually. Though Lopez’s potential probably has a lower ceiling than Bynum he would still continue to flourish with the right team-oriented setting where he wouldn’t be the star, could play in tandem with another solid big (the Lakers’ Pau Gasol and/or Jordan Hill), and even at contract time would still command less than Drew… while still being on the list of the top 5 centers in the NBA. Brook also carries a more humble attitude than Bynum, something that would be incredible valuable on a star-studded Laker team led unquestionably by Kobe Bryant and Deron Williams. Though still quite young, Lopez’s ‘team first’ personality lends to a less volatile player who would compliment veteran big man Pau and defer to star guards Bryant and Williams, while still working hard to contribute whatever is asked of him.
When looking at the point guards involved there are significantly different factors to consider, but ones that ultimately serve the needs and resolve the issues of both the Lakers and the Nets:
Deron Williams is clearly the star player upon which much of this deal rests, and his recent career exploits only highlight that fact. Over the past few years Williams has contended with many top tier point guards for the title of ‘best in the league’, including Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, and Steve Nash. A younger class of players like Kyrie Irving and John Wall have years to go to achieve the steller level of play Williams puts in night in-night out, making him a highly coveted asset for almost any team this summer. Deron has solid strength and scoring ability to compliment his exceptional court vision, dishing the rock, and leadership skills… elements that would surely make him the best point guard the Lakers have had since Magic Johnson. With Phil Jackson & the Triangle Offense retired and Mike Brown in dire need of more ‘pure’ point guard to facilitate his offense Williams would certainly be another step up from the decent Ramon Sessions, who did his best to help the Lakers this past year but too often deferred to Kobe Bryant. Deron Williams, meanwhile, has a similar team-leader and ‘will to win’ attitude as Bryant, can take some of the scoring load off of the Laker Legend (especially as Kobe is nearing the end of his playing days), and still coordinate a flowing offense that involves getting tons of assists to the team’s (proposed) 7-foot duo of Pau Gasol and Brook Lopez. Deron saw his scoring outpace his career average last season while his assists fell before their career averages (the consequence of a less-than-capable Nets team), trends that should reverse themselves once he’s wearing the purple and gold.
From the perspective of the Brooklyn Nets, getting Ramon Sessions in return doesn’t seem to be as fair a trade value as they would hope for. With Deron Williams sending pretty clear smoke signals that he’s itching to ditch the Nets, nabbing Sessions in a trade actually is not a bad deal all things considered. Although Ramon matches or falls below Deron in pretty much every statistical category he is still a hardworking, upper-middle tier NBA guard. In 2011-12, his mid-season trade from the Cavaliers to the Lakers boosted him from a bench role to a starting one, gave him an entirely new playbook to grasp, and transitioned him from playing with a mix of role players to hustling hard with stars like Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol. The past season was also Ramon Sessions’ first in the playoffs (a daunting stage for any young player) and he managed to contribute quite well before the Lakers were outplayed by the Oklahoma City Thunder. While he has nowhere near the player potential ceiling as Williams does, Ramon’s past year playing with Bynum and the Lakers would actually position him to be an excellent play initiator alongside inside big Andrew Bynum and perimeter threat/floor speedster MarShon Brooks in Nets’ Coach Avery Johnson’s attack offense. The Nets might feel that they’ve got their backs against the wall with Williams wanting out, but getting Sessions in return with Bynum makes for a smart haul without losing much of a step.
Having explored the pros and cons of each player involved in the trade proposal, now we can review the nitty gritty financial outlook for the Lakers (the Nets can plan out their own future without my insight, haha). There is a whole other set of short and long-term questions the Lakers need to consider, but none greater than ‘how can we contend for a championship now AND cut our financial tax burdens over the next few years?’… A near impossible task given the more stringent restrictions of the updated collective bargaining agreement:
As noted in my previous posts (exploring trades for Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, and other NBA stars) the next few years are going to be increasingly financially restrictive for all of the NBA’s teams. The 2012-13 season is the last ‘$1 for $1’ luxury tax year, with new incremental penalty increases being instituted for the 2013-14 season. As if that isn’t enough, a ‘repeater’ tax starts up during the 2014-15 season which adds even MORE tax penalties for teams over the luxury tax in back-to-back years. When looking at the Lakers’ fiscal outlook, the next two years are not going to be pleasant. Whether a trade for Deron Williams and Brook Lopez happens or not, the team is going to feel the pain of the taxman, but we’re going to explore the trade ‘as fact’ for the sake of the analysis.
