Say what you will about the 2013-14 NBA season—and a trip to New York City should tell you folks have plenty of thoughts—but it's been far from boring.
Just around the time when the excitement of the season springing anew begins to subside—otherwise known as the time where your significant other says, "It's not even Christmas yet"—the Association decided to spark the Internet's fire with a string of talking point-heavy news.
Unfortunately, not all of it is positive. Three championship contenders (Golden State, Memphis and Chicago) have each had their seasons irrevocably changed by injuries to key players. Derrick Rose will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus, while Marc Gasol (MCL sprain) and Andre Iguodala (strained hamstring) are both out indefinitely with their respective injuries.
With the Western Conference becoming an indecipherable morass of pretty good teams (and San Antonio), any shift in talent big or small could radically change seeding. And it's pretty safe to say Gasol and Iguodala are far more on the "big" side than small.
Rose's injury, meanwhile, essentially whittles down the Eastern Conference to two contenders (Miami and Indiana) and everyone else. The news is likely good for both New York teams, though, as they'll look to climb out of their respective miserable starts to capture home-court advantage in the first round.
The East is no—wait. What? Kobe Bryant signed a two-year extension? Never mind all that. Let's get started with that.
Kobe Bryant Signs 2-Year Extension with Lakers
In July, Bryant repeatedly said he wouldn't be taking a pay cut to stay with the Lakers after this season. He said he wouldn't sacrifice his business acumen to re-sign a deal just to give Mitch Kupchak and Co. more flexibility going forward.
It turns out Bryant lied. Well, kind of. Early Monday morning on the West Coast, the Lakers announced they had reached a two-year extension with Bryant, which will keep him in Los Angeles through his 20th NBA season. Two years is the maximum length Bryant could have signed an extension for under the league's collective bargaining agreement.
While the team didn't disclose the financial details, the glee about the announcement soon turned to puzzlement. A source close to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne confirmed that the deal guaranteed Bryant $48.5 million, ensuring that he'd stay the league's highest-paid player through his age-37 season.
The reaction quickly split into two camps: Lakers fans and rational people. The Lakers defended the deal, rightfully pointing out the numerous milestones Bryant is bound to pass over the next few seasons. Many on social media made the point that Bryant is to the Lakers what Derek Jeter is to the New York Yankees. Jeter signed a three-year, $51 million deal before the 2011 season that, to many, felt more like a legacy contract than anything. And, in theory, one could draw the parallels between their championship tendencies, infallibility in their cities and marketability well after they retire for their franchises.
One difference: Baseball doesn't have a salary cap.
In NBA dollars, Bryant's deal is a massive overpay at best and a cap-sucking albatross at worst. There is no objective analysis that says paying 36-year-old and 37-year-old Kobe Bryant upwards of $20 million per season is a good idea. This isn't a slight overpay in the way Kevin Garnett's deal looks at the moment; it completely constricts the Lakers' ability to get better going forward.
Assuming the Lakers renounce the right to every one of their free agents—and that includes Pau Gasol—and placing the minimum cap holds for a first-round pick and minimum-salaried veterans elsewhere, the team will have a little more than $22 million in cap space next summer. That's enough for every maximum free agent not named Carmelo Anthony, though the Lakers could just as easily dump off Elias Harris' non-guaranteed pact or use the stretch provision on Steve Nash to open up enough for him.
Either way, they'll have enough cash to make their sales pitch to Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, etc. But even if we assume that the Lakers land one—and that's a big assumption—Bryant's extension almost completely restricts them elsewhere. The Bryant-Anthony combination, which is by far the likeliest of pie-in-the-sky hopes for the franchise, would be an absolute mess if surrounded by a bunch of low-salaried players.
Of course, that obscures the No. 1 reason this deal made many jaws hit the floor: Bryant hasn't played competitive basketball all season because he's still recovering from a ruptured Achilles. You know, the same injury that has completely ended the careers of previous NBA players and fundamentally altered nearly every aging player.
There are a bunch of ways to sugarcoat this or even justify it. But the Lakers are paying a player in his mid-30s the highest salary in the league, just months after we all thought his career was in jeopardy. This is a bad deal. End of story.
