I’m going a long way back, but I recall Jerry Buss once saying he wouldn’t pay NBA luxury taxes because exceeding the non-tax limit would hurt competitive balance.
In other words Buss wouldn’t want an advantage over franchises who couldn’t afford to pay excessive amounts for players. The Lakers’ owner thought that wouldn’t be fair.
But times change. New rivals came along, most notably Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, who would spend anything in hopes of building a championship team.
So here we are in 2009. Buss went over the tax limit by $5 million last season and was $12 million over it last week when he had to make a decision on Lamar Odom.
Already frustrated when Odom and his agent didn’t respond to an initial offer, Buss considered walking away.
My sources tell me he was quite serious about that. And Lakers’ general manager Mitch Kupchak was getting nervous.
“When an offer is taken off the table, sometimes it is revisited and sometimes it isn’t,” Kupchak said.
My sources also tell me it took Odom’s personal involvement — his call to Buss (not the agent’s call) — that resulted in the resumption of negotiations at the end of July.
And then Odom agreed to a four-year deal for $32 million — not much different than what been offered previously — but with one key change. The fourth year is at the Lakers’ option, It is not guaranteed, so Odom’s deal is worth less than it was a couple of weeks ago.
But Odom is signed and the Lakers will be favored to repeat as NBA champions.
Still, it is a gamble. The Lakers now are more than $20 million over the salary limit and must pay an equal amount in the luxury tax.
Sure they have an outstanding team, but there are no guarantees in sports. A broken bone, a sprained ankle can alter the outcome of a season, Just because you win one year doesn’t mean you’ll win again.
And anything short of a repeat trip to the NBA Finals would be extremely harmful to the Lakers financially. An early round playoff elimination would be a disaster.
Subtract the income from several playoff rounds — money that is factored into the budget — and, well, I don’t even have to finish this sentence.
During the Lakers’ recent march to their 15th NBA title Buss said he would do whatever was necessary to keep a championship team together. He has kept his word, but believe me, exceeding the luxury tax figure by this much goes against his basic thinking.
Soon Kobe Bryant’s contract will be extended, but that won’t change next season’s figure. Bryant will make $23 million, an amount already on the books.
The key new expenditure that led to the team’s current financial dilemma was giving Andrew Bynum a multi-year, $54 million contract last season.
The 7-foot-1 Bynum has vast potential, but he contributed very little to the current championship. He was so ineffective that Odom often replaced him in the lineup.
However, the Lakers were faced with the decision of paying Bynum that figure or losing him. Because, as a free agent who has shown flashes of becoming a dominating center, he surely would have received that amount from someone else.
So here we are. The Lakers are now becoming frugal in ways that are unusual to them in order to reduce the tariff even a little bit. They released guard Sun Yue last week to save the $100,000 he would be guaranteed had he been on the roster August 1. In NBA economics, $100,000 is usually peanuts.
In addition, the Lakers are planning to cut down on the number of players in training camp to save a few more bucks even though with less players there Coach Phil Jackson will have to alter his workouts.
The Lakers are rolling the dice that they can repeat as champs. But make no mistake, it is a gamble. They are now in luxury tax territory, for better or worse.
They’ll be there again next year too. Because of the sluggish economy the luxury tax ceiling was reduced by $1 million recently and the league has warned teams it will probably decline again the following season.