Fiduciary re-distribution may be what is driving the league's owners to push for a re-imagining of the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, a way for the teams to reap a greater share of the NBA's monetary pie, but fans should be embracing the idea to prevent more circumstances like the Lakers from recurring.
Look, the soft cap has done a lot to help reign in spending in the NBA while also giving smaller market teams a fighting chance against the behemoth owners that dot the landscape. San Antonio and Utah stand out as particular examples of organizations that have done more with less, while the New York Knicks spent the 2000's proving why money doesn't always equal success in the NBA.
That said, the Lakers and their $95-million in salary obligations this year seems somewhat outside the spirit of what the soft-cap was intended to preserve, which is a way for a team to avoid losing their own because of a hard ceiling imposed on their spending. Now, the Lakers have done nothing untoward in building their team. Unlike in baseball, the Lakers couldn't simply outbid other squads for top talent, they had to acquire the old fashioned way: through the draft, trades and legal free agent signings. In the last fifteen years, they've mastered the art of team building to a degree that no other organization can match (with the possible exception of the Spurs). Their scouting of Kobe Bryant was masterful. Their luring of Shaq was well-placed aggressiveness. Their acquisition of Pau Gasol was shrewd and timely. Their ability to hire (and retain) Phil Jackson tied it all together they have five titles to show for their abilities.
Still, when you as an organization are in a position to allow your payroll to hit $95-million (which is $35-million over the salary cap and $25-million over the luxury tax threshold), a precious few rival organization are really playing in the same league as you are.
This isn't a way to trash the Lakers, by the way. They should be and are commended routinely for their ability to build Championship contender (Magic/Kareem) after Championship contender (Shaq/Kobe) after Championship contender (Kobe/Pau) by obeying the same rules as the hapless Knicks, Clippers and Timberwolves. Still, when the time comes to hammer out the new rules for the CBA before it expires next summer, it would do 80% of the league a lot of good if the playing field were leveled a bit so that the Milwaukee's and Charlotte's were able to compete in the same talent acquisition/retention game that the Lakers, Mavs and Celtics currently play at the top of the NBA money pile.
While the rules are reworked, the Lakers remain atop the NBA heading into this season, both in notoriety and in spending. Their back-to-back Championships carry a lot more weight than the visions of greatness currently swirling unabated in Miami, and their possession of one of the last ‘killer instinct' players in the league certainly gives them an edge every night out on the court. They may be spending more than any other NBA team to possess those advantages, but regardless of ‘how' or ‘why', they have them. As the balance of power begins to shift Eastward heading into this new decade, the Lakers return path the Finals looks as easy as it's been since 2001. If they stay healthy all year, they could easily trump Miami's win total this season. They may be expensive, but at least they live up to their price tag.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – DEREK FISHER
People seem desperate to write this guy off at the start of every year. They say he's too slow, too old and too limited to be an effective player against today's point guards. Well, the fact is that Fisher has more rings than any other point guard currently playing in the NBA, and there are only 23 players in the HISTORY OF THE LEAGUE with more rings than he has. Yes, he's played with some fantastically talented players, but the fact remains that to be a part of so many Championships you have to contribute substantially to their acquisition. You can't always itemize what Fisher does (at least not as easily as some can itemize what the feel he doesn't do), but you can certainly itemize what he's accomplished. All you have to do is count to five.
SG – KOBE BRYANT
It's funny in a way that the final, decisive event that cemented Kobe's status as the greatest player currently playing the NBA had nothing to do with Kobe at all. When LeBron opted to join the most hated team in the league, Kobe's once-reviled selfishness became his most endearing trait. All of a sudden the single-minded egomania and borderline-destructive pursuit of individual greatness have become the characteristics that separate him (in a good way) from the once-adored Super Friends in Miami. Kobe wants to win, he wants to be great, and he wants it so much more than LeBron that his status as the best in the game today has become a given. His entire history is being rewritten by someone that is showing the world what Kobe's talent in a less sociopathic persona looks like, and many are embracing what they once despised now that they can see the difference. Maybe if LeBron and the Heat start pilling up the Championships attitudes will change, but right now Kobe stands alone atop Mount Basketball because someone else just doesn't want to be there enough.
SF – RON ARTEST
Ron Artest was criticized a lot last year. He was called out for his career-low stats (11.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.4 spg), his slowness to pick up the Triangle Offense and for not changing the face of the team like some had hoped he would. However, he came up huge at all sorts of opportune times during the post-season (harassing Kevin Durant, hitting the end-of-game shot against Phoenix, his three-point shooting against Boston) and ultimately redeemed himself fully with his oft-quoted post game interview after he won his first even Championship. He'll never blend in seamlessly with this team, but he's still an economical option that can play and defend multiple positions and one imagines that he'll have an easier time playing within himself now that he has a ring and doesn't have to sweat screwing up the chemistry of a Championship outfit.
PF – PAU GASOL
Do you remember, back in 2006 and 2007, when people starting saying that Gasol was one of the most overrated players in the NBA? How he'd never won a game in three trips to the Playoffs, how he was never selected to an All-NBA team and how ‘soft' became a synonym for his name - so people just began to wholly write him off? Well, flash forward three years and two titles and all of a sudden Gasol is being bandied about as the best player in the league at his position. With Tim Duncan and Kevn Garnett in decline, and with Dirk Nowitzki saddled with the ‘loser' tag, Gasol has risen to the top of the heap after so many had begun to toss him into the leftovers bin. If he gets another title in LA then he's going to start entering into a pantheon alongside some pretty great All-Time players, which would be a pretty substantial jump considering what people were saying about him in his last year's in Memphis. It just goes to show that circumstance can color the career of a player just as much as talent and drive can.
C – ANDREW BYNUM
Bynum is basically becoming a full-time half-year player. His inability to stay healthy must give Lakers management pains after they committed $57-million to him in 2008, although it must help them swallow the debated $32-million they gave out to Lamar Odom the following year since he's basically been Bynum's safety net these last few years. Odom slides in seamlessly to the starting five, keeps the Lakers at the top of the Western Conference, then eases back onto the bench with nary a peep whenever Bynum is deemed healthy enough to play. One day this state of affairs may actually derail something for the Lakers, but for now it's a system that seems to work for them so Bynum's expected December availability may actually be seen as a positive omen of things to come in June. We'll have to wait and see.