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NBA AM: Is The Luster Coming Off The Lakers?

Why aren’t free agents going to the Los Angeles Lakers? What changed?

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Luster Coming Off The Lakers?:  While the Los Angeles Lakers still have not received anything official from any of the big named free agents they are pursuing, there is a narrative that is continuing about one of the league’s marquee franchises that simply won’t go away.

The Lakers just are not that desirable.

Now before Laker Nation plots to burn down my house or floods my Twitter timeline with insults, hear me out.

There is no better marketplace to be an athlete than LA. If you are looking to be a star, they shine the brightest in LA and specifically in basketball while wearing a Laker jersey.

If you talk to anyone who has played on another team in the NBA and then was a Laker, you’ll hear how radically different it was even for accomplished players.

Being a Laker means being a star and all of the luxuries and riches usually follow.

Sounds great, right? Why wouldn’t everyone want to be a Laker?

Well, what if you are already a star? Or better yet an All-Star at the top of the NBA food chain? Sure, you might get more, but is that what some of the players the Lakers have been targeting are looking for?

LaMarcus Aldridge for instance is a four-time All-Star, he’s one of the top players at his position and in the prime of his basketball career. Is being a “bigger” star what’s motivating him to consider leaving a playoff team in Portland?

The truth is that most of the players the Lakers have been targeting in free agency over the last two years do not need what the Lakers can easily offer – star status. Most of them have that already.

The problem is what the players the Lakers are seeking want is to win and win big, and while there is an argument to be made that had any of those players said “yes,” the Lakers would be on a better path to that goal, the truth of it is the Lakers as a franchise are not what they seem.

Laker Nation is not going to like this next part, but it is sort of like the band-aid scenario, it’s going to sting a little bit, but it will get better once the problem gets a little bit of air on it.

The Lakers are not a well-run franchise.

For years, that was not a problem. They had the best talent and an ownership structure that was willing to give away whatever it took to keep the talent cupboard stocked. The Collective Bargaining Agreement made it possible for the Lakers to lead with their check book, and anytime they made a mistake or misjudged value they simply traded it away for a bigger contract or just spent more money.

If you throw enough money at anything, you can make it look great from the outside.

The problem for the Lakers (and the Knicks qualify here too) is that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement has made spending your way out of problems a lot harder than it has ever been, and now the system favors teams with a long-term vision, development infrastructure and strategic planning.

The “nerds” have taken over the league and the jewels of the NBA are paying the price for not keeping up with the changing process.

The Lakers have never been on the forefront of player development, mainly because they have never had to be. They traded away draft picks for proven veterans and the guys they drafted were meant to be role players rather than future cornerstones. They never had to build players, because they could always buy really good ones.

The Lakers never had to worry about analytics; the best talent trumps analytics every day. LeBron James posted epically bad percentages in the NBA Finals and still powered his team to a few wins with second- and third-tier guys next to him. Analytics don’t matter much when you have the top players in the game.

That’s not to say the Lakers never looked at the numbers. That’s not the case, the Lakers have always had the same data as other teams; it just never had to play a role in the team building process because the Lakers could have the pick of the litter and did need to find value priced players.

The Lakers were also winners. It’s a lot easier to convince a guy to come to a championship contender than a lottery team.

This is where the Lakers are getting crushed lately. They have a golden history, one of the most storied in basketball, but they do not have as clear cut a future. There are bright spots on the roster now, especially after scooping up D’Angelo Russell in the draft, but are guys looking to win next season willing to wait for the young guys who have logged no NBA minutes to find their way?

There is no questioning that being a Laker is better than being a member of almost any other franchise in basketball. There is star status obtained the moment you slide on that jersey that you do not get anywhere else in the NBA. That is what the Lakers can offer that no other team in the NBA can, and that’s likely why their pitch to free agents have been so centered on that. That concept is what makes the Lakers the Lakers.

The problem is All-Stars don’t need more bright lights, especially ones that are looking for new situations. They have the status, that’s why the Lakers are calling them. The problem is the Lakers do not have a viable path back to greatness. Until they can walk into a room with a free agent and explain how that free agent wins a championship next season, they don’t have much for the proven All-Star guys.

Where the Lakers win, and win big, is the next generation of stars – the guys that have not arrived yet. The guys that covet the exposure possible as a Laker. The problem is none of those kinds of players move the needle with fans, and it takes time to turn a promising young guy into an All-Star and that’s the circle the Lakers are trapped in for the foreseeable future.

Remember The New Economy:  In early June, I penned a piece in this space forecasting what was to come this week in terms of free agent player valuation.

After some 24 deals were done and more than $1.5 billion in new contract money verbally agreed to, it’s important to revisit why this happening.

Unless you have been under a rock for the last year, you have likely heard about how the NBA salary cap is going to balloon under the new TV rights deal.

The always wonderful Ken Berger of CBS Sports is reporting that this year’s salary cap could get set slightly higher than initially projected pushing the cap to north of $68-69 million on July 9th.

Next year that number could grow to north of $89 million, with 2017’s cap figure possibly eclipsing the $100 million mark, assuming business remains booming in the NBA.

New Orleans big man Anthony Davis agreed to a maximum contract extension on July 1, which is being reported as $145 million. That number is assuming the cap is certain number and he’ll get 30% of that as a starting figure.

The good news for Davis is that number does not get locked in until next summer and that number is based on the final cap figure for 2016. The cap this year might see an unexpected $2 million bump. Could 2016 see an even bigger bump? Surely Davis’ camp hopes so.

But this brings us back to the point. You can no longer look at NBA salaries as cash. No one else in the equation is doing that. You have to look at salaries as a percentage of salary cap.

Salary $69m $87m $97m
$5m 7.2% 5.7% 5.2%
$7m 10.1% 8.0% 7.2%
$9m 13.0% 10.3% 9.2%
$12m 17.4% 13.8% 12.9%
$14m 20.3% 16.1% 14.4%
$16m 23.2% 18.4% 16.5%
$18m 26.1% 20.7% 18.6%
$20m 29.0% 23.0% 20.6%

It’s not are you worth $5 million per season any more, it’s are you worth 7.4 percent of the cap? If you are, then you are worth $5 million this year, $7.03 million next year and $7.17 million in 2017. That means you are worth a three-year, $19.2 million contract.

Apply that same math to a guy you believe is worth $12 million per season. That’s 17.3 percent of the cap. So $12 million this year, $15.05 million next season and $16.78 million in 2017. That $12 million guy, should be getting a three-year, $43.8 million deal.

Now keep in mind that math does not include raises beyond those built into the increases.

It sounds crazy when you look at five years and $80 million for Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson, but when simply average that out evenly that is $16 million per year or 23 percent this year, 18.4 percent in 2016, 16.5 percent in 2017. The escalating salary cap is going to hide most of this money.

It seems crazy to have teams shelling out this kind of money to non-marquee guys, but that’s the nature of a revenue sharing economic system.

The new TV deal and the new $1 billion apparel deal with Nike are making the players’ share of the revenue so much larger, the byproduct is that the deals have to get bigger too.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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