Are the Lakers willing to do what it takes to bring back forward Pau Gasol… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The Kobe Bryant-less Lakers have grