Heisler: Why the Lakers Are Slowing Down – and Why They’re Right

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles LakersSo, how did you like the Lakers’ off-season?

Not that it’s over ‘til it’s over… or before it starts July 1 when free agents are officially free.

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Nevertheless, Lakers Nation just tapped into the Lakers’ new plan, which is what we—and, I believe, they—thought it would be.

Everyone expected the Lakers to try to secure Dwight Howard and trade Pau Gasol for an athlete(s) who could shoot so Mike D’Antoni could run the offense they hired him for.

Plan A now envisions keeping Pau and socking the ball inside to him and Dwight as they did in their 28-12 finish, even if that means getting another year older, slower and farther behind the Roadrunner Elite (Heat, Thunder, Spurs).

I wrote about 1,000 posts insisting Pau had to go. Bringing these slugs back never occurred to me. Well, until Kobe Bryant tossed it out after last week’s exit interview.

When D’Antoni said he would play slow if this team returned, and Mitch Kupchak, who talked about a return to fireworks when they hired Mike, declared their personnel would dictate their style, something new occurred to me:

Slow was the way to go.

Then a guy I know—or “source,” in newspaper language—said the Laker observations were more than a coincidence and the idea more than a possibility. It’s now their leading option.

No, it’s not great, or even good. It’s just better than the alternatives.

This wasn’t just a bad season. It was a horrific crash. While approaching a major crossroads with excruciating choices to make about their aging, hulking roster – and no No. 1 pick in this draft – a salary cap nightmare and a new CBA that next season will take an additional $70-80 million in revenue sharing and luxury tax.

How is the new plan better?

Let us count the ways.

1) The Lakers’ chances of revitalizing their roster this spring ranged from minimal to non-existent. As if confirming the desperation with reality out, Laker fans are pleading for Phil Jackson’s return, Chris Paul’s acquisition and Jim Buss’s disappearance. Phil wouldn’t walk through that door if Jim Buss asked him to, Jim has no intention of doing. No, Jim isn’t stepping down, and CP3 is planning to stay with the Clippers, whom he all but runs, with a coach he’ll sign off on, if not choose.

The Lakers have $68 million on their books next season—and $89 mill if Dwight signs—with nothing bigger than a $3.1 million exception to offer. Amnesty saves money but does nothing for the team. Cutting Kobe’s $30 million would give them $2-3 million of cap space, if Dwight stays. The Lakers’ No. 1 pick went to Cleveland in the three-way deal for Howard.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Lakers2) If Pau is dispensable and has trade value, the mere availability of a star signals his team’s desperation, turning it into a fire sale. At 32, Shaquille O’Neal went to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant. With Pau at 32, the Lakers might have hoped for Kevin Love; or Nicolas Batum and the Blazers’ No. 1; or Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and the Bulls’ unprotected 2016 No. 1 from Charlotte.

Instead, they’d have been offered Derrick Williams and J.J.Barea; Wes Matthews and no pick; and Deng with Butler but don’t even ask us about that Charlotte pick. Whether any team would have offered more or gone higher remains to be seen. Happily for the Lakers, if someone would have, they’ll still hear from them. So, miraculously, if they’re no longer shopping Pau, his trade value actually goes up.

—- How well do you know Pau Gasol? Check out his player bio here! —-

3) This spring’s moves are limited by the urgent need to get below the tax threshold after next season. From now on, teams over the threshold in four of the last five seasons pay at an ever higher rate—a sobering thought for a team that has never been under. This season’s Laker $30 million overage will cost $30 million. If they’re not under the threshold by the end of the 2014-15 season, the tab for $30 million would be $100 million.

Yes, even for a team will will earn an average of $180 million from local TV, a $130 million raise over the old deals, that’s serious money. The current tax threshold, $70.3 million, is projected to rise to $72 million after next season. The Lakers have only Steve Nash at $9.7 million on the books in 2014-15, and hope to add $21.5 million for the first years of a max deal for Howard. That’s $31.2 million. Put in a $20 million reserve, the minimum Kobe Bryant could be signed for, if he and they want him back.

If not, the reserve becomes a max slot for the big 2014 free agent class. That’s $51.2 million, leaving the Lakers about $20 million to remake the roster in the next two seasons.

3) Waiting for next spring to break this team up has peculiar advantages. Gasol’s contract will be up, giving the Lakers more leverage. The teams that want Pau hope a skilled seven-footer can put them over the top, which means, almost by defintion, they don’t have $20 million under the cap, obliging them to trade for him. By next spring, the Lakers will know what Kobe has post-surgery. If Kobe doesn’t return, there are the 2014 free agents, starting with (rumble, rumble) LeBron James! No, I don’t think the Lakers, Cavaliers or anyone else can pry Bron out of Miami. Team President Pat Riley has no peer at recruiting, as in 2010 when he got Bron’s attention, dumping his four championship rings on the table with the subtlety of a landslide.

Of course, 2014 free agents will also include Carmelo Anthony (pass, thank you), Dwyane Wade (at 32), Zach Randolph (33) Chris Bosh (not at big bucks), and Eric Bledsoe (bingo!). Also, of course, by 2014, Kyrie Irving will be moving into the picture, a year from restricted free ageny, two from the open market, making all sorts of power plays possible for a glamor team with a well-managed cap.

Bottom line, with Dwight Howard, beaucoup cap room and as many sharp moves as Jerry West and Kupchak made going from Magic Johnson’s retirement in 1991 to Shaq and Kobe’s arrival in 1996, there’s reason to hope.

Of course, there was a five-year gap that saw them finish under .500 twice, miss the playoffs once and get sent home in the first round the other four times.

So for anyone who can’t handle reality, take a chill pill and let the grownups go on about their business.


In case you missed it, be sure to check out what Mitch Kupchak had to say about Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant!

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