With Kobe staying as highest-paid player in NBA, the Lakers can rebuild but it’s not easy

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Kobe Bryant has signed a contract extension and is staying on with the Lakers for two more seasons. That news made Lakers nation happy — go to a Lakers game and you see the flood of 24 jerseys in the crowd — you quickly realize why the Lakers could not let him go at any cost. He fills the luxury boxes, he draws the sponsors, he is worth a lot to them financially. More than they can pay him.

But they are still paying him a lot.

ESPN reports the deal is for two years at $48.5 million — Kobe Bryant will remain the highest paid player in the NBA.

For a team that has sold its fan base on making moves with a lot of cap space this summer to again contend, this throws a little kink in the plan. A big kink. Maybe a crippling kink.

The Lakers will still have money to go after a max free agent (if they can recruit one, that’s another issue) but after that they wouldn’t have a lot left. Especially since they do not want to go over the luxury tax line next year, they want to get away from the repeater tax.

That is not going to make the Lakers a contender. The contract holds them back (remember Tim Duncan scaled back to $11 million, Kevin Garnett about the same).

The Lakers still should have about $22 million in cap space next summer, reports Larry Coon at his NBA CBAFAQ. (Ed. note: These numbers are updated from the original version of this post.) In case you’re curious, is more than LeBron James will get but less than Carmelo Anthony’s max ($23 million). Not that either of them are likely to leave their current settings ( you never know, but don’t bet on it). The Lakers will be in the market for second tier guys — Luol Deng, Zach Randolph, Danny Granger and others.

The salary cap next summer is projected to be $62.9 million. The Lakers will also have their own first round draft pick. Based on their current record, this pick would fall around #15, and would therefore count around $1.5 million against their cap.This would give them a total of about $37.66 million for six players. We need to add another six cap holds totaling $3,04 million, which brings the total to about $40,70 million.

With this team salary, the Lakers would have about $22.2 million in cap room next summer.

However, the situation gets even more complex for the Lakers.

The Lakers process has to start with a clear plan for  what kind of team they are building — if they are keeping Mike D’Antoni around as coach they can’t just go get anyone (particularly Carmelo Anthony), they need to get specific players that fit his system and what he wants to do.

The Lakers go into next season with three contracts on the books — Kobe at $23.5 million, Steve Nash with $9.7 million (with what he is saying I don’t expect he will retire), Robert Sacre at $915,243 (Elias Harris has a non-guaranteed deal, we will assume he is gone). They will have a roughly $1.5 million slot for their first-round draft pick this year. In theory Nick Young could stick around as he has a $1.2 million option, but it is more likely he opts out to try and find a longer deal. The Lakers have a player option on Ryan Kelly at $1 million they may pick up. The Lakers also likely would want to keep Jordan Hill around, but he is an unrestricted free agent playing his way into a bigger payday than the $3.5 million he made this year.

Then there are the cap holds — placeholders against what the Lakers can spend based on them keeping their own free agents. Pau Gasol is at $20 million, Steve Blake at $7.6 million and it goes on down the list through Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks and others.

To have their max money to go after free agents the Lakers have to renounce their rights to all of those guys – plus Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and others playing well in their roles — and let them be free agents. Only then do they have the empty roster and cap space. Or they could re-sign those guys and cut into the $20 million.

Which is to say, the Lakers can’t just test the market and expect Gasol to be there as a fallback in case their dalliance with others doesn’t work out.

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has said before rebuilding is a multi-year process for the Lakers — they are not going to check everything off the box this summer.

But if they are going to get Kobe Bryant the ring No. 6 he so desperately wants they only have a couple of years now as a window. And it’s not going to be easy to get those guys. Not with Kobe’s salary on the books.

Why did Nick Young play for Warriors last season? “I just needed to win”

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Coming off a season where he was part of an NBA champion, Nick Young is a free agent. Still. Which is a bit of a surprise — he’s a gunner, but a lot of teams could use the buckets he brings off the bench. Even if he didn’t always do that within the flow of the Warriors’ offense.

Young had been in the NBA for a decade when he went to the Warriors, and in speaking with Adam Caparell of Complex Magazine (hat tip NBC Sports Bay Area), he said that Lakers’ coach (and former Warriors’ assistant) Luke Walton opened up the door for him with some calls.

“I just needed to win. I had been on a lot of losing teams. Always rebuilding,” says Young. “I feel I needed to experience [winning] and be around guys who are just really good teammates like Draymond, even though he’s crazy.”

It worked. Swaggy P has a ring.

And he wants you to know he earned it — and he earned being in the league for a decade plus. He puts in the time on his body and craft.

“I love basketball. I wish people could see that it’s hard to be in the NBA—not only to get there, but to stay there this long,” he says. “I know players who were drafted higher than me that are gone.”

The big question now is where Young plays next season. He played 17 minutes a night for the NBA champions last season and 41 percent from three, some teams could use that. They may be looking at younger players they think they can develop, but before long some team will turn to Young because they know he can get them buckets.

It just may not be the same winning situation he was in a year ago.

 

C.J. McCollum on stars joining Warriors: “I think that’s disgusting”

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It remains the best “I want to start a passionate and irrational debate” topic around the NBA: Stars jumping to a contending team. Mainly the Warriors. Kevin Durant got a lot of “he took the easy way” flack when he did it (and he could calm a lot of the debate around him by just saying “I’m winning, I’m happy, that’s all that matters” but that’s not KD’s nature, so he pushes back on the narrative).

