After Gathering Resources and Losses, Lakers Need to Spend Big, and Soon

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterApril 17, 2015

AP Images

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Los Angeles Lakers have so far resisted just throwing stacks of money at their problems.

That waiting game ends this summer.

All the Lakers' plotting and postponing to bounce right back to contending status via a superstar-free-agent splash has to be cashed in this offseason.

The Lakers will spend this summer. They hope they can spend on a new superstar such as Kevin Love. But perhaps it has to be an excellent player without particular cachet such as Greg Monroe. If the market doesn't go their way and they have to settle for two good players, that's not ideal, but so be it.

In any case, it's time to offer the kind of contract commitments that push deep into the future and draw legit players, because this is the last chance the Lakers have to capitalize on the salary-cap space they have hoarded the last few years.

The massive infusion of money from the NBA's new national TV contract with Turner and Disney will make 2016 a spending free-for-all.

But we're not in 2016 yet.

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"Two years from now, it looks like almost every team in the league is going to have cap room," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday. "We do have a lot of cap room this summer. You can look at that as a strategic advantage, yeah."

That means two things for Lakers fans:

One, this is as bad as it gets. The Lakers just finished a 21-61 season that was the worst in franchise history, Los Angeles or Minneapolis…after going an embarrassing 27-55 the season before. Reinforcements are finally coming.

Apr 10, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) rebounds in the second quarter against the Boston Celtics at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Two, the better the talent the Lakers sign this summer (or trade for if they surrender their top-five draft pick), the better the talent they'll be able to sign next summer—when those free agents will have myriad options. The Lakers might well be able to sign two max free agents to come play together in 2016 (dream world: Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah or, say, DeMar DeRozan and Mike Conley), but the Lakers will be far more of a draw then if they already have someone such as Love, who might not even opt out of his contract with Cleveland, as a foundational piece.   

The Lakers will have even more spending power in 2016 than the competition when Kobe Bryant's league-high salary comes off their books. Despite Bryant's not committing to retirement after next season, Kupchak said: "I think that's all he's planning on." (For his part, Lakers coach Byron Scott said he plans to adhere to whatever minutes suggestion Bryant brings him come the fall of 2015-16 after finishing rehab for his torn right rotator cuff.)

Bryant's retirement has been part of the Lakers' planning all along.

What changed the whole crux of the vision was Dwight Howard's departure for nothing in 2013 (even if Howard actually hasn't been much of a difference-maker in his nearly two years in Houston).

Pau Gasol's departure in 2014 didn't help either. (Kupchak put his regret on that one in fair context Thursday, though, saying of Gasol's renaissance after signing with the Chicago Bulls: "He did need a change of scenery. I think it was best for him to move on.")

The Lakers' losing the once-heralded crew of Howard, Gasol, Steve Nash and eventually Bryant all for nothing—while still paying the price in future draft picks for acquiring Howard and Nash—makes it obvious that the best way to recover is to bring in talent for nothing (via free agency).

But they've been limited in their ability to gamble on anything less than top-shelf talent because of their pledge to preserve that cap space for when a superstar is ready to come aboard.

Now, though, there's nothing really stopping the Lakers from extending financial commitments into the future, knowing they'll still be able to make huge offers in 2016 when the salary cap might rocket from $67 million to $91 million.

Byron Scott said he will adhere to whatever playing time minutes Kobe Bryant agrees to in what many expect to be his final season.
Byron Scott said he will adhere to whatever playing time minutes Kobe Bryant agrees to in what many expect to be his final season.Eric Gay/Associated Press/Associated Press

So, overpaying in 2015 when they have bullets to fire that others don't makes complete sense. The caveat is naturally that you're much better off if whomever you choose proves worthy of investment.

"We have the ability to recruit and sign at least one max player this summer," Kupchak said.

Gone are the days of signing filler on short-term contracts and hoping someone such as Chris Kaman or Jordan Hill achieves consistency—otherwise known as the Wesley Johnson era in Lakers history—with long-shot courtships of LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony not panning out.

Scott, who'll meet with Kupchak and Jim Buss on Friday to begin strategizing for the summer, cited rookies Jordan Clarkson and Tarik Black as well as veteran big man Ed Davis, 25, as the most impressive "young guys" this season.

The Lakers would like to develop all of them and are set to retain the first two. Kupchak also raved about Davis; he's a better bet to be kept than Hill, but paying Davis would eat into the Lakers' cap space.

The Lakers must also explore the possibility of exercising the $9 million team option on Hill for next season and moving him via trade, perhaps with draft considerations (the Lakers also have Houston's 2015 first-round pick for taking on Jeremy Lin's salary, as well as a high second-rounder) or with Nick Young.

The circumstances of the Lakers' logically spending money this summer coincide with a natural desire to show progress after two time-killing years that didn't even offer many diversionary fireworks from the oft-injured Bryant.

Kupchak's awareness of expectations in Lakerland could be heard in his jokes Thursday about the all-out-is-better-than-all-in tanking mentality of the Philadelphia 76ers: "I still don't understand what they're doing," Kupchak said.

The Lakers haven't given it quite their best shot the past two years either, but that has been in hopes of spending their money more wisely this summer.

Kupchak acknowledged that the Lakers really don't know how free agents this summer will respond to the expected "windfall" in 2016 free agency. It might make sense to re-sign with existing teams on one-year deals and enjoy the deep 2016 market, limiting the Lakers' spending options this summer.

"You really have to change the way you think about valuing players," Kupchak said. "A player today who is a $5 million player may be a $9 million player just a year from now. And that could be hard for a lot of people to wrap their arms around."

So during this period before the May 19 draft lottery determines what stands now as an 83 percent probability that the Lakers select in the top five (and don't convey their pick to Philadelphia yet), Lakers management will plot for the future. They will start putting together a ranking of draft prospects, and Kupchak and his staff will pore over the fine print of the new collective bargaining agreement, trying to figure out how to maximize their advantageous free-agent position of 2015.

As excited as Lakers fans have been about that high draft pick—and the Lakers have a 38 percent chance of moving into the top three—the root of the Lakers' rebuild remains the same as always: free agency, because it takes so long for a great tree to grow.

Asked if he sees franchise-changing talent at the top of this draft, Kupchak noted they're underclassmen who might be three years from that.

"By and large, they're young players," he said. "So, possible…but you'd have to wait."

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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