FILE: JULY 5: According to reports July 5, 2012, The Phoenix Suns will trade Steve Nash to the Los Angeles Lakers for first round draft picks in 2013 and 2015 and second round picks in 2013 and 2014. Nash will sign a three-year $25 million deal with the Lakers. PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 25: Steve Nash #13 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs at US Airways Center on April 25, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Spurs defeated the Suns 110-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Lakers aren't buying titles in Los Angeles, but they are making it clear what the franchise thinks of the NBA's new payroll regulations.
There has been some concern that the L.A. Lakers "bought" themselves back into title contention by signing Steve Nash and trading for Dwight Howard. As our Andrew Sharp explained, on the Howard trade, shrewd moves and a dogged determination to compete at all costs landed the Lakers Howard. L.A. actually had to give up something here: Andrew Bynum was the West's All-Star starting center. That's not nothing. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak made a brilliant trade to land Howard.
It's the Nash deal that speaks to the high-revenue glamour that the Lakers embody. Before landing Nash, the Lakers had $79 million in 2012-13 salary committed. That's $9 million over the luxury tax line. Only two teams in the entire NBA had 2012-13 payrolls in excess of $79 million: the Brooklyn Nets at $81 million and the Miami Heat at $82 million. The Lakers were right there at No. 3 with $79 million locked up ... and then signed Steve Nash for $28 million over three years.
That deal zipped the Lakers past the Heat with a healthy cushion for top payroll in the NBA. And it preceded the Howard deal, which added another $3 million to L.A.'s rolls. If you want to take about buying success, executing a sign-and-trade for Steve Nash when you're already $9 million over the tax line and $21 million over the salary cap illustrates the concept much more than trading Bynum for Howard does.
That deal is why I think the so-called fixes to the NBA's caste system are weak. Sign-and-trades will soon be prohibited for teams over the tax. The high-dollar teams will find ways around that. They always do. Mark Cuban's staff in Dallas has found every salary cap loophole imaginable over the past decade, and until 2011 spent to the hilt to exploit them. Kupchak, the Nets' staff and the Heat's front office are brilliant, and they'll all find ways to get around the sign-and-trade restrictions as well. And the goal would be to leverage their revenue advantage to create a better team. It's the smart business move and it proves to fans (who generate the revenue) how much you care about winning.
The other thing that the Nash deal did was signal how the Lakers would act in the new era of payroll regulation. Nash's deal overlaps with those of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in 2013-14, and the Lakers had hoped to keep Andrew Bynum beyond the end of his contract in '13. (Instead, it's Dwight they hope to keep.) Does anyone believe for a second that when Pau leaves the Lakers won't try to immediately fill that void with a stud? (Keep those Josh Smith rumors coming, y'all.) And does anyone believe for a second that Kobe is going to either retire in '14 or take a wonderfully steep discount? (M.J. didn't play cheap until he tried to rescue the Wizards, a team he expected to retake a stake in following his escapade.)
The new regulations are coming, and with the Nash deal, the Lakers laughed directly in their faces. Not even Mark Cuban did that. Mikhail Prokhorov came close, but I get the sense he likes to laugh in a lot of faces, so drawing conclusions from his check-writing seems dangerous. He's paying Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries a combined $25 million next season. Let's just ignore him for a minute. Dr. Jerry Buss has been doing this for decades. And the Nash deal told the world that no matter what obstacles the NBA throws in the Lakers' gold-plated way, they will continue to use their high revenue as a weapon in the quest for championships. As is their right.
That's the thing about parity: If it doesn't apply to even one team, it's not going to work as designed. Of course, the parity argument was thinly covered manure all along -- the cash savings across the board from the new rules will come, because Peter Holt, Clay Bennett, the Maloofs and myriad others cannot or will not spend at those levels. Buss has a freaking local TV deal that can cover a $250 million payroll, which is where this team may end up in 2013-14 once you include taxes.
The Lakers are a clear title contender, and would be the favorite if not for the brilliantly constructed Heat and Thunder, each created via coup. (Miami's was a free agent coup the likes of which the NBA has never seen; OKC saw Sam Presti's coup of the established NBA order as he cultivated a method -- the Presti method, we'll call it -- to rebuilding that involves losing on purpose and with purpose for multiple seasons.)
There's the argument that spending doesn't solve everything, with the Knicks of the Isiah Thomas era as the prominent example given. But actually, it's the only example available. Other teams that spend consistently mammoth amounts of money -- the Mavericks, the Lakers -- are consistently good, and often great. The Knicks' failures are hardly proof that high payrolls mean little; they are proof that Isiah was exceptionally bad at his job. Just throwing money at players isn't enough. You have to know how to spend it to maximum effect to boost that advantage over the less fortunate teams.
Kupchak knows how to spend it. Now we know Buss is still willing to spend it. That why these last six weeks have a lot of NBA fans shaking their heads. The NBA's promised playing field equalization fixes are being laughed at by the richest team in the league. Things aren't going to change, and frankly, the Lakers find you to be ridiculous for believing that they would.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.