When the Los Angeles Lakers agreed to extend Kobe Bryant's contract for two years and at a value of $48.5 million on Monday, they did so to respectfully honor the 35-year-old star as the highest-paid NBA player through 2015-16. And though handing such a deal to an aging player still on the comeback trail from a torn Achilles seems ludicrous, the good news is that the Lakers still have a good deal of cap space remaining for this upcoming offseason.
Bryant joins aging point guard Steve Nash's $9.7 million contract and Robert Sacre's $915,243 contract as the three guaranteed deals next season, while guard Nick Young has a player option for $1.2 million. Even though Bryant's $23.5 million owed in the first season of his extension makes the 35-year-old the highest-paid NBA player, it's a pay cut -- Bryant is making $30.4 million this year -- and it's enough of one to make a difference.
Los Angeles could have enough money to shell out for another max contract player to pair with Bryant, and depending on a number of things, could have from $19 million to $22 million to spend on such a deal.
NBA cap expert Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times reports Los Angeles will be on the lower end of that spectrum, and Grantland's Jared Dubin took a stab at different scenarios for the Lakers this summer. Using Dubin's calculations of cap holds and the contracts of Nash and Sacre, and then by adding Bryant's deal and Young's player option (assuming he wants to stay with his hometown club), the Lakers have a team salary of $40.3 million and close to $22 million in cap space -- the latter is assuming the 2014-15 projected salary cap is $62.1 million and also that Los Angeles' draft pick cap hold is for the smallest first-round salary possible.
So who are the targets Los Angeles would seek in free agency? The big names are of course LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who each have player options to enter free agency this coming summer. Anthony, for what it's worth, has been open about his willingness to explore free agency.
Players coming off max contracts can ask for new salaries starting at 105 percent of the prior year's deal, so James could ask for just more than $20 million, while Anthony could ask for around $22.5 million.
What would the Lakers need to do to chase after either James or Anthony should they decide to try out free agency?
Pau Gasol is immediately the most complicated piece to watch as the current season continues. As Tom Ziller noted in October, Gasol said he'd likely be unwilling to take a paycut. With Bryant's salary taking all but a max contract, is there any shot of Gasol staying in Los Angeles past this season, even with a paycut? If the Lakers want to sign another max contract, it appears there's certainly no room for the Spanish big man.
Los Angeles will also have to make a decision on Nash, whose back injury has the rumor-mill talking of retirement. With this year and another left on his contract, the Lakers could opt to use the stretch provision to pay out the remainder of his deal in smaller amounts but over a longer period of time. The Lakers could pay Nash the rest of his 2013-14 salary, then stretch his final season of $9.7 million over three years to open up about $6.46 million in cap space in 2014-15. How Nash recovers this season will determine a lot.
This summer, the Lakers would need to renounce the rights to all of their players whose contracts end after the 2013-14 season. That includes Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Gasol.
Once that happens, they'd obviously have to sell the future on a big-name free agent, be it James, Anthony or otherwise. And considering Los Angeles would need to fill out the rest of the roster thereafter, the $19-22 million of available cap space makes it a tight situation.
The Lakers didn't know how they could attack the future without knowing Bryant's contract situation. Now that they do well in advance of the summer, they have a better big-picture view.
Marketing-wise, Bryant's contract makes sense. Basketball-wise, it's very risky. Financially, the Lakers have done just enough to keep their star happy while keeping hope for a big offseason alive.