COMMENTARY | In the NBA, the ability to manage risk is one of the key elements to building a championship-caliber team.
The Los Angeles Lakers traditionally haven't had to keep a close eye on their spending when it comes to free agency, because being a luxury taxpayer was one of the accepted realities of being the premier franchise in the Entertainment Capital of the World.
When Dwight Howard subsequently skipped town, the Lakers had to make some concessions due to salary cap constraints. They brought in an uninspiring group of free agents that included veteran Chris Kaman and relative youngsters Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Nick Young and Elias Harris on one-year deals.
These moves won't cost the Lakers much, yet could yield a valuable and relatively inexpensive asset or two down the road. Plus, they added much-needed youth and athleticism, two areas where they were deficient last season. Again, they took very little risk because they couldn't do anything else. The Lakers' M.O. used to be to take big financial leaps, most of which paid off. Because of the 2011 CBA, the risk of such moves is now more penal if it doesn't pan out.
The cap space conundrum
Take, for example, the move to bring in Dwight Howard. The Lakers knew there was a chance he would leave for nothing after they gave up assets to acquire him. General manager Mitch Kupchak acknowledged as much. When Howard chose to leave, the loss from a physical standpoint was greater than the loss of easily expendable assets. In other words, the risk was minimal from a financial standpoint.
The Lakers gave up a center in Andrew Bynum who was going to warrant a max contract down the road before the lost season and was arguably more of an injury risk than Howard. When Bynum didn't play one minute for the Philadelphia 76ers and Howard led the league in rebounding in 2012-13, the Lakers won the transaction in at least one key area. Their biggest net loss was a 2017 first-round draft pick, but L.A. gained cap space when Howard walked.
In the past, that wouldn't have meant as much, but, now, even the Lakers will gladly accept the financial relief.
But cap space is a funny thing. It can be overvalued or undervalued with relative ease. For example, if looking at the Lakers as constructed, they have the flexibility to sign LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or any other willing superstar in the summer of 2014.
The problem is willingness itself -- it's impossible to determine at this point which elite players, if any, would be willing to jump ship and be part of a rebuilding effort.
It's hard to envision any marquee player joining the Lakers just because they're "the Lakers" after the way things ended in 2013. The way Howard left the team, his future Hall of Fame teammates and a number of flashy billboards behind was at the very least a bad look for the Lakers. Their basketball situation wasn't as good as the Rockets, and Howard took notice. Did the league's other superstars?
Of course they did, but the Lakers brand remains strong, and L.A. will sign a big name when the timing is right. Superstars will always want to play in Los Angeles for the Lakers. It's a matter of which ones and when, even if James' and Melo's chances are slim to none in 2014.
The franchise still has endless revenue streams and is situated neatly in the country's second-largest media market that just happens to be right next to the Pacific Ocean and a haven for stars. Those advantages won't go away as long as the Lakers stay put. Still, they have to move forward while paying attention to the riskiness, and, consequently, the cost of every transaction they make down the road because being a taxpayer, especially a repeat taxpayer, has far greater consequences than it ever did before the new CBA.
No D12, but some lovely parting gifts
Having no cap space forced the Lakers to eliminate risk in a number of areas without really trying to do so. Giving Howard a max deal of $118 million was going to be a gamble given his injury history, maturity issues and offensive limitations. It was even more of a question mark if he's already peaked, which is a distinct possibility and a near certainty, according to ESPN NBA analyst Bill Simmons. A caveat: Simmons is a prominent and unbridled Laker-hater, but he is right about the fact that Howard's best years may be behind him in his spot-on analysis.
So now, the Lakers avoided that potential high-risk, low-reward situation, had to go out and sign a bunch of minimum salary guys who fit head coach Mike D'Antoni's system and will have the benefit of a full offseason and training camp. They'll do so with the ability to shed all said salaries after one season, one in which there are no real expectations. Even still, they could presumably find a diamond in the rough in the form of at least one of those young players.
Those aren't bad consolation prizes considering the circumstances.
In fact, they're as harmless as it gets when it comes to risk. Managing that uncertainty is the new NBA front office game, and the Lakers are playing it in hopes of landing a big fish in 2014. If that doesn't work, they'll do it again and again, all the while holding the potential to find the next young, cheap star.
In L.A., the mantra of title-or-bust will always ring through the halls at Staples Center, but if the Lakers can play in the new, CBA-improved sandbox with everyone else, then the same built-in advantages they've had since the Showtime era should conceivably help them remain a player in any free agency scenario.
Eventually, they'll get back to being high rollers in the right situations, but, for now, they're bingo players situated comfortably in the NBA's version of an old folks home and listening for their numbers. They didn't venture onto the shuttle bus to the casino, instead hoping to sit quietly among the masses and emerge. The 2013-14 season will yield the results of whether or not they can spell B-I-N-G-O.
It could be Johnson, Farmar, Young or Harris who steps up to revitalize or kick-start their career in L.A. Perhaps Kaman turns into a super-reserve and helps ease the burden on Gasol enough for him to have an All-Star caliber season again. They all have something to prove, so it's conceivable that each exceeds their humble expectations.
Any such scenario would be the ultimate low-risk coup.
For more on the Lakers and the NBA, follow this author on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets.
Michael C. Jones is a Southern California-based journalist covering the Lakers and the NBA and was the 2012 Yahoo Contributor of the Year. He is the editor of Sports Out West and contributes to SB Nation in addition to Yahoo! Sports.
- Sports & Recreation
- Dwight Howard