Kobe Bryant’s salary is going to balloon to $27.8 and $30.4 million over the next two years, which when bringing back Deron Williams for Andrew Bynum doesn’t seem to bode well for ‘sensible’ financial planning. Assuming Pau Gasol remains on the team (if no other team’s offer is good enough and the Lakers want to maintain a ‘twin towers’ tandem of Gasol and Lopez) his bloated salary also cuts deep. Deron will no doubt receive a much deserved salary bump, with maximum 7.5% annual increases (possible from a sign-and-trade from his ‘current’ team the Nets packaged over to his ‘new’ team the Lakers) getting him north of $20 million a year by 2014-15. Brook Lopez will come over on a cheap contract due to expire at the end of next season. Even if the Lakers can negotiate a ‘smart’ $7.5 million salary with no more than 6.0% annual raises for Lopez, that leaves the team with little to no wiggle room for rounding out with role players (not to mention the $13.6 and $11.0 million on the books for other players currently on the roster for 2012-13 and 2013-14 respectively)… Oh and the Lakers also owe Metta World Peace another $15 million for the next two years too, and NO ONE will trade for him despite his greatly improved play in the 2nd half of last season. So other than digging deep to find some cheap ‘gold nugget’ contract players to bolster the bench, the Lakers would be looking at big financial obligations and tax penalties for two more years.
After 2013-14 is a whole other story. Come the beginning of the 2014-15 season the Lakers could be poised to clear out three players with some of the heaviest contracts (and possibly extend the first two at severely discounted rates); Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace.
As a living Laker Legend and the only player with a personal ‘no trade’ clause in his contract, Kobe Bryant will most certainly wear the purple and gold for the next two years unless he says otherwise. By 2014-15, however, Kobe will have played a full 18 years in the league, and despite his numerous championships, records, and immortal moments the Black Mamba will either have to ride into the sunset or take a major pay-cut to get two more years under his belt (perhaps to finish a full 20 seasons?). $5 million per year for 2 more years is a wholly-optimistic estimate, I know, but given the Lakers’ need to move on it would be a sensible self-imposed financial restriction they would have to hold to despite their great affinity for Kobe Bryant.
Pau Gasol (assuming he isn’t traded) is another Laker title contributor that could potentially be up for a ‘$5 million per year for 2 more years’ contract offer in 2014-15, should the Lakers be so kind. No one doubts his amazing finesse, high basketball IQ, and team-oriented playmaking which contributed to 2 titles and 3 Finals appearances (thus far), but the last two years of ‘running out of gas’ in the playoffs have made him increasingly expendable to the team. The need to push back against the luxury cap outweighs Pau’s recent contributions, and if he compliments Brook Lopez well (and mentors him exceptionally well in the process) he could morph into an aging ‘Kareem-like’ player worthy of possibly two more, cheaper years past his current contract (if there is spending room available after other role player/bench signings).
Despite all the ‘out of nowhere’ miracle shots, defensive doggedness, and improved versatility of Metta World Peace (the former Ron Artest) his time with the Lakers will surely be up at the end of his contract. MWP has given all of himself and more to the franchise but his increasing age and declining foot speed are making it harder and harder to justify his over $7 million a year contract. Even if he was willing to take the $1.2 million veteran’s minimum in 2014-15 the money spent on World Peace’s contract could be better spent elsewhere (or simply saved against biggest tax penalties), making it possible the Lakers consider using their one-time amnesty provision on him either before or after the 2012-13 season (depending on if the Deron Williams/Brook Lopez trade occurs). If Metta plays out his contract with the Lakers he will be 34 years old when it ends, a cagey veteran likely still able to contribute to a youth laden team. More than likely he won’t be brought back and can either look to move on or retire.
Should the three aforementioned player contract situations play out well the Lakers are looking to have some favorable financial flexibility heading their way by the 2014-15 season. Over the next two seasons (2014-15 and 2015-16) the team can spend around $28 million per year on filling out the rest of the roster, averaging between $3 million and $5 million for a variety of rookies, solid role players, and experienced veterans chasing their last hope for a ring. All this can be done while avoiding the millions of dollars in luxury and repeater taxes if Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace’s contract situations are handled properly. Futhermore, the team continues to have a star in Deron Williams and possible 2nd tier star in Brook Lopez, while always keeping an eye out for breakout talent along the way.
While this simple yet impactful trade effectively shuts the door on ‘The Dwight Howard Sweepstakes’, given the endless drama surrounding the Orlando Magic and their star center last season the headache might not be work the risk. The $109.1 and $175.7 (!!!) million in salary and luxury taxes to be paid in 2012-13 and 2013-14 respectively will hurt immensely, but the Lakers can balance those out against complete lack of penalties over the following 3 seasons (leading to effectively pay out approximately just $20.0 million in taxes each of the next 5 years), retaining star talent in Deron Williams & Brook Lopez and (for a short while longer) Kobe Bryant & Pau Gasol, and remaining a championship contending team all throughout. The 4 major ‘IFs’ need to be resolved first, but should the stars align it could mean big things for both the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets over the next half-decade.