Major Injury Roundup
Andre Iguodala (SF, Golden State Warriors)
I'm not sure what the Warriors training staff puts in their water, but they might want to switch it up. Iguodala, who suffered a left hamstring strain that will keep him out indefinitely, is just the latest in a string of injuries for arguably the league's most exciting team. They've already played games without Stephen Curry and Harrison Barnes this season, to go along with injuries to Toney Douglas, Festus Ezeli and Jermaine O'Neal.
It'll likely be months before the Warriors field the team they planned at the start of the regular season.
Nevertheless, Iguodala's injury feels like the least crippling among the Friday Three. He's been playing out of his mind and been a perfect fit within the Warriors system, drilling shots from deep at a never-before-seen rate and providing his trademark excellent perimeter defense. Really, Iguodala has been everything Golden State hoped for and more.
But we've seen this Warriors group make the playoffs without him before. After shifting to the bench for the early part of the season, Barnes has looked solid since returning to the starting lineup. He's played more than 40 minutes in each of the Warriors' last three games and is now six deep into a double-digit scoring stretch.
We witnessed what could have been the start of a "leap" for Barnes in the postseason. This will be his opportunity to prove the Warriors are right to be so high on him.
Iguodala will be back when he's back. He's a chameleon and won't have any trouble adjusting. I'm not going to go as far as to say Golden State won't miss him, but Mark Jackson and Co. can survive.
Marc Gasol (C, Memphis Grizzlies)
Already scuffling a bit out of the gate, Gasol's Grade 2 MCL sprain might be a death knell for the Grizzlies. Memphis has looked completely lost on the offensive end all season, as teams continue to clog the paint rather than guard Tayshaun Prince or Tony Allen or any other swingman out on the wing.
While Gasol doesn't exactly make it rain from deep, he helps make Memphis' tenuous spacing better by playing at the elbow and allowing Zach Randolph to do his lane-clogging thing on the block. Gasol is perhaps the league's best passing big man, able to scan over the defense and hit cutters from either elbow.
That allows Mike Conley, one of the only Grizzlies players who can shoot, to move without the ball. Looking at Memphis film, so many of Conley's best looks as a spot-up guy come from assists or secondary assists from Gasol. Kosta Koufos is a fine backup big in this league, but he's not going to be able to replicate that production—not even close. And while I'm intrigued by the possibility of playing Randolph at the 5 and starting Ed Davis, it doesn't seem like we've reached that point yet.
This all goes without mentioning Gasol's defense. Which, of course, is burying the lede a bit considering Gasol won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season. I disagree with the voting results (could a perimeter dude win the award once?), but Gasol is among the league's best handful of defensive bigs and makes things easier on everyone else.
When you watch a Grizzlies game, he's constantly communicating in the middle. He's calling out screens, staying steady on pick-and-rolls and swatting shots at the rim. Gasol wasn't off to a great start on the defensive end this season, but, again, he's a massive loss for a team that can't afford its defensive efficiency to slip even a bit.
With as many as 12 teams competing for eight playoff spots in the West, Gasol's injury could be enough to vaporize a conference finalist. Yikes.
Derrick Rose (PG, Chicago Bulls)
I've already written about Rose and the Bulls at length, so I'll just note that my stance hasn't changed. Chicago needs to look long and hard at possibly blowing up this core while there's still time.
Luol Deng is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and by the looks of initial negotiations, it seems the two sides have an ocean between them when assessing his value. Carlos Boozer's fat contract makes things a little more difficult hitting the total detonator button, but he can also easily be discarded after the 2013-14 season via the amnesty provision. Joakim Noah was said to be untouchable this summer, but he'll be 29 in February.
The Bulls need to look into moving all three guys, even if it's just a cursory look. Failing to find suitors for Boozer or Noah won't be a problem because the Bulls are likely a playoff team regardless of what they do, so any long-term decisions for them could be held off for a year.
Deng is the domino who must and will ultimately move. He's a solid perimeter defender who has given LeBron James fits in the past, and there are more contenders around the league than at any point in recent memory. Or at least teams that think they're contenders.
If the Bulls can get under the luxury-tax threshold and get a first-round pick, that should be enough to get Gar Forman to listen.
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