The Los Angeles Lakers have little room to operate in free agency this offseason, owing $66.8 million to a core four of Kobe Bryant ($30.5 million), Pau Gasol ($19.3 million), Steve Nash ($9.3 million) and Metta World Peace ($7.7 million).
All that before presenting Dwight Howard with a five-year, $118 million offer. Signing Howard is a legal breach of the salary cap because the team received his Larry Bird veteran retention rights when he was traded from the Orlando Magic.
The NBA salary cap will be set at $58.5 million next season, so we know the Lakers will once again exceed that limit. The luxury-tax bar will be set at a steeper price in 2013 and extend to include a repeat offenders tax. In total, the Lakers franchise is sure to exceed the $30 million payment it incurred last season when its roster also toppled $100 million.
Luckily, the Lakers also just signed a franchise-defining contract with Time Warner that is supposed to earn the Purple and Gold up to $5 billion over 25 years, per Mark Ozanian of Forbes. The TV deal will bring in enough revenue to cover all basketball expenses, so expect that if the Lakers see talent they value, they'll go and get it.
Under the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers have themselves in position to do minimum spending outside of a big chunk for Howard. That's what we're here to talk about anyway, right?
What moves can the Lakers make using the mid-level exception, and can they find value to sign at the veteran minimum?
In my opinion, the Lakers need to add a point guard and a solid frontcourt player this offseason. Not only will the additions support the current strengths of the roster, but they will also serve as a durable foundation for the rebuild ahead.
Here's my quick list of top options for each.
The Lakers could offer free agent Will Bynum their mid-level exception, which would total in and around $3.1 million over a three-year period.
Bynum is an optimistic get for L.A. because he earned $3.5 million last season with the Detroit Pistons and likely played well enough to earn a match in pay. If nobody else seeks Bynum's talent, the Pistons would likely make such an offer themselves, per Drew Garrison of SB Nation.
Perhaps Aaron Brooks of the Houston Rockets is a more realistic bet for L.A. Brooks will be available if the Rockets decide not to pick up his $2.5 million option for next season.
The buzz around Houston offering two max contracts, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, would likely see Brooks left out of the shuffle. I'd hardly be surprised if Los Angeles became an interested suitor.
Brooks won the Most Improved Player award in 2009-10, but hasn't quite lived up to the potential he then created for himself. Still, he's energetic and can spell Nash.
With Steve Nash requiring more rest than ever, the Lakers need a quality engine to make the reserve unit go. Brooks has the ball-handling and court vision to create offensive opportunities for his teammates.
And can score in bunches!
Even better is the fact that the Lakers could offer him a short-term offer to get a feel for his production. This year, he'd bolster the quickness of lagging point guards Nash and Steve Blake.
I don't blame you for balking at the idea of the Lakers adding another big man. After all, they guaranteed Pau a bit too much money and are offering Dwight even more.
Taking these things into consideration, I still believe the Lakers need a quality reserve forward to play behind Pau. Should they decide to lay really low, they could seek a meeting with former Sacramento King Cole Aldrich. He's an unrestricted free agent, hasn't gotten many minutes in his career but wouldn't really need to with L.A.
That'd be a disappointing but semi-predictable vision of a Lakers backup big man.
I say they go for DeJuan Blair from the San Antonio Spurs.
Blair is not a part of the Spurs' current championship rotation, but could become a find for L.A. and for a reasonable price. Blair would be a useful power forward option off the bench. He'd even be compatible with Jordan Hill.
He was a terrific rebounder in college and has shown flashes of brilliance in his young NBA career.
Together, Hill and Blair would make a formidable rebounding duo.
As the front office has indicated that it wants to keep premier talent at the center position—even in the midst of the league trending toward mid-sized athletes—the Lakers will need bodies to absorb some of the wear and tear from the stars.
Blair didn't quite get over the hump and reach Gregg Popovich's trusted finals unit. He'd get a chance to have further impact with Los Angeles and is a good physical match for the style of play the Lakers are gearing toward.
The Lakers would optimally sign him at a veteran's three-year minimum price of just under $1 million per season. That't be a fantastic bargain and an unexpected draw for L.A.
The Lakers basketball team was not good enough in 2012-13. I''ll grant mercy points for dealing with terrible injury luck. But if you're watching the NBA Finals and followed the Lakers season, you can see the distant gap between good and best.
Unfortunately for L.A., the rebuilding process will take a full calendar year of patience. 2014 free agency holds the key to the long-term future of Los Angeles' organization. Until then, we won't know the true direction the Lakers will follow once Kobe retires.
That conclusion is separate from the conclusion that there is talent on the market for L.A. to acquire now—and at reasonable price.