Pau Gasol Fallout: The Lakers Better Be Good

Andrew Ungvari@DrewUngaSenior Writer IFebruary 2, 2008

The Lakers trade for Pau Gasol has officially opened up the Lakers window to win a championship while Kobe Bryant is still in his prime.

The financial ramifications have given the Lakers very little flexibility to tinker with their roster with the addition of Gasol's contract and the three additional years and $49 million still left on it.

The Lakers are still only about $4 million over the luxury tax limit, but with contract extensions due this summer for Andrew Bynum, Ronny Turiaf, Sasha Vujacic, and Trevor Ariza, their total team salary and luxury tax payment will increase even more.

The Lakers have no choice but to sign those guys because they won't have cap space to replace them if they leave.

Every move the Lakers have made up until this point seemed geared towards the summer of 2010 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade , and Chris Bosh could all become free agents.

With Kwame Browns' contract expiring this year and only one year left on Lamar Odom's deal, the Lakers looked to have plenty of cap space heading into that summer.

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The emergence of Andrew Bynum scrapped those plans. The Lakers realized they had a chance to use Brown's deal as a bargaining chip for trade instead of expiration and sought out to get this team what it sorely lacked—not Jason Kidd but a power forward that would allow Lamar Odom to move back to small forward and more importantly, compliment Bynum's skills.

The injury suffered to Bynum only expedited that move for fear that the Lakers would fall out of playoff contention in his absence and prompt Kobe Bryant to further express his displeasure with the franchise and want out.

The way the team's salary is structured right now, the only decision to make between now and 2011 is whether or not to keep Lamar Odom past next season, trade him before his contract expires, or just let his contract come off the books.

Now that Odom will be a small forward again, he plays the position where the Lakers seem to have their greatest amount of depth. With Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton and Vladimir Radmanovic behind him, Odom needs to prove that he's enough of an upgrade over those three to be kept around. His rebounding and ball-handling will be the areas most closely watched because he won't be asked to score more than ten points a game—something those other three can do just as efficiently.

Odom will be 30 when his contract expires and will probably be looking for a four or five-year deal in the neighborhood of $40-$45 million—a slight pay cut from what he's currently making but definitely enough for Latrell Sprewell to feed his family with.

The Lakers need to decided what it's worth to bring him back or if it makes sense to allow him to walk away. If the two sides seem far apart then it would be in the Lakers' best interest to allow Odom to walk or trade him for a player with less than three years left on his deal.

The Lakers now have the 9th, 25th and 27th highest-paid players in the league. That's $51 million of next year's cap devoted to just three guys. Next year's cap will probably be somewhere around $60 million and the luxury tax limit will probably be around $70 million.

But if they're already committed to luxury tax land with just Kobe, Pau, Odom, Bynum, Radmanovic, Walton, and Fisher, every other contract they sign will cost them double.

Instead of Sasha, Mihm, Turiaf, Ariza and Farmar counting for $15 million combined, that'll cost them $30 million with the luxury tax. That's a $100 million payroll, even higher once they extend Bynum and if they keep Odom—and not including Phil Jackson's $10 million salary.

Bynum's extension will go into effect starting with the 2009-10 season. Consider that Chris Kaman signed a five-year/$55 million extension with the Clippers two years ago. That means Bynum should be in line for a similar deal, maybe even more.

So if you add Bynum's $10 million to the $39 million owed to Bryant and Gasol in 2009-10, that's $49 million for those three guys alone, not including the free-agent-to-be, Odom.

Their entire payroll, without Odom, will probably be no less than $80 million. That means that Odom's entire salary would be taxed dollar-for-dollar if he's re-signed—that $10 million contract would cost the Lakers $20 million

The Lakers might be the NBA's second-most valuable franchise in the NBA but they don't have anywhere near one of the NBA's richest owners. Most owners, like Mark Cuban and Paul Allen, have other business ventures so basketball ownership is more like a hobby. But it's those other ventures that allow those teams to pay the luxury tax.

For Lakers' owner Jerry Buss, the NBA is it. Almost all of his income is related to the Lakers. Every business decision he makes as it pertains to the club stems from the ability of the club to generate revenue from those decisions—that means ticket prices, playoff revenue and local TV and radio deals.

Would Buss be willing to go that high above the luxury tax? If the Lakers win a championship or seem as if they're on the cusp of one, Buss will shell out whatever it takes. But if this team struggles to get past the first or second round of the playoffs then he might be wise to allow Odom to leave in free agency.

The Lakers only other option would be to find a taker for Luke Walton or Vlad Radmanovic and neither of those guys has shown any indication that they're worth what they are being paid.

The Lakers situation is a little different from what the Celtics did this past summer for a couple of reasons. For starters, the three guys at the Celtics core are all older than the four guys that make up the Lakers core. Kobe is the oldest of the Lakers quartet and he turns 30 in August.

The biggest difference is that the Lakers have a 20-year-old future superstar who they can build around once the other three guys are long retired. They also have other young guys like Jordan Farmar, Ronny Turiaf and Trevor Ariza, who are all 25 or younger. The Lakers, unlike the Celtics, didn't have to give up any of their most promising young players.

Once Garnett, Pierce and Allen are gone, the Celtics will be left with Leon Powe, Glen Davis, Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo. I doubt any GM would prefer the Celtics group to that of the Lakers.

Although both teams gave up future first-round picks, the Lakers gave the Grizzlies their first-round pick in 2010 for the Grizzlies second-rounder in the same draft. Considering the strength of the Western Conference and the Lakers' optimistic outlook, there won't be many picks between the Lakers first-round pick and the Grizzlies second-round pick that year.

For the most part, this is the squad the Lakers will dance with for the next three years. They'll have their $1.8 million, biannual veteran's exemption, to use this coming off-season to go after Tyronn Lue, Kurt Thomas, Sam Cassell, Theo Ratliff or Brian Skinner. They'll also have their midlevel exemption which I doubt they'll use now that they have Gasol.

That being said, the Lakers better be good because if they're not, they'll have a pouting Kobe Bryant and not much of a chance to improve until 2011. With matching salaries needed for trades to happen, the Lakers payroll will be this high no matter what.

Kupchak and Buss have given Phil Jackson and Bryant everything they've asked for. Now it's up to them to determine their fate. 

To read a related article about Mitch Kupchak transformation from goat to hero please click here

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