Free Agents Who Can Extend Kobe Bryant's Title Window
As Kobe Bryant’s career approaches its end, there are a few free agents that could potentially extend his title window. It’s a fairly interesting list, but we have to iron out a few details first.
Dwight Howard will embark on his free-agency tour. There is a distinct possibility he will not be back with the Los Angeles Lakers. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the Houston Rockets have emerged as the front-runners to acquire the big man.
Hence, we will operate under the idea that Howard is gone.
This leaves the Purple and Gold with a core of Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Bryant. The trio is surrounded by a group of underwhelming role players that should land the Lakers in luxury tax territory going into the 2013-14 season.
According to Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ, teams cannot receive a player in a sign-and-trade transaction if their team salary is $4 million over the tax level at the conclusion of the trade. This means that any sign-and-trade involving the Lakers must bring back a substantially lower salary than the one leaving Los Angeles.
Granted, Mitch Kupchak could use the amnesty provision on one of the bigger salaries on the team and get below the apron. But we will continue with the roster as currently constructed when discussing potential free agents.
This means the Lakers have the taxpayer mid-level (also referred to as the mini-mid-level) at their disposal. It’s worth $3.183 million and can be split to sign multiple players. The deals cannot be more than three years in length. And one last disclaimer: The Lakers lose the ability to use this exception if they acquire a player via sign-and-trade.
Now that we’ve gotten the finances out of way, it’s time to discuss prospective free agents.
Given Bryant’s age, it’s probably fair to assume he will play two or three more seasons. Hence, any potential new player must be relatively young given that Bryant’s production will likely decrease. A younger player is not necessarily better, but he can adapt and take on a larger and more demanding role with a reduction in Bryant’s responsibilities.
Also, given the numerous health issues the Lakers faced in 2012-13, it’s best to stay away from players with injury histories (focusing primarily on their last three seasons). Instead, Kupchak will focus on players that can play multiple positions.
A talent that can plug multiple holes is extremely valuable. It gives the team someone that mitigates the negative impacts of foul trouble and injuries.
Josh Smith has missed a total of 11 games in the past three seasons, which speaks to his ability to remain healthy. Also, the left-handed forward will be 28 years old after the start of the 2013-14 season.
He is extremely athletic and can get up and down the floor. Smith finishes at the rim with authority and can defend multiple types of players. These facts make him a perfect fit in Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.
He plays both forward spots and can even play as a small-ball center in a pinch.
As Bryant ages, Smith can shoulder an increased workload. He can be a hub on offense from the high post thanks in large part to some good anticipation skills.
Signing Smith outright will prove to be a difficult proposition. Smith will probably look for a contract with a yearly figure hovering around $12 million. The Lakers cannot manage that given their salary structure.
However, Mitch Kupchak can orchestrate a sign-and-trade transaction here with Pau Gasol. With this move, the Atlanta Hawks receive the Spaniard and his $19.2 million expiring contract.
Atlanta has cap room going into the 2013 offseason, but it’s debatable whether they will acquire a player more talented than Gasol. They can pair him up with Al Horford for a season and then let him walk given that the 2014 free-agent class is a loaded one.
Granted, the Hawks can also re-sign the Spaniard to a cheaper deal. This transaction should trim the Lakers’ payroll and place it just under the apron. Since the salary cap and luxury tax figures will only be announced at the conclusion of the July moratorium (first 10 days of July in 2013), we are left to assume these figures will work.
In the event the swap does not sufficiently reduce the Lakers’ payroll, Kupchak will amnesty Steve Blake or Metta World Peace to make the deal work.
Andre Iguodala exercised his early termination option and is now a free agent as we head into the 2013 offseason. He will be 29 years old when the 2013-14 season launches.
The former Philadelphia 76er is a good ball-handler, solid passer and destructive perimeter defender. Consequently, Iguodala can easily go back and forth between playing shooting guard and small forward.
He is devastating in the open court because of his athleticism and finishing ability. With Mike D’Antoni placing an emphasis on pace and quick-hitting plays, Iguodala’s talent would be on full display with the Lakers.
