Though the formalization of the new CBA proceeds at a slow churn, the NBA rumor mill is already in mid-season form. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard — both in the final year of their respective contracts — are suddenly ready to be shipped every which way, and media outlets of every form are examining the possibility of certain teams landing the big fish of next year’s free agent class.
The most popular rumored destinations are, shockingly, a pair of usual suspects: the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Clearly the new collective bargaining agreement has rocked basketball sensibilities to their very core.
The Knicks are a particularly odd case because they seem to be included in the discussion without regard for practical considerations. I’m sure Chris Paul would love to play alongside Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony…just as I’m sure he’d love to play alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Desire alone won’t will Paul to New York any more than it’ll get him to Miami, as the Knicks lack the cap space to sign him outright next summer and no longer have the assets to sell the Hornets on a trade. The financial pieces just don’t seem to add up to link Paul to the Knicks, but then again: stranger things have happened.
The Lakers’ position in such rumors is slightly more believable, if only because Los Angeles is inching toward a franchise crossroads, and actually has the pieces necessary to facilitate some kind of deal. The underlying truth that drives the Lakers involvement is the fact that their core is unstable in the long-term; the salary commitments to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum are only set to get more and more ridiculous as time goes on, eventually reaching a critical point by the third season of the new collective bargaining agreement. It may be too early to panic in anticipation of a development a few years down the line, but realistically, the Lakers should begin planning for their future — both in terms of that particular season and life after Kobe in general — as soon as possible.
As remarkable of a player as Bryant is, things don’t typically bode all that well for 33-year-old wing players staring down the twilight of their careers. His ridiculous work ethic will no doubt keep him productive for a long while, but the days of Bryant anchoring a team with his ridiculous output are numbered, if not already flittering away. Yet Kobe will be paid $25 million this season, $28 million next year, and $31 million in 2012-2013 — just in time to take up nearly half the room under the newly fortified luxury tax line. Oh, and Los Angeles only has to find room for Pau Gasol’s salary of around $19 million for each of the next three seasons, the two years remaining and $31 million remaining on Andrew Bynum’s deal (and a likely extension beyond that point), a new contract or replacement for Lamar Odom, and a roster full of competent role players alongside that enormous financial commitment to Bryant.
If Jerry Buss is willing to cut the check for an unprecedented luxury tax bill, then the Lakers have a shot at preserving their current core. But even then, there is no guarantee that the trio of Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum will be able to score L.A. another championship. This isn’t really the kind of situation that a general manager and owner can just stew on; something’s gotta give, as the Lakers will likely either start to feel their on-court performance become stale over time, or be saddled with three giant contracts that prevent the construction of an adequate supporting cast.
The Lakers may never make a serious run at Howard or Paul, but considering where they stand, they’ll certainly entertain the notion. It’s difficult to say exactly what Los Angeles would be willing to surrender in the process — or the resolve with which they’ll explore those superstar options — but the potential and mechanics of a possible deal are there, as are some very real motivations for the Lakers to rework their roster on the fly.