Returning to contention may not take as long as the Los Angeles Lakers thought.
Injuries and insufficient talent left the Lakers gasping for air in 2013-14, their playoff hopes dashed and their season lost. Things haven't looked as if they'll be much better next season. The Lakers have cap space, but patience rapidly became a formality. They would wait until next summer before burning holes in their pockets.
Turns out that stance didn't last long.
"We're prepared," general manager Mitch Kupchak said after the NBA draft, per ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin. "If any of those players do want to make a move, we're prepared. And if we get word, when we're allowed to get word, we will go all out."
All out? Does that mean what we think it means?
It absolutely does.
One lottery berth was enough for the Lakers. If given the opportunity, they can strike this offseason. And they will strike if they can—now, not later.
Part of the draw to being active this offseason is the ease with which it becomes possible because it's already possible.
The Lakers still only have three players under guaranteed contract for next season—Kobe Bryant, Robert Sacre and Steve Nash. They'll have four players taking up space once they sign their seventh overall pick, Julius Randle (five if you include second-round pick Jordan Clarkson).
Ben McLemore was selected seventh overall by the Sacramento Kings in 2013. He earned almost $2.9 million last season, so if we roll with that number for Randle, the Lakers will have approximately $37.5 million devoted to five players.
Kendall Marshall, Kent Bazemore and Ryan Kelly all have nonguaranteed pacts or are due a qualifying offer. The Lakers have the option of bringing all three back, or they could renounce their rights to open up more space.
The Lakers, I am told, are not going to extend Kent Bazemore a qualifying offer making him an unrestricted FA.— David Pick (@IAmDPick) June 28, 2014
League sources told McMenamin the Lakers are still interested in signing Bazemore, but electing not to pay his $1.1 million salary can open up more than $600,000 in additional cap space if he's supplanted by a minimum placeholder worth a little over $500,000.
This isn't limited to Bazemore either. The Lakers can bid farewell to Kelly and Marshall and refuse to retain free agents such as Nick Young and Pau Gasol, with the intent to create more flexibility.
If they decide to keep the rights to only Bryant, Randle, Sacre, Nash and Clarkson, seven empty roster spots means seven minimum cap holds, all of which would total $3.5 million. That leaves the Lakers with roughly $41 million in salary obligations, more than $22 million below the projected $63.2 million cap.
Every cent of that money can be spent on one player, one superstar, increasing the Lakers' chances at making a serious free-agency splash.
Making Bigger Splashes
Los Angeles' offseason junket doesn't have to end with one superstar courtship.
There can be two.
The Lakers are actually counting on there being two, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst:
With LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony officially opting out of their contracts, multiple teams have begun the process of exploring roster moves that would create sufficient salary-cap space to sign 2014's marquee free agents in tandem this summer, according to sources close to the situation. ...
... The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, had begun exploring such machinations even before the opt-outs of James and Anthony had become known, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.
Entertaining a LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony tandem is a fantastic notion, one impeded by obstacles such as conventional logic. But being able to pitch James and Anthony on playing together is something many other teams cannot realistically do. That's a selling point in and of itself.
Anthony and James want to play together. They've wanted to join forces for quite some time, per USA Today's Sam Amick. Offering that opportunity is an attention-grabber—provided it's a legitimate opportunity the Lakers are slinging and not some half-baked scheme that involves pay cuts of the never-gonna-happen persuasion.
Signing both Anthony and James is unrealistic no matter which team—the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, etc.—we're talking about. Yet in the "Land of Ivory-Tower Possibilities," the Lakers sit atop a cathedra, holding a scepter, wearing a crown.
They are more likely to make this happen than any other team. They offer the right combination of market appeal, historical luster and—with a little more finagling—cap room.
It starts with Nash, who is earning more than $9.7 million next season. He has to go.
Trading him on his own is—well, it's impossible. No NBA team is trading for the 40-year-old Nash and absorbing the last year of his contract while sending nothing back in return without an immense incentive—like Randle, for instance.
Mull over what the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus wrote leading up to the draft:
The Lakers may very well keep their pick but a deal that clears Nash from the team's books while bringing back player(s) to help the team quickly rebuild, might inspire L.A. to send out its 2014 selection. ...
... If Nash were dealt along with the pick and the Lakers renounced the rights to each and every free agent, the team could have roughly $34 million in cap space (less any players acquired in trade).
Identical logic applies here. The Lakers couldn't trade the actual pick anyway since their 2015 first-rounder is owed to Phoenix. They would always have to trade the actual player.
Using Randle as a buffer, the Lakers can shave Nash's salary from their ledger—Randle's too. That creates an estimated $11.6 million in additional cap space ($12.6 million for Nash and Randle combined, with two minimum cap holds).
Add that to the previous $22.3 million they had, and they're suddenly armed with $33.9 million in cap space if all goes according to plan, allowing them to offer Anthony and James salaries that start around $17 million.
Convincing both superstars to sign with the Lakers remains a long shot. Conjuring that much spending power is also predicated on everything going their way, namely finding a team prepared to take on nearly $13 million in additional salary.
But that's standard this time of year. Every scenario out there—from Miami to Houston to Los Angeles—is predicated on an inordinate number of what-ifs. The Lakers' grand plans are no different.
They're a little simpler.
Equipped with Options
This isn't strictly an Anthony and James thing. The Lakers are more likely to gut their current, already bare roster if it means landing one of them, but they're not excluded from being aggressive should both stars head elsewhere.
Other impact free agents will be on their list of targets. The Lakers can already chase names such as Kyle Lowry, Trevor Ariza, Lance Stephenson and Luol Deng. They can re-sign Gasol.
They can sign one superstar, try to unload Nash and then assemble a respectable supporting cast around him and Bryant.
They can trade Nash and then chase a pair of superstars willing to take less.
Will the Lakers be active in free agency this summer?
They have those options—all of them.
Does this promise they'll be active, making signing after signing, splash after splash? Of course not. But their level of aggression is a choice, one emboldened by their deliberate plasticity and apparent willingness to do whatever it takes to make any additions and alterations they wish to make.
"It will be [chaotic]," Kupchak said of impending free-agency festivities, per McMenamin.
Only as chaotic as the Lakers will it to be. Their position is one of increasing power, flexibility and—most importantly—possibility.
*Salary information via ShamSports.com.