For Lakers and Kobe Bryant, next summer is the dream season
If newly signed free agents Chris Kaman, Nick Young and Wesley Johnson don’t excite Lakers fans, there’s that rarely uttered phrase by the franchise that’s won 16 championships — wait till next summer.
The rebuilding will begin after a 2013-14 season that ends presumably without a championship and possibly with no playoffs, depending on the health of a Pau Gasol-Kobe Bryant-Steve Nash nucleus that averages 35.7 years old on opening night.
There are so many what-ifs next season, but then there’s next summer, where the Lakers could have $50 million to play with after stripping down to their financial skivvies.
PHOTO GALLERY: Kobe Bryant through the yearsBryant ($30.5 million salary next season) and Gasol ($19.3 million) will be off the books after this season, setting up a flood of financial possibilities that even Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak recently acknowledged as an “enormous amount.”
Furthermore, if Nash doesn’t look healthy, he could be waived in a year via the “stretch” provision, in which his $9.7-million salary in 2014-15 would be amortized over three seasons, giving the Lakers a salary-cap hit of only $3.23 million next summer and, thus, more money to spend.
Of course, how much they can spend also depends on Bryant.
Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan made financial sacrifices in recent years, taking less than half of their maximum salaries when signing new deals.
How badly does Bryant want a sixth ring? And maybe a seventh?
There are three veins of financial thought for Bryant, who turns 35 next month.
If he insists on the maximum $32 million for the 2014-15 season, it’s a nonstarter. The Lakers wouldn’t pay him that much, and even if they did, the sum would submarine the team’s salary-cap space, providing enough room to add only one free agent of note.
Brief refresher: Possible free agents next summer include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki, Danny Granger and Marcin Gortat. Restricted free agents could include Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe.
But if Bryant asks for a more reasonable $10 million to $12 million for 2014-15 and Nash is waived via the stretch provision, there’s enough room to sign two big-name players.
Then there’s the dynasty-creating way Bryant could turn the Lakers around overnight.
All it takes is a 95% pay cut.
He could accept the veteran’s minimum of $1.45 million for 2014-15, allowing the Lakers to sign two big-name guys next summer and set themselves up for another coup in the summer of 2015 with spending power to add another big-ticket player, when LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo could be free agents.
If the Lakers pay Bryant $1.45 million in 2014-15, they would still have his “Bird rights,” enabling them to pay him up to $19.5 million for the 2015-16 season, when he will be 37 years old. He would basically average $10.5 million over those two seasons.
Not to be forgotten, Pau Gasol could do the same exact thing in a year, if he’s so inclined.
Of course there’s one catch. The Lakers couldn’t promise Bryant or Gasol that second year at $19.5 million because a prearranged deal would be illegal under the rules of the collective-bargaining agreement.
Predictably, 80% of almost 4,500 voters in an informal Times online poll said Bryant should sign a minimum contract in a year to help the Lakers.
Despite his advancing age and the torn Achilles’ tendon he sustained in April, Bryant seems determined to keep playing.
“I’ve been rejuvenated somewhat by the injury and inspired by watching what San Antonio was able to accomplish this year, so I’m ready to go for at least another three [years],” he recently told The Times.
Duncan and San Antonio were literally seconds away from winning the NBA title in June but it was Duncan’s willingness to make “only” $9.7 million last season that helped make it possible.
Meanwhile, so many questions remain about Bryant’s health. Will he lose an inch off his vertical? Two? More?
Not that he was a huge above-the-rim player, but how much pain will he encounter next season?
When last season ended, he wasn’t worried.
“The worst case is what, I lose some athleticism? I lose some speed?” he said. “I think I can adjust.”
The initial timetable said Bryant would return in six to nine months, and the Lakers said they would not issue an updated one until the end of August or early September.
Bryant is on pace to start running on a treadmill next month at a very light speed, but there are no guarantees about his readiness for opening night, despite Lakers executive Jim Buss’ proclamation that he would “bet a lot of money” on Bryant’s return during exhibition play in October.
Bryant’s health aside, stripping a team to the bare bones is a risky proposition. Miami did it successfully in 2010, then appeared in three straight NBA Finals and won the last two titles — after signing James, Wade and Bosh.
But Dallas had lots to spend last summer and couldn’t lure prized point guard Deron Williams. Nor could the Mavericks sign Dwight Howard this summer, going instead with a respectable Plan B of Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert.
Bryant has said he wants to add to his “ring count.” The ball is firmly in his court, as usual.
Times staff writer Melissa Rohlin contributed to this report.
Bresnahan is a Times staff writer. Pincus is a Times correspondent.
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