This summer it was DeMarcus Cousins. It’s not like there was some great demand for his services coming off a torn Achilles, but his signing with the Warriors was the biggest surprise of the summer and led to a lot of “how do we stop them?” comments. (I don’t know, maybe offer Cousins more than an exception contract. Just a thought.)

C.J. McCollum — touring China to promote his shoes — was on China Central Television and said he would never do that.

“I would never do anything of that nature, I think that’s disgusting… I was not built like those guys, I was raised differently… I think some players will take that route, but most guys have too much pride, they want to do well or certain organizations that are not going to jump the bandwagon.”

Plenty of fans and other players agree with McCollum.

I don’t — I like the fact players such as Durant (and LeBron James, and others) are taking control of their own destinies more. They shouldn’t be just puppets of GMs. It’s okay that the Warriors drafted and developed Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the rest because that’s “natural” but the second a star player says “I like the culture and style they built there, I want to be part of that” it’s wrong? I don’t buy the “guys have to do it themselves” line of thinking because guys never won titles on their own — not Bill Russell, not Magic Johnson, not Michael Jordan. They were all on stacked teams. The difference is the players are making more of those choices now rather than leaving it to the white guys in suits.

McCollum is on a 49-win, three-seed team with another elite player in Damian Lillard, a franchise that was looking all summer for a way to add another star or more talent to the roster. But I guess that’s different somehow.

Bucks bring in Christian Wood for training camp, give him chance to make roster

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For three seasons now, Christian Wood has bounced between the NBA and G-League (he played for the Sixers, who cut him to bring in Elton Brand, and Charlotte). He has been trying to improve and show he has NBA skills — a 6’11” forward who has a face-up game, an improving outside shot, and his defense seems to be coming together. He’s still just 22 years old.

The best he looked was playing for the Bucks at Summer League in Las Vegas this year, where he averaged 20.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game, shot 55.4 percent, and made the All Summer League First Team.

That got him a training camp invite to Milwaukee this fall.

The Bucks have a final roster spot open, and they have now signed Woods and Shabazz Muhammad for camp, giving them a chance to compete for it and impress new coach Mike Budenholzer. (Tyler Zeller also is on a non-guaranteed and could get that spot.)

Budenholzer likes bigs who can shoot and space the floor, and Woods shot 30.4 percent from three in Las Vegas — not earth shattering, but he’s a more willing shooter from the outside than Muhammad. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch in Bucks training camp. In Las Vegas, Woods looked like an NBA player, but Vegas can be a desert mirage, he needs to carry that play over to training camp to get a roster spot.

Kyle Kuzma on LeBron James’ Lakers: “a lot of people are underestimating us”

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Just how good are the LeBron James led Los Angles Lakers?

Las Vegas’ Westgate Sports Book put their under/over win total at 48.5. I’ve seen predictions that range from the three seed to talk of them missing the playoffs. Nobody really knows because, while LeBron’s greatness isn’t in question, there are plenty of questions about the fit around him: Lance Stephenson? Can Lonzo Ball play well off the ball more considering his shot? Where does Rajon Rondo fit in the PG rotation? What kind of step forward will Brandon Ingram take? Michael Beasley? Is JaVale McGee ready for a larger role? Will the Lakers go small at times with LeBron at the five? (I think that could be their best lineup, if used right.)

Kyle Kuzma thinks you’re selling the Lakers’ short.

Back in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, this week for a YMCA promotion, Kuzma told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN he has worked out with LeBron and they like this roster.

“We are both definitely excited about the roster and the pieces that we have,” Kuzma told ESPN on Tuesday, after visiting with 20 kids from the Safe Places program at his hometown Flint YMCA as part of the “My Y Story” content series. “And we think that a lot of people are underestimating us. It is definitely going to be fun playing with all these new guys.”

“A lot of people say we got a lot of different people, a lot of new people,” added Kuzma, who also is holding a three-day camp for children in his hometown. “But change can be a good thing. It is not necessarily always a bad thing. There’s a lot of teams in the NBA that need to work on their chemistry; we are just one of them…

“I don’t know why people kind of just rule us out because we are young,” said Kuzma, who was a first-team All-Rookie performer after averaging 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds last season. “We are hungry. We are competitive. Anybody that watched us play last year, we were in a lot of games.”

The big change the Lakers made this season is good — LeBron makes the Lakers a threat. Kuzma is right on that front.

However, the question has never been “will the Lakers be good?” They have LeBron and some quality talent around him, of course they will be. The questions are more along the lines of “how fast can they come together?” and “where do they slot in the West, where there are a lot of good teams?” Assuming Golden State and Houston finish as the top two seeds in some order, where do the Lakers rank against Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland, New Orleans, Minnesota, Denver, and San Antonio? And that’s without getting into teams such as Memphis or the Los Angeles Clippers who have potential if they can stay healthy. That’s 12 teams I just mentioned battling for eight playoffs slots, 12 teams capable of winning at least 45 games if not more. The margin for error in the West is minuscule.

But are we underestimating the Lakers? Depends on what the standard is. These Lakers are not contenders yet. But do you really think a LeBron James team is going to miss the playoffs?