There was nothing going on this quiet, calm post-Independence Day save for my neighborhood being littered with empty beer cans and bottles and discarded bottle rocket casings in the schoolyard next to my apartment. Just a lazy Saturday with my wife and my pug until Bill Simmons swept in like a mini NBA rumor hurricane with his tweet that Carmelo Anthony had added the Lakers to the Bulls and Knicks as his top three signing options. (By the way, what happened to Houston?)
Hearing the Lakers made a MAJOR impact on Melo this week – it's now a legit 3-way battle between LA/Chi/NYK to land him. Crazy NBA weekend.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) July 5, 2014
As a Lakers fan, I’m allowing myself to feel the positive vibrations that accompanied this news, even though it makes just a modicum of sense.
With the Lakers offering Melo the max (four years for $97 million), that means he and Kobe Bryant would combine for a great googly moogly $47 million against the ~$63 million cap for 2014-15. This is no way to rationally to build a team, not from a fiscal perspective, not from an on-court perspective. Over the course of Melo’s ten-year career, he ranks third overall in usage rate at 31.7%. Over the same period of time, Kobe’s first at 33.2%. They’d be splitting nearly 75% of the team’s salary cap, so why not do the same with its possessions? The team doesn’t have a coach, they have just four players under contract, and their hyped lottery pick may or may not need surgery on a wonky foot. Maybe it would make more sense to add a couple new starters. Players like Jameer Nelson, Isaiah Thomas, Lance Stephenson, Luol Deng, Kris Humphries are sensible options and fill immediate needs.
But these are the Lakers, a franchise that has acted with panache and audacity since at least 1968 when they added Wilt Chamberlain alongside Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Through some Jedi Mind Trick mastery, they’ve managed to sign or trade everyone from Wilt and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaq, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. Even the draft has delivered the type of bounties that call into question all laws of the known NBA universe: two number one picks in a four-year span yielded Magic Johnson and James Worthy to play alongside Kareem. The strong arming of John Calipari that allowed Kobe to slip in 1996? The improbability of Andrew Bynum?
With the exception of a few brief rebuild years – the period between Magic and Shaq and a subset of time between Shaq and Pau – the Lakers have been a coveted free agent destination for over 40 years. But these past two seasons have created an unexpected detour from the road we’ve traveled to the point my fan-self has felt the team shift from prime time to punch line. The Lakers have felt like Finch in American Pie after he manufactures a flattering and mysterious reputation about himself only to be poisoned with a strong laxative and be humiliated as the entire school stands around the bathroom like creepy voyeurs listening to the explosions of his bowel movements. In this new world where the luxury tax swings heavy like a merciless scythe and the Lakers appear rudderless without Dr. Jerry Buss at the helm, the franchise that was once able to luck into top picks and flip an unproven Marc Gasol and Jarvaris Crittendon into all-star Pau seems painfully ordinary. Another NBA writer whose view I respect recently described the Lakers as “middling” and lumped them in with the Bucks and Magic and while it felt like a low blow, it wasn’t unwarranted. The Lakers are no longer the Lakers.
At least not until Melo, by way of Simmons, delivered this sliver of unexpected hope. But what would make the Lakers as compelling as the Bulls who appear to be in a better position to win now and tomorrow? Why would Melo leave $30 million and an extra year on the table in New York when Phil Jackson’s at least providing the appearance of being an agent capable of great change?
ESPN tells us that a combination of Kobe, Randle, Gasol, and long-term cap flexibility had a “strong impression” on the 6’8” forward. Yahoo Sports speculates that Melo having a home in Los Angeles may play a role. Then there’s the Kobe factor. The two all-stars “became extremely close” during the 2012 Olympics and while Bryant was unable to attend the Lakers meeting with Melo, he has no doubt been pitching him all along.
Then there’s the glitz and glam of Hollywood, of the Lakers. For all the style and surface-level appeal of Los Angeles, there’s a bedrock of absurd amounts of money. In a piece on The Los Angeles Times, writer Eric Pincus wrote:
According to a memo distributed to teams by the NBA, the Lakers project to earn a $158.3-million profit for the 2013-14 season, before tax and revenue sharing.
The Chicago Bulls, second on the list, earned less than half that amount, at $75.7 million. The Clippers were seventh at $30.4 million. The Brooklyn Nets were the least profitable with a loss of $51.5 million, before tax/revenue sharing.
The Lakers will also pay $8.7 million in luxury taxes and contribute $49.6 million into NBA’s revenue sharing, reducing their profits to $100.1 million — which is still $38.5 million ahead of the Bulls’ net of $61.6 million.
Pincus also reminds us that the Lakers achieved this league-best profit while suffering through their worst season since the franchise moved to Los Angeles and second worst season in franchise history. Through decades of shrewd management mixed with a lot of luck and Dr. Buss’s commitment to entertainment and winning, the Lakers have masterfully leveraged every advantage to which they have access to the point that the name written across the jerseys still generates money even when the team is playing more like the Clippers of old.
As Derek James, also of Hardwood Paroxysm, wrote to me about the Lakers: “I once had a customer come in after visiting a Lexus dealer and he said he asked the salesman why he should buy his car. To which the salesman replied, ‘It’s a Lexus!’” And even when Kobe and the Lakers are slipping into the unknown of old age and new management, when there are better options for winning, more money to be made elsewhere, when all rational reasons are screaming at you to do anything but pick up that phone, you still pick up: Because it’s the Lakers. So while Melo signing with the Lakers feels more like some hazy dream than any stone cold sober reality, the idea that he’s seriously considering a team coming off a 27-win season is enough to breathe hope into an apathetic fan lazing away the idle days of summer, a million miles away from the NBA season.