Now that the Lakers are the 2009 NBA Champions, the talk has begun on how they could repeat their success next year.
Two of the major pieces to this championship run, namely Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza, are unrestricted free agents, but both have said that they want to come back to LA, and Odom will probably give the Lakers a hometown discount because he doesn't want to leave LA at this point in his career.
The Lakers are already on the books for about $74 million, which is already $3 million above the 2008-2009 salary cap, which is expected to decrease next year with the economic downturn.
This means that unless Mitch Kupchak can work some magic and decrease the Lakers' payroll, every dollar they pay Odom and Ariza will actually represent two dollars, with the extra dollar going to the league to be redistributed to teams under the salary cap.
Bringing back Odom and Ariza could prove to carry a hefty bill, and some people have proposed the idea of Kobe taking a pay cut to allow the team to sign both back while not exorbitantly exceeding the salary cap.
Now I don't think it is fair to ask Kobe to limit his earning potential significantly so the team can win a championship. It doesn't mean that he doesn't care about winning enough, it just means that he's not willing to stake his and his family's financial future on it. Winning always brings more fame and money, but there's always a risk in professional sports. You have to make the most money whenever you can, that's just the way the business works.
I realize Kobe is already immensely rich and after this championship will likely reign in endorsement after endorsement, but by this logic shouldn't players who are somewhat "riding" Kobe to championships also sacrifice. What about Vujacic who made $5 million this year without earning it? What about Bynum? Gasol?
I don't think all the weight can fall on one guy because everyone perceives his desire to win as so great that he should be willing to pay for it. If it were a collective effort by the team for the benefit of success that is fair, but asking one guy to shoulder the bill for 11 other players is asking a little more than just being a leader.
I know other pros have taken pay cuts before, and Kobe could take a small one like others have, but it likely won't do much in helping sign two relatively costly players back to the roster.
There are many other ways the Lakers can figure out to free up space, but there are two reasonable and fair ways I could see this playing out in terms of Kobe's contribution to the salary cap problem:
1) Kobe opts out of his current contract to sign a new contract for about five years, which he might already do, but he backloads the contract so that the major money in the contract comes in the later years. This might allow the Lakers to keep Ariza and Odom and stay closer to the salary cap in the short-run, and will get Kobe in his money he would get anyway, except in about five years when the Lakers will be rebuilding anyway. This could hamper their performance in the seasons four or five years out, where Kobe's salary would hamper their potential to pay players, but could prove successful for championships within the next three years.
This option is unlikely because teams are a business after all, and are unlikely to mortgage away a few years of their franchise for success now.
2) Kobe takes a pay cut in return for part ownership of the Los Angeles Lakers. I know this sounds ludicrous, but hear me out. Kobe could get part of the team for free in exchange for a pay cut, or for a discounted price. This seems highly unlikely, but Jerry Buss, the Lakers' owner, has made it a habit of keeping around great Laker players who want to stick around, almost as if the franchise were a family.
Jerry West was the GM for the team and brought Shaq and Kobe together. Mitch Kupchak, another ex-Laker, is the current general manager. Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all ex-Laker players, are assistant coaches. Magic Johnson is a part owner of the team.
Unlike other franchises who don't keep around their greats who want to be involved in NBA management, like Jordan with the Bobcats instead of the Bulls, Larry with the Pacers instead of the Celtics, McHale with the Timberwolves instead of the Celtics, and Isiah with the Knicks instead of the Pistons, the Lakers like to keep give options to their ex-players who have desires to be NBA executives or coaches.
Now I know Buss nearly traded Kobe after his demands two years ago, but in all fairness, they were "rebuilding" instead of building for a championship around Kobe, which was his major gripe as he was promised a championship-contending team. Kobe didn't want to waste his prime on a non-championship contender. Of course Kobe could and should have handled that much better, but hey, in the end it did all work out and culminated in a championship in 2009.
If the two could put the past behind them, which I think they have after Kobe sat down with Buss in Europe in the summer of 2007, this idea might not seem so far-fetched. Buss assured Kobe they would get him some help, but was also close to trading the star because he didn't like dealing with divas who took private things public. Kupchak traded for Gasol in February 2008, right before the trade deadline, and the Lakers have since been to the Finals twice, with one championship in hand.
Kobe is now happy with his supporting cast, and Buss is happy he put up with and kept on to his brilliant star.
Odom and Ariza would both be happy to be re-signed under either of these scenarios where they wouldn't have to take massive paycuts, otherwise Buss would have to be willing to spend some serious money to keep this team together. One good thing is that all teams are struggling during this economic downturn and can't spend as much as usual, so the market price for free agents is lower than normal.
When you think about playoff and championship success and how much revenue it brings in for a team, the Lakers made about $48 million on its 12 home playoff games in 2009. This doesn't include championship apparel sales and a lot of other revenue items, but just using that number, if the Lakers were to re-sign Odom and Ariza at market value, they'd spend a third to a half of that on league luxury taxes.
The business comparison would have to be between how well the team would do and make if only one of the players were re-signed, versus if both were re-signed. If the amount of extra money the team can expect to make with getting both back eclipses the cost of one of those players, I'd say bring both back.
But again, a championship brings in huge amounts of money from all sorts of places, so looking at this years bottom line it might seem worthwhile to bring both back, but a semi-successful playoff run with just ticket revenue wouldn't seem as worthwhile.
A lot of it is guessing and hoping, because nobody will know until next May or June whether any decision was right or not.
The Lakers could remove a lot of the associated cost risk with going above the luxury tax if Buss is ready to trust part of his sacred franchise with Kobe, and that could and would provide a boost to Lakers' championship hopes in 2010 and the rest of Kobe's prime.