Just two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were taking meetings with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. On Thursday, the Lakers put the apparent coup de grace on their magical offseason, winning the Carlos Boozer amnesty auction for just over $3 million.
Instead of LeBron or Melo -- let alone LeBron and Melo -- the Lakers retained Jordan Hill and Nick Young, traded for Jeremy Lin, signed Ed Davis and won the Boozer sweepstakes. Add that crew to draft picks Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, incumbents Robert Sacre, Kendall Marshall and maybe Steve Nash, perhaps another couple minimum contracts and ... oh yeah, Kobe Bryant.
Somehow, with that roster, the Lakers are capped out!
Early reports suggest that the Boozer victory may preclude L.A. from re-signing second-year big man Ryan Kelly. L.A.'s cap sheet is rendered impossible by Kobe's massive $23.5 million salary, Nash's empty $9.7 million, Lin's bloated $8.3 million and Hill's amazing new $9 million.
The Lakers, who will make something like $150 million in local TV revenue alone this year, won't approach the $77 million luxury tax line, which provides a necessary break to avoid a future tussle with the repeater tax. (The repeater tax pumps up luxury tax penalties for teams that habitually exceed the threshold. You have to go under the tax line once every four seasons to avoid it. The Lakers have been well over the line in recent years.)
Despite paying the tax and winning just 27 games last season, the Lakers reportedly made at least $100 million in profit. Financially, the Lakers can survive disasters like the 2014 offseason. Their incredible deal with Time Warner Cable runs another 18 years. The Lakers also have one of the league's sweetest arena leases, and their laundry moves regardless of the number in the wins ledger.
The question, as always, is how Kobe reacts. How it must grate on him, to read about the Lakers' incredible profits one week and watch a 35-win roster come together the next. How it must grate on him to get loads of criticism when he takes a two-year, $48.5 million extension after 16 seasons of star contribution, after five championships, as the Buss family continues to ride his hard work straight to the bank. How it must grate on him to fight back from two major injuries at age 35, only to be welcomed back by Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin.
Photo credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kobe doesn't have forever. Boosters would say that the Lakers will be in the mix for a major 2015 free agent like Kevin Love and that the Lakers have some assets to move (like Randle and the pick that Lin brought with him) these days. A skeptic would point to the 2014 free agency period. A skeptic would point to the Lakers' incredibly uninspiring haul. A skeptic would point to Jim Buss' record to date. A skeptic would point out that even if the Lakers are bad and hit the lottery again, it's going to be difficult for them to keep their own pick. (It goes to the Suns if it lands outside the top five. Lottery reform could change the calculus.)
As I wrote earlier in July, the Lakers never stay down for long. But even one more year of mediocrity and one more horrible offseason could be too long to save the end of Kobe's Lakers career. This is quite a race to watch: the stopwatch on the revival of the Lakers vs. the hourglass of Kobe's career as a star. And the bigger concern for all involved, including fans, is that the two issues are intertwined, that at his incredible price tag in the new, more heavily capped NBA, Kobe is actually a reason the Lakers are so unable to bounce back quickly.
Kobe's really smart, and understands the NBA financial system better than some general managers. He almost assuredly understands that his own paycheck (regardless of production) has left Mitch Kupchak hamstrung in the summer market. He's enough of a confidence monster that he probably believes he can live up to his salary. He's demanding enough that he probably expects Kupchak and the Buss family to get him a playoff roster regardless. Kobe is the league's most complicated and complicating star, and this situation is Exhibit A as to why.
Perhaps the Boozer auction is the ringing blow on the anvil that enlightens everyone down in Lakerland to this reality: In the new NBA, the Lakers cannot rise again until Kobe's anchor-like contract is cast off. If so? Well, this is going to be fun.