Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team's offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.
Trades and Claims
Rookie Contract Option Decisions
It's certainly been a wild first month of the season for the Lakers, with coach Mike Brown's firing, the team's flirtation with Phil Jackson, the lengthy interim tenure of Bernie Bickerstaff and the ultimate arrival of Mike D'Antoni as the new man in charge. None of it might have happened, however, without the expectations that the offseason foised upon this year's Lakers. The summer already seemed enough of a success when L.A. became the surprise destination for free agent Steve Nash, but the trade for Dwight Howard made others in the league throw up their arms in disgust a yet another Lakers coup.
The Howard trade was hailed by most as an upgrade for the center position, and Andrew Bynum's renewed knee problems certainly support that theory. Still, at the time, Howard's own health problems made it a gamble. GM Mitch Kupchak and company swapped the younger Bynum, coming off his best statistical season by far, for a player coming off major back surgery who had just submarined his coach and put his team through an eight-month-long media firestorm. It seemed like Bynum could eclipse Howard as the league's best center if he kept improving, and the Lakers knew exactly what they were getting with the player they'd nurtured since he joined the team in 2005 as the youngest player in NBA history.
Still, Howard's superior basket protection makes sense given the team's acquisition of Nash, a defensive liability. That he's already established as the league's best center also gives Howard an edge on a squad that's built to win now, before Nash and Kobe Bryant decline. And since both Howard and Bynum are due to hit free agency in 2013, nothing's guaranteed beyond this season. Howard seems ecstatic about his new surroundings, despite the team's slow start, but even though the Lakers could give him an extra year on his next contract, Howard's track record suggests the Lakers must take nothing for granted.
The move that transformed the Lakers from a team adrift back into contention was the sign-and-trade that brought Nash aboard. That, too, was not without risks, since Nash will be making $9.7MM as he turns 41 in the final season of the three-year, fully guaranteed deal. His is the only contract on the Lakers' books for 2014/15, as executive vice president Jim Buss admitted in October that the team has been strategically clearing his books for the summer of 2014, when LeBron James can opt out of his deal with the Heat. Nash, though, was still going strong last season, when he turned 38, posted double-figure assists and tied a career high by shooting 53.2% from the field. He's a clear upgrade at the point, where Ramon Sessions struggled in the playoffs and left a void when he turned down his player option for 2012/13. The team used the trade exception left over from the Lamar Odom deal to faciliate the sign-and-trade for Nash, who'll make precisely the $8.9MM value of that exception in the first year of his contract.
Having beaten out the Knicks and Raptors for Nash, the Lakers convinced Jordan Hill to turn down overtures from the Timberwolves despite only being able to bring him back for the $3.6MM he would have earned in a team option the Lakers weren't even responsible for declining. The Rockets turned the option down before they traded Hill to L.A. at last season's trade deadline, when Hill's acquisition took a back seat to the deal that brought in Sessions. Hill, a former lottery pick who seemed on his way out the league, showed his value as an offensive rebounder in the playoffs, giving the Lakers the reliable big man off the bench they lacked after trading Odom.
The Lakers made another well-received move when they convinced Antawn Jamison, the second-leading scorer for the Cavs last season, to sign for the minimum, well below market value, particularly since the Lakers still had their taxpayer's mid-level exception available. By this time, L.A.'s status as a contender, if not title favorite, made them an attractive destination for free agents like Jamison who were chasing a ring and willing to make a monetary sacrifice to go after it. Jamison struggled at the start of the season playing small forward, but has improved since D'Antoni began using him in his usual capacity as a stretch four, though the change appears to have pushed Hill out of the rotation.
Right after the Howard trade, the Lakers once more relied on their title chances to convince a free agent to sign for less than he could have made elsewhere. They allocated a little less than half of their mid-level exception to pry Jodie Meeks away from more lucrative offers from the Bucks and Wizards. It's somewhat ironic that he'll be making more money than Jamison, since Meeks was benched and saw his minutes cut by more than half in the playoffs last year with the Sixers. Still, Meeks, who made 38.3% of his three-point shots the last two seasons, gives the Lakers some of the outside shooting they've lacked.
The day they signed Meeks, the team also finalized its deal with former second-round pick Devin Ebanks after making him wait for more than a month after their agreement on his qualifying offer was reached. The Lakers were holding out in case Ebanks needed to be signed-and-traded in a deal for Howard. If the team had signed him right away, Ebanks couldn't have been traded until December 15th. Last season's opening night starter at small forward could have ditched the agreement and signed with another team, but the Lakers had the right to match offers for the restricted free agent, and there was no serious talk of another team getting involved.
The Ebanks signing allowed the Lakers to become the first team in NBA history to sign two players to qualifying offers in the same offseason, since they'd inked Darius Morris to his qualifying offer in July. That move has paid unexpected dividends with Nash and Steve Blake out with injury this year, as Morris has temporarily inherited the starting point guard job.
The Lakers are sitting on the remaining $1.59MM of their taxpayer's mid-level exception, giving them the flexibility to sign one of the remaining free agents on the market. If that's going to happen, it would make sense for them to do so by January 10th, when the exception begins to prorate down. Even though the bench, despite the additions of Jamison and Meeks, continues to be a sore spot, there seems no rush for the team to do so. The Lakers' payroll exceeds more than $100MM this season, and the choice of two rookies, who have no prior NBA experience and thus make a minimum salary roughly half that of the veteran's minimum, for the last two spots on the bench is a sign of subtle cost-cutting. Salary cap guru Larry Coon estimated shortly after the Howard trade that the team's salary and luxury tax bill for 2013/14 would be a record $185MM in 2013/14 if the team re-signs D12 to a maximum deal this summer. There may soon come an end to the team's seemingly limitless spending. For now, though, the priority remains championships above all else, and the team will surely use the rest of its mid-level exception if it deems it necessary.
Like their Staples Center neighbors, the Clippers, the Lakers pulled off a fairly significant overhaul without the benefit of cap room or a first-round pick in this summer's draft. Indeed, the Lakers will find themselves without first-round picks with regularity in the coming years, having traded every first-rounder they're allowed to give away under the Stepien Rule to acquire Howard and Nash. Though much is riding on Howard's decision next summer, the verdict on the 2012 offseason will come in the spring of 2013. It's championship or bust for the purple and gold, as usual.
Luke Adams contributed to this post.