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Can LA Lakers Still Build a Real Title Contender Around Kobe Bryant?

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on March 13, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2013

Seventeen years later, it's still all about Kobe Bryant.

There will come a time when the Los Angeles Lakers have to move on. When Kobe isn't at the forefront of their future plans. Just not now, or even soon.

With the Black Mamba set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan writes that Kobe's future with the team is up in the air. And it is. 

Not only must the Lakers hope Kobe is fit to play at a high level after rehabbing a torn Achilles, they must find a way to build a championship-caliber roster around him moving forward.

Much like Kobe's attempt to regain last season's swagger, the task at hand is a difficult one for these always-ambitious Lakers.

 

Making the Necessary Assumptions

February 20, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) speaks about recently deceased owner Jerry Buss before playing against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In an ideal world, Kobe would return from his Achilles injury to pick up right where he left off. He would torch opposing defenses for 27.3 points and six assists per game, and the Lakers would clinch their ninth straight playoff appearance. 

But Robin Thicke still wears skin-tight pants; therefore we don't live in an ideal world. No matter what route the Lakers choose or are forced to explore, they will do so with the fact that Kobe is on the decline.

Players on the wrong side of 35 don't experience career renaissances. Not even the Black Mamba. Los Angeles placed so much stock in Dwight Howard because it sensed the end was near. The Lakers wanted to plan for the future without doing so at Kobe's expense. And that hasn't changed.

Kobe isn't going anywhere. Know that.
Kobe isn't going anywhere. Know that.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Kobe's name will define the Lakers as long as he's playing, but his actual play won't. The Lakers can't afford to let it. Reinforcements must be brought in; hence the obsession with next summer.

Therefore, we must assume that the Lakers will attempt to construct a contender around Kobe—in spite of Kobe.

I say this not to be demeaning, but to merely acknowledge the Lakers are tasked with moving on without actually moving on.

Next summer's roster will be constructed around Kobe's salary and personality. Out of respect, the Lakers will only latch onto players who allow them to pay Kobe and who are also open to playing with him.

At the same time, those players must fill a void as if Kobe weren't there—they must fit the bill of a franchise star. Los Angeles doesn't plan to chase LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, among others, for grins and giggles. The Lakers need them. Or someone like them. They also need Kobe and his name.

So while Bresnahan questions whether or not Kobe will return after this season, that's not the question at all. He's going to be back. Can the Lakers piece together a legitimate contender while also staying true to Kobe?

That's the question.

 

Five Years Ago They Would Be Contenders—Maybe

Mar 22, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) and point guard Steve Nash (10) in the second half of the game against the Washington Wizards at the Staples Center. Wizards won 103-100. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Before the Lakers can sell fellow stars on playing next to Kobe, they must be sure they can afford to. Even the most provocative of sales pitches can mean nothing without the capital to back it up.

One cursory glance at the team's payroll moving forward is enough to convince most that won't be an issue—except it will.

Per Hoopsworld, the Lakers owe just over $10.6 million in guaranteed contracts after this year. As Bresnahan points out, the projected salary cap in 2014-15 is $62.5 million, leaving the Lakers with more than $50 million annually to play with.

But that's not including Kobe, their first-round pick and minimum cap holds. 

Grantland's Jared Dubin penned a great piece in which he outlined Los Angeles' cap situation for 2014-15. Sans Kobe, the Lakers have just two guaranteed contracts on their docket in Steve Nash ($9,701,000) and Robert Sacre ($915,243).

Since the team has a first-rounder coming its way in 2014, another $911,400 in cap space must be accounted for. And since each team must carry a minimum of 12 players, nine more cap holds at the absolute minimum of $507,336 must be factored in as well.

That brings Los Angeles' salary commitments to roughly $16.1 million, well below that of our $62.5 million projection.

But again, that's without Kobe.

The Lakers only gain that $46.4 million in cap room by severing ties with him, which we're already assuming they won't do. Money must then be put aside for his return.

Worst-case scenario, according to Bresnahan, is that Kobe demands the maximum five-percent raise he is allowed. The Mamba is making $30,453,805 million in 2013-14, which means he could earn as much as $31,976,495 the following season. 

Look at how that salary would impact the Lakers' spending power:

Lakers Salary Structure After Maxing Out Kobe
PlayerSalary
Steve Nash$9,701,000
Robert Sacre$915,243
Kobe Bryant$31,976,495
Draft Pick$911,400
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Minimum Cap Hold$507,336
Total$47,652,826
Projected Salary Cap$62,500,000
Projected Cap Room14,937,174
Salary info via Grantland and Hoopsworld.

With a hair under $15 million to spend, the Lakers aren't signing LeBron or 'Melo. They may not even have enough for a Luol Deng.

