For Lakers, now is the time to shine
With team emphasizing cap flexibility, players must focus on this one season
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- As ugly as the Lakers' luxury tax and salary cap excesses have been the past two seasons, their balance sheet heading into the 2014-15 season is clean enough to make an accountant blush.
Of the 19 players in training camp, only Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Nick Young are under contract past this season, and if the Lakers really wanted to they could slice that down even further by waiving Nash and stretching out the final $9.7 million on his deal over their cap for the next three years.
But for now, the Los Angeles Lakers remain decidedly unattached.
"I'll be honest. It's a tough thing to do," said new Lakers center Chris Kaman, who experienced a similar situation in Dallas last season, as they lined up their books for a run at Dwight Howard by assembling a group of players on one-year contracts.
"You've got the opportunity to play one year and you could play really well, or you could play really bad. You could fit in great, or you could not fit in. You could get hurt or you could stay healthy. There's just so many things that can happen, and the biggest one is that you're on a one-year deal and you're worried about it the whole time and it stresses you out.
"But you've got to just play basketball. That's what I've been doing for 10 years and that's what I'm trying to focus on doing now."
Kaman has been around and through enough things in his career to stay professional no matter the circumstances.
But it really could break either way. Say the Lakers get off to a rough start -- and they easily could with their schedule and a still-recovering Bryant -- how nervous will players get as the trade deadline approaches in February? And even if they make it through that, how tempting will it be to eschew team concepts and start padding individual stats?
"Well, they probably won't be playing all that much [if that happens]," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni joked. "So that kind of takes care of itself."
D'Antoni is on something of a hot seat himself, despite the two years and $8 million remaining on his contract, so he's basically in the same boat as his players. It's not the first time, either. He has made no secret that his first couple of seasons in New York were spent trying to pump up players' stats so the Knicks could trade them and better position themselves for LeBron James and the free-agent class of 2010.
He sees the situation as a positive, though.
"Actually, I think it's easier because we've got really good guys that know they're not going to be successful without the other guys," D'Antoni said. "So they're very attentive to what we're doing and trying to buy in right now."
Or, as Kaman puts it: "Honestly, what I've learned in this league is that it's not about the numbers you're putting up. It's more about winning. Look at all the guys who got paid this summer. If you want to get paid, you need to have a winning team. It's not about your numbers."
Shawne Williams has learned that the hard way and is grateful for another chance to shine in D'Antoni's system, after off-court issues and inconsistent play have derailed his career.
"Whoever is in this situation, which is a lot of us on this team, we put ourselves in it," said Williams, who had his best season as a professional in 2010-11 with D'Antoni in New York. "So we can't come in and look at the person in the same jersey as the competition. We just have to keep our head on and try to do the right thing."
When asked about Kaman's theory that the players who are rewarded financially in this league are mostly from winning teams, Williams agreed.
"That's definitely true," Williams said. "You have a couple people that get paid after playing on losing teams, but those are pretty much the maximum [salary] guys anyway. But if you win, everybody gets paid. Because when you win, everybody looks good. Even the guys that don't play as much look good."
Of course, D'Antoni does have a track record of making marginal players look good. In both Phoenix and New York, there's a line of players and their agents who should be cutting him in on the back end for the way he featured and developed them offensively.
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"I'm going to tell you the truth. I was dreaming about getting back with Mike, but I felt like it was a long shot because of the way it happened in New York. I didn't know if it would happen. This league is such a revolving door. So it's a blessing to me to play for him again. I just have to take advantage of it."
For Gasol, this live-in-the-moment philosophy has become old hat by now. The ground under the 7-foot Spaniard's feet hasn't felt solid since the Lakers tried to trade him to New Orleans in the failed Chris Paul trade of December 2011.
"It's nothing new," he said with a smile. "I've learned to live my life on a daily basis and try to have fun in the process."
Like the majority of his teammates, Gasol's contract ($19.3 million) expires after this season.
"You don't really think about it, but that is the reality," he said. "Guys are going to go all out. That's the positive part of it. There's no security for next season. You're in a position to give it all, give your best, and earn your next paycheck and contract.
"I don't look at it as the last ride, but you never know, so you have to fully commit to the present, to the season, make the best out of it and see what comes out."