With the 2013 NBA offseason reaching the doldrum months, it's easy for fans to begin gazing forward into the horizon. Whether that's to the opening of training camps, the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls kicking off the regular season or somewhere else in the NBA spectrum likely depends on where your loyalties lie.
For Lakers fans, their gaze has already been set on the summer of 2014. Dwight Howard's decision to bolt for the Houston Rockets this summer came with infinite implications. It made the Rockets instant contenders, pushed Daryl Morey to the top of every NBA general managers list and, most saliently for these purposes, put the Lakers in full transition mode in 2013-14.
The situation has been looked at ad nauseam, so I'll hook you up with the SparkNotes version. Kobe Bryant's Achilles injury may keep him out anywhere from zero games to 40. We have no idea. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are firmly on the downward and declining position, not equipped to keep the ship afloat without Bryant. The front office brought in Chris Kaman to replace Howard and Nick "Swaggy P" Young, if only for pure comedic purposes.
The Lakers are at best a No. 8 seed next season, at worst pushing for the diamond-encrusted Andrew Wiggins championship belt. And the delusional folks have somehow convinced themselves that this is a good thing—that losing Howard for nothing is A-OK—because his departure means Los Angeles has enough cap space to possibly land two max-level free agents next summer.
Oh, and they're convinced one of them will be LeBron James. And that the other will be Carmelo Anthony. ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst first stoked the fires by officially reporting the two superstars are at the top of the Lakers' wish list for next summer, creating a fairytale ending in the final act of this Dwightmare-plagued play.
The Internet, as it's wont to do, went bat, umm, you know where I was going. Could Team USA 2012 be linking back up to save a fallen franchise?
The answer: Of course not.
Jared Dubin did a great job of breaking down the mirage of the Lakers' cap oasis for Grantland last week. Nearly every scenario that involves Los Angeles landing Anthony and James borders on insane. Not only would Los Angeles have to renounce the rights to every player not named Kobe hitting the market next summer—thus losing its rights—but it would also involve a ton of cap malfeasance. The most "realistic" scenario involves Kobe Bryant taking a pay cut down to less than the mid-level exception, to which we say the following.
Of course, each of these paint Steve Nash in the picture—not exactly a guarantee. Nash will turn 40 in February, saw his play take a steep decline last season and doesn't seem like the type of person who hangs on just for the spotlight. Could he retire? And even if Nash has plans of coming back for the final year of his contract, it's not like Los Angeles is desperate to keep him in purple and gold.
It's possible that the Lakers find a taker for Nash's contract—Toronto, of course, being the likeliest candidate because Nash + Canada = duh—but they don't have many assets to offer. Los Angeles has just three first-round picks over the next six years by virtue of acquiring Nash and Howard. Any Nash deal would probably have to be done draft night so the Lakers could use the loophole in the Stepien Rule, which allows them to trade the "rights" to a player, just not the draft pick. The Lakers would also be limited to one first-round pick in the deal, again, because of the Stepien Rule.
But Masai Ujiri doesn't seem like the type of guy willing to throw $9-plus million of cap space away for appeasement. Finding a taker for Nash will be difficult, especially considering he's unlikely to just take an assignment and play there at age 40.
A pie-in-the-sky scenario involves the Lakers trading Nash, at which point they could offer Kobe a little over $14.7 million for 2014-15. Again, that represents a pay cut of more than half his 2013-14 salary. That's probably not happening.
Another scenario involves Anthony, James and Bryant each conspiring to take less than their allotted NBA maximum to play in Los Angeles. This is the scenario that gives Lakers fans so much hope, mainly because LeBron once took "less" to sign with the Heat in 2010.
Only he didn't. At least not really.
The taxation of NBA players and other athletes is always a slippery slope to dive into. By and large, athletes owe taxes in every state they play. States put in specific athlete taxes to account for these players coming in and making millions in their stadiums and arenas, a large portion of which are publicly funded. Grantland's Zach Lowe did a nice job of breaking down Tennessee's Jock Tax, one of the strangest (and most expensive) of the punitive charges put on athlete checkbooks. Jocks and musicians don't always end up in tax trouble because of negligent accounting.
Those varying taxations were rarely accounted for in situations where the NBA's literati tried breaking down what Howard would make in Houston compared to Los Angeles these next three or four seasons. Assuming he claims residence in Houston, Howard will get to skip out on paying state tax on his income. That's no small deal, considering the $4-plus million he'd be paying under California law over the next four seasons.
James took "less" money to leave Cleveland for Miami, but Florida (like Texas) has no state income tax, whereas Ohio does. It would take some real number-crunching from an experienced accountant to see how much "less" really worked out to. Odds are LeBron and Chris Bosh, the latter getting out from under Toronto's high tax rate, didn't see all that much of a difference in their paychecks.