Five years ago, a core comprising a maxed-out Kobe and ball-wielding Nash would have looked pretty good. This side of the Hollywood writers' strike, not so much.

Kobe's refusal to take a pay cut would result in more of the same for these Lakers.
Kobe's refusal to take a pay cut would result in more of the same for these Lakers.Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Paying an almost 36-year-old Kobe nearly $32 million seems unlikely, but it is possible. And if the Lakers allow next summer to play out like this, they'll only have enough dough to construct a roster similar to the one they have now.

Maybe they re-sign Pau Gasol or make a play for a Rudy Gay or Deng. Perhaps they spread the wealth more evenly, filling out the roster with respectable role players instead of gambling on a fringe star. It doesn't matter.

Any way the Lakers break the bank in this scenario doesn't bring them any closer to a championship than they are now.

 

Are We There Yet?

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 25: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers sits on the bench during their game against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on March 25, 2013 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Bresnahan writes that if Kobe accepted $10 or $12 million a year, the Lakers would have enough cash to sign "two top-level free agents." Although the Mamba is on the record as saying he won't accept a paycut, he's a business man. And business men don't openly diminish their market value.

Probably still searching for that sixth ring, I feel confident in saying Kobe will take less to stay in Los Angeles. How much less remains to be seen, but if the plan is to pursue both 'Melo and LeBron, it has to be a significant dip.

Let's run with that $10-12 million range Bresnahan gives us. Let's actually say Kobe isn't feeling uber-generous and roll with $12 million. If he re-signs at $12 million a year, does that give the Lakers enough room to land a pair of stars?

Not quite.

Were the Lakers to sign 'Melo and LeBron to absolute-max contracts, they'd be forking over $22,560,486 and $20,020,875, respectively, in the first year, according to Dubin

Here's how much that would amount to:

In this scenario, the Lakers are short nearly $7 million in cap space. That's also assuming they don't hit the draft-day jackpot, in which case more than $911,400 would have to be reserved for whom they select.

This also depends on a number of other things. LeBron and 'Melo could accept hefty pay cuts as well, or the Lakers could set their sights on two other "top-level free agents." Would Kobe take up to two-thirds less than what he's making now for anyone other than the two best available players? 

That's a question the Lakers must answer.

 

How About Now?

Mar. 3, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony (7) and Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) wait for a rebound during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Miami won 99-93. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Spo
USA TODAY Sports

We know the Lakers finished approximately $6.7 million shy of building their dream team in the previous scenario. Naturally, the only thing left to do is see how much less Kobe must take to make it happen.

Our resident Mamba was being paid $12 million in 2014-15 before. Subtract $6.7 million from that number and we're left with $5.3 million. 

Now it's time to see if the math holds up:

Superteam. Built. Or, mission implausible.

The day Kobe takes close to 80 percent less than what he's entitled to is the day pigs don't just fly, but overthrow the human race entirely. I don't see either happening.

Once again, this all depends on if LeBron and 'Melo take pay cuts of their own or Los Angeles' willingness to stray away from Plan A. But for now, it's a good gauge of where the Lakers are, and how the dominoes must fall if they wish to bring their castle in the sky ground-side.

 

So...

Apr 9, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;   Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts during the game against the New Orleans Hornets at the Staples Center. Lakers won 104-96. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The Lakers can build a legitimate title contender around Kobe. It is possible; it's just not going to be easy.

Kobe will need to sacrifice an ample amount of scratch to make the ideal roster financially feasible. No matter what.

My hypothetical scenarios are just that—suggestions. There is no magic number the Lakers need Kobe to accept. Unless, of course, Tinseltown still plans to make a play for 'Melo and LeBron. For that to happen, everything we just explored needs to happen as well.

Plans can also change. The Lakers could only go after one of them—or neither. Their free-agency scope could be adjusted to include only players who permit them to pay Kobe $20 million or more.

But one must ask: Is that really what the Lakers need to contend?

Superteams are still on the up and up. Limitations courtesy of the current CBA have made them harder to create, but they're still a hot-button ambition. Look at the Brooklyn Nets. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov will spend nearly $200 million total on the roster this year in the name of star power.

Then look at the Miami Heat. They've been almost dynastic since bringing in the Big Three. They're proof superteams can pay off.

The forever blank-check brandishing Lakers figure to have the same mindset. It's always about the stars in Los Angeles. Always. With an aging Kobe still a prominent cog in the Lakers' machine, that can't change now. 

Kobe can take less—a lot less—in search of a sixth (and potentially seventh) championship. Or Kobe and the Lakers can cater to the Mamba's pride and reputation, continuing to settle for a manipulated version of their original vision, knowing full well a championship will be out of reach if they do.

 

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