In a quiet moment before the Lakers capped their wildly inefficient exhibition season (eight games, eight losses), Pau Gasol looked down at the floor and sighed.
This thing better work.
The Lakers are shelling out $100 million for their players this season. Another $30 million must be paid in luxury taxes for the NBA’s largest payroll, followed by a projected donation of $49 million to the NBA’s new revenue-sharing pool that punishes the haves exponentially harder than the have-nots.
This isn’t funny money. This is Jerry Buss at his best.
Ever the gambler, the Lakers’ owner shoved a pile of chips into the middle of the table in July to secure Steve Nash. Then he took out a marker on Dwight Howard a month later, thumbing his nose at the ever-increasing spending penalties ushered in by the NBA’s new collective-bargaining agreement.
It’s all in the name of two goals: the Lakers’ pursuing Boston’s 17 championships and Kobe Bryant going after Michael Jordan’s six rings. They each trail their quarry by one. Only one.
“It’s big,” said Gasol, who will make $19 million this season. “It’s a big investment made in the team. Everybody has a lot of expectations about the team. We ourselves have a great desire of accomplishing all those expectations.”
From many different corners, the Lakers reassembled this month to spackle together a franchise blistered in the second round of the playoffs the last two years — one victory up against eight losses.
Where to start the now-or-never subplots running through a season that starts Tuesday against Dallas at Staples Center?
Coach Mike Brown has another guaranteed season on his contract after this one, but he better win now to see it. Gasol is coming off a career-low season in scoring. So is Metta World Peace.
Nash will be 39 in February. He has never played in the NBA Finals.
Bryant, 34, is about to play his 1,162nd regular-season game on top of a staggering 220 playoff games. He has been to seven NBA Finals, one more needed for just the chance to catch Jordan.
Howard has a reputation to repair after coming across as the league’s latest petulant mega-star last season. He is in the last year of a contract that expires next July.
Nothing is certain for the Lakers, especially after a laughably sad 0-8 record in exhibition play, the worst in their celebrated history.
It all comes back to Buss. He wanted one last run before the clamping, tearing jaws of the NBA’s vision of economic parity made it impossibly hard on the free spenders next year. The Lakers’ already steep $30-million luxury-tax bill would mushroom to $85 million in a year if they had another $100 million payroll.
“Here’s a guy who is an avid sports fan, self-made and kind of did everything the hard way,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. “I think when you’re that kind of successful person, you’re competitive by nature. I just don’t know how you can dismiss as a coincidence that since he’s owned this team , that they’ve won 10 championships. That’s where it starts.”
It helped that the Lakers forged a league record-shattering TV deal with Time Warner Cable that could ultimately pay them $5 billion over 25 years. More than anything, though, the deal became the spark in the hay bale of the revenue-sharing concept, shaking the Clevelands, Charlottes and Minnesotas into action against the bigger-spending NBA teams.
So the Lakers need to win now. They better, for their owner’s sake.
“It is one of the marquee franchises in our league and has a great franchise history,” said Nash, a quick study in the Lakers’ language after so many years of trying to destroy them. “Those are characteristics you can’t say about every club. That’s something that I feel proud to be part of and excited to hopefully continue the legacy.”
The atmosphere surrounding the Lakers is beyond circus-like these days. It’s a full-fledged five-ring carnival tent, with Gasol, Bryant, Howard and Nash as the front-liners and World Peace lurking closely behind for pure amusement.
“We’ve got so many names,” he said. “Nike’s marketing Kobe, Adidas is marketing Dwight, there’s whoever Steve Nash is being marketed by, Pau’s being marketed in Spain and I’ll be marketing myself. This team is crazy. This team’s amazing.”
World Peace, no youngster himself at age 32 and coming off an unforgettably poor season, revealed why he worked harder this off-season.
“I came back better because they did their part,” he said, nodding at the Buss family’s financial commitment. “It’s amazing. They’ve really tried.
“I just wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t want to be just some guy that was on the team with the four guys. I didn’t want to be the stunt guy. I wanted in, know what I’m saying?”
With an average age of 32.4 for the opening-night starters, the Lakers need some luck. They should probably start toasting to good health ASAP.
It’s not a deep squad at all, with the Lakers’ reserves woefully inadequate in exhibition play. Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks were brought in to punch up the bench production. They combined to average 10.3 points and shoot 27.8% this month. Luckily for them, these games don’t count.
Howard is quick to emphasize the importance of June, not October, in many of his interviews. Like Nash, he’s a fast learner of Lakers vernacular.
Kupchak, meanwhile, always chooses his words carefully, none more so than while discussing the vivid outlook of the season, the winless exhibition season notwithstanding.
“We know we had a good summer,” he said. “I think the way the team is constructed puts us right in the hunt. And there aren’t a lot of teams who can say that.
“To acquire the talent where you can say you have a legitimate chance to be in the Finals, that’s hard to do in this league. That’s all I can ask for when I work with people, either through the draft or making trades when putting together a team, that there’s hope out there that you can advance to the Finals, and there is.”
Lakers fans will want more than that. They always do.
Luckily for them, so does the team owner. He often gets what he wants.
Times correspondent Steve Dilbeck contributed to this report.