At two years and $48.5 million, Bryant's supersized extension has the Lakers stuck. Bottoming out for another year isn't an option, both because already frustrated fans might revolt and because L.A. owes its 2015 lottery pick to the Phoenix Suns (if it falls outside the top five).
Another year like the last one won't leave the Lakers with anything to show for their struggles.
The oodles of cash owed to Bryant also limits L.A.'s flexibility, making it difficult to acquire a superstar who could lead it into the next era. And it's hard to know if any such superstars would even want to put up with two years of Bryant in the first place—even if they got to assume control of the team in 2016.
So the only real shot the Lakers have at relevance this season is to go after veterans who'll sign short-term deals for a competitive run right now. Bryant alone isn't enough to attract those types of players, but bringing Gasol back might be enough to entice a couple of second-tier free agents.
Everybody loves Gasol. He's a good guy, fun to play with because of his unselfishness and keen passing eye. But perhaps most importantly, free agents know that when healthy he and Kobe are a proven championship duo.
More broadly, short-term deals make a lot of sense—both for the Lakers and for free agents who aren't quite max-level players.
From L.A.'s perspective, the cap space it currently has means it can pay more than most other teams. So if the Lakers made a pitch to someone like Lance Stephenson, Luol Deng or even Isaiah Thomas by tossing out a two-year deal worth $20-25 million, you'd have to think those players would bite—or in Thomas' case sign an offer sheet his current team couldn't possibly match.
Would a deal like that be a massive overpay? Sure, but it's hard to call any deal "bad" when it becomes an expiring one in its second year.
From a free agent's standpoint, there's more incentive than ever to sign a short contract with high average annual value because with a potential windfall of cash coming into the league very shortly, getting stuck in a long-term deal might mean giving up on a cash bonanza a couple of years from now.
CBA guru Larry Coon explains:
The current CBA extends through the 2020-21 season, but both sides have an opt-out in 2016-17 — which means either side can unilaterally decide at that time to end the agreement and re-open negotiations for a new one. The timing of the opt-out is not an accident — it’s set for right after the new national TV deals will be negotiated.
The salary cap is tied to league revenue. When that revenue figure rockets upward after a new TV deal, players will be in for major salary increases. Doesn't it make sense to avoid long-term commitments until after the 2016-17 season?
At that point, two years and $22 million for someone like Stephenson might seem like a bargain.
Naturally, the Lakers have made it clear they're interested in bigger targets than Stephenson, with signing Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James chief among their lofty goals.
The Lakers have made Anthony and fellow superstar free agent LeBron James the main focus of their offseason, going so far as to hold off hiring a coach and signing other free agents until they could make their pitches to the two players.
James isn't leaving Miami unless something wholly unforeseen happens. And it's hard to know whether or not Gasol's presence matters at all to Anthony.
According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, there's an increasingly clear understanding of what actually matters to Melo—and it ain't a 7'0" Spaniard: "Plenty of speculation exists throughout the league that Anthony, despite publicly saying he would take a pay cut to play for a winner, still desires a maximum or near-maximum offer."
On one hand, the Lakers can offer more money than most. On the other, they can't touch the five-year, $129 million deal the Knicks have holstered. The chunk of money Gasol would eat up by returning might actually be a Melo deterrent.
For more reasonable free-agent targets, though, Gasol is a key figure. And his commitment to sign with the Lakers would be a big draw.
The mechanics would be a little tricky because the Lakers would have to sign other free agents before exceeding the cap to retain Gasol. But if he were to make a verbal commitment, that would probably be enough to satisfy incoming talent of his intentions to stay.
The Lakers can't endure another year like the one they just went through, and they probably can't convince a superstar to join them—no matter how much they'd like to believe they can.
A short-term run featuring a roster of veterans is the best course of action. It might even be the only one.
It won't be easy. Gasol is on everyone's radar, and there are plenty of destinations offering a better shot at contention:
Bulls and Thunder have emerged as two new top-flight teams in the hunt for Gasol, who has predictably been drawing considerable interest— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 2, 2014
To follow up @ESPNSteinLine addendums on Pau: Pop's expert minutes regulation & Spurs international roster definitely part appeal.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) July 3, 2014
As is typical, he's listening humbly and respectfully to offers. Behold the most perfectly Gasolian tweet of all time:
Plus, it's possible the big man might want to put some distance between himself and the rough couple of seasons he suffered through with the Lakers since Phil Jackson retired.
Still, if the Lakers can convince Gasol to stick around, it could be a signal that they're on the way to putting something interesting together. And it sure would be nice if the Lakers were interesting for the right reasons again.