While Cavs, 76ers Prepare for Doomsday Scenarios, Lakers Prepare Checkbook

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While Cavs, 76ers Prepare for Doomsday Scenarios, Lakers Prepare Checkbook
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PHILADELPHIA — They obviously got rid of Andrew Bynum’s ticking-time-bomb knees just before the overdue explosion. This week, the Los Angeles Lakers passed through the two NBA cities that Bynum has turned to ash.

Apologies, Philadelphia. Really sorry, Cleveland.

At least you’ll never forget the hair!

The Lakers are clearly awful this season, yet without enough eligible players they still beat the Cavaliers on Wednesday as an injured Steve Blake (elbow/thigh/eardrum/three cuts leading to blood-splattered shorts) dropped a triple-double.

The Lakers came into the game Friday two-and-a-half games ahead of the 76ers in the standings—and Philadelphia somehow made a newly-back-from-injury and newly-40-year-old Steve Nash look dominant in a 14-point Lakers victory. Nash admitted he was pushing himself to an unstable point where “my legs were shaking at halftime,” but the birthday boy was all smiles afterward: “Had a blast.”

Thanks so much, Philadelphia! Much appreciated, Cleveland!

The Lakers’ 2012 trade of Bynum to Philadelphia didn’t work out considering the disappointment of last season and Dwight Howard’s free-agent exit after that. But the 76ers never did see Bynum wear his No. 33 uniform in a game. Besides Bynum disrupting their team chemistry this season, the Cavaliers are left desperate to re-sign Luol Deng to avoid Bynum actually costing them three draft picks they included in the trade to get rid of him.

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Looking at the stop-and-start rebuilds of the Cavaliers and 76ers is a reminder of how difficult it is to climb without the benefit of big-time free-agent signings.

What is going on with those teams speaks to why the Lakers continue to give free agency the highest priority in their rebuilding plans, even as they gear up for a first-round pick in June and search for prospective youth in a trade of Pau Gasol or their other expiring contracts.

No matter how much the last collective bargaining agreement meant to favor small-market clubs and limit the Lakers’ shortcut to success, the Lakers still have inherent advantages besides the royal colors and the banners: weather, city lifestyle and market size for exposure that matters deeply to the elite players.

Even though the Lakers built their payroll to avoid the luxury tax in coming seasons to have money to sign top free agents, the long-term plan certainly includes willingness to pay the luxury tax you can afford only when you can reside around prime real estate such as Park Place and Boardwalk.

The Oklahoma City Thunder might’ve already brought an NBA championship to Baltic Avenue if they had been more willing to spend. The Indiana Pacers are moving into position for a possible title at St. Charles Place, but already have concerns about keeping the talent they’ve assembled because they refuse to ever pay the tax.

Despite the Cavaliers being in the NBA Finals as recently as 2007 and the 76ers with their Julius Erving- and Allen Iverson-inspired history, Cleveland and Philadelphia simply aren’t destinations toward which you see free agents flocking.

The sky, snow, smokestacks and steel production were all comparably gray when the Lakers went through Cleveland this week. This is a place you might come back to if you’re Mike Brown, and I suppose possibly if you’re LeBron James and consider it home (but I don’t believe it). But Cleveland is basically where you play if you’re drafted to play, and as young Kyrie Irving will have to weigh soon, it might be a place worth sacrificing major dollars to leave.

Besides the huge gamble to sign Bynum, the free agents who went to Cleveland last offseason both had to be overpaid to do so: Earl Clark ($9 million, two years) and Jarrett Jack ($25 million, four years).

Whatever you want to say about Howard’s choice to ditch the Lakers, it stands as an aberration. The only other free agent the Lakers lost while going all out to keep was A.C. Green to Phoenix…in 1993. And obviously the wheels for all the Lakers’ recent success stemmed from Shaquille O’Neal coming to the Lakers’ limelight in 1996 via free agency.

Certainly credit Jerry West and Jerry Buss for setting up a team with which O’Neal believed he could win, but O’Neal had already been in position to win in Orlando. Do you think O’Neal makes that move to sign a seven-year deal in Philadelphia?

Do you think the groundbreaking move LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made would ever be to Cleveland? Or Milwaukee or Sacramento or even San Antonio? After the Heat played the Clippers on Wednesday night, they stayed over in Los Angeles for two more nights before going on to Salt Lake City. And Wade could seen dining Thursday night at Spago in Beverly Hills, enjoying what isn't available in your average NBA city.

Would Pat Riley have been in Miami in the first place if it weren’t a destination hotspot? Jerry West went to Memphis for a challenge, and he did a good job. Good, not great. (And plenty of folks say he was not, whatever he might have said publicly, fond of the city.)

When he agreed to consult again, it wasn’t in someplace like Cleveland: West is now with the Golden State Warriors, who are building a new big-market power with their eventual move to San Francisco.

It doesn’t help the 76ers that their trade for Bynum set back their franchise undeniably, even if they have used their draft picks far better than the Cavaliers have. Wherever you are, it takes a lot of good moves, and no singularly devastating bad move, to have a successful rebuild. The Bynum trade was devastating for the Sixers, who were one victory away from the Eastern Conference Finals before that offseason.

Even as nicely as Nash has played in his two games since returning from injury, it remains to be seen whether his acquisition and the Howard trade that cost the Lakers a load of future picks turn out to be devastatingly bad moves.

The difference in the Lakers’ case: Even though they got nothing at all upon Howard’s departure, they can use the salary-cap space left from not paying Howard as a positive—to pay people who very much want to play for them, whether it’s through Kobe Bryant’s extension or coveted free agents’ future contracts.

The lowly Lakers beating the Cavaliers and 76ers on this trip was nice and all. Yet the Lakers have valid reason to believe they can bounce back faster than those teams can, too.

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