In the Nash-less scenario (with a minimum-salary cap hole put in his place), the Lakers could offer the LeBron-Kobe-Carmelo trio about $18.67 million each for 2013-14. That would involve James taking a pay cut of about $1.5 million before factoring in tax implications and Carmelo passing up a little less than $4 million, with his tax situation nearly being a wash.
Of course, this all assumes one thing—that these three want to play together and want to be Lakers. As much as it may shock Lakers fans to hear this, that's not a guaranteed "YES PLEEZ" for everyone.
"Ummmmm, I doubt it," Anthony told TMZ about possibly playing in Los Angeles.
The All-Star forward also said he has no plans on creating a cyborg force with LeBron in the summer of 2014, either. TMZ isn't about to win any Pulitzers by bothering some dude outside a restaurant and asking him questions regarding the distant future. Nor is Anthony going to divulge any of his most internal thoughts to a paparazzi. But Carmelo is already the superstar playing for one of the NBA's preeminent franchises. The Knicks would have to go to hell in a handbasket real quick for him to consider leaving.
James is another question entirely. Speculation about LeBron coming and saving the Lakers has been running rampant almost since his first championship in Miami, but again, this is a man who became reviled for his departure from Cleveland. He's back in the world's good graces after winning two championships, but joining the NBA's Evil Empire might be a reputation hit LeBron is unwilling to take.
I doubt he was being truthful telling David Brickley of STN Digital it hasn't crossed his mind, though:
"I haven't even thought about it." - LeBron James on Lakers pursuing him in 2014-15.— David Brickley (@DavidjBrickley) July 18, 2013
Plus, Miami could have a clean cap sheet next summer. James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade all have early termination options, at which point Pat Riley should get another opportunity to make a summer splash. And if there's anything we've learned over the past three decades or so in the NBA, it's that you never, ever count out Pat Riley to pull off the impossible.
Granted we've seen the near-impossible over these past few summers. We can't rule anything out. But the Lakers landing Anthony and James would be the single craziest coup in the history of NBA free agency. The implications would be earth-shattering, with almost an instantaneous call for a franchise tag across the Association.
But we're working in realities here. NBA players aren't supernatural human beings created in a Los Angeles lab, meant to protect the purple and gold shield. They're human beings out to make the most money and create the longest-lasting legacy they can before heading off into a retirement earlier than any of us could imagine.
Carmelo Anthony is not a deity. LeBron James, well, we'll get back to you. But they're not going to wear purple and gold.
And neither will Paul George—at least anytime soon. The Indiana Pacers forward, who cemented his max-player status last season, has come up as a secondary target should Los Angeles fail in landing either James or Anthony (or both). George is from Palmdale, Calif. (a Los Angeles County city) and has been open about his family's affinity for the Lakers and his own for playing with Kobe.
“Of course it would be tough (to say no to Kobe)," George told NBA.com's Scott Agness. "You’re talking about playing [at] home.”
A player being so open about the possibility of playing for another team is rare, especially when his current bunch just went to the Eastern Conference Finals. It's feasible, then, to say George might envision himself a Laker.
That's just very unlikely to happen in the next half-decade. George is a restricted free agent next summer and could theoretically sign an offer sheet with the Lakers—one that Indiana would match with a big fat smile on its face.
And George could refuse to sign any contract with the Pacers or any other team next summer, sign his qualifying offer for 2014-15 and then go to Los Angeles in the summer of 2015. Sure, that could happen. And then Tyler Perry could make the next Citizen Kane, while Ke$ha comes out with the female version of Thriller, just as Amanda Bynes is sworn in as a Supreme Court justice.
The Pacers can offer George a five-year deal worth $80 million, one that he has until Oct. 31 to sign. No player in George's strata—a rising All-Star on the precipice of signing his first big-money contract—has ever walked away from that guaranteed money. Paul George isn't about to be the first. Just as the Lakers likely won't have the patience to hoard their cap space into the summer of 2015.
The long-term outlook for the Lakers remains just fine. They're the Lakers. Players adore the franchise's rich history, and the beautiful weather ain't half-bad either. Perhaps Kevin Love forces his way out of Minnesota and back to his collegiate home. Maybe the Lakers are truly terrible enough to win the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes next summer. Who the hell knows. There are any number of possibilities.
Things will work out, mainly because things always work out for the Lakers. You don't miss the playoffs just twice since 1976 without getting some fortunate bounces going your way.
Just don't go holding your breath for the white knights riding in on their horses to save this sinking ship.
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