Keep in mind, Iguodala can also play power forward for very short stretches during games. He could spread the court for Kobe Bryant to operate and also reduce his ball-handling responsibilities.
Iguodala was set to earn around $15 million in 2013-14 before opting out of his contract. He was more than likely looking for the security of a long-term contract. Thus, much like in the Josh Smith scenario, the Lakers must go the sign-and-trade route to acquire Iguodala.
O.J. Mayo is an underrated shooting guard that often connects from long range. During the 2012-13 campaign, he converted 40.7 percent of his three-pointers with the Dallas Mavericks.
His career 38.2 percent shooting from downtown suggests 2012-13 was hardly a fluke. At 6'4", he is a backcourt player more than anything. He is a shooting guard for the most part, but he can operate from the point every now and then.
Also, he can play as a third guard alongside Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. Mike D’Antoni used the three-guard lineup with Jodie Meeks in 2012-13 with some regularity, so it could work for the Lakers to do so with Mayo.
His long-range proficiency helps open up the floor for Bryant to operate in the pick-and-roll with Pau Gasol. Keep in mind, Mayo is not strictly a jump shooter. He has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to create plays for others because of his point guard instincts.
Mayo has missed 11 games during his entire NBA career. It’s safe to say he is incredibly durable.
Joining the Lakers requires Mayo to take a bit of a pay cut. He earned $5.6 million in 2011-12 with the Memphis Grizzlies and then $4 million in 2012-13 with the Mavericks.
The Lakers can only offer him their $3.183 million taxpayer mid-level for three years. Because Mayo attended the University of Southern California, perhaps the city of Los Angeles interests him.
In the event that is not sufficient, the Lakers can execute a sign-and-trade involving Steve Blake. For this to work, though, Laker management must use the amnesty provision on Metta World Peace since the Lakers are currently over the tax threshold.
J.R. Smith is an incredibly talented shooting guard. He finishes at the rim with authority and is a decent three-point threat. When Smith gets going, he can win games with his hot shooting.
However, when his jumper is clanking, the guard can literally shoot his teams out of contests.
But coming off the bench, it’s far more tolerable and perhaps even valuable. Smith only consistently started games in his first season in the league with the New Orleans Hornets. In every other campaign in his career, he has come off the bench.
Since he shares the same position as Kobe Bryant, he can sign on with the Lakers knowing he'll still come off the bench.
Mike D’Antoni will encourage Smith to fire away from downtown when entering games and will also give him minutes alongside Bryant to exploit perimeter defenses.
Smith’s scoring punch off the bench would be a welcome addition in Lakerland and would allow Bryant to rest for long stretches as the minutes keep piling up. In the event Smith is having an off night, D’Antoni can ride the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer for a few more minutes than anticipated.
The one area of concern is Smith’s health. He has not consistently been plagued by injuries in his career, but he still missed 31 games during the 2011-12 season. When we look at the past three seasons, the total rises to 36 missed contests. On average, that’s 12 games per season, which isn’t huge but is still a source of concern.
Per Basketball-Reference, the 2-guard earned $2.8 million in 2012-13. Hence, the taxpayer mid-level can be seen as a raise from Smith’s previous salary. If Los Angeles offers him a three-year contract at $3.183 annually, he'll help Bryant extend his championship window.
Andrew Bynum missed the entire 2012-13 season due to injury and has hardly been a model for health during his tenure in the NBA. Thus, he technically does not qualify for this list.
However, if the Lakers can sign the big man for the veteran’s minimum, that changes things drastically.
This scenario seems incredibly unlikely given that Bynum has flashed some serious potential as a center in previous seasons. Heck, he has already drawn interest from a few different teams, as reported by Yannis Koutroupis.
But his knees are enough to scare just about any suitor from offering him any type of guaranteed big-money contract. Hence, getting him at the minimum gives the Lakers a huge boost.
It’s worth noting, the mini-mid-level is probably out of the question here for Bynum given the injury risks involved. The veteran’s minimum, on the other hand, is definitely worth it.
Bynum can opt to rejoin the Lakers for one season to build up his value and then sign elsewhere the following season. This gives the Lakers a shot at competing for the 2013-14 title, since they still get to use the taxpayer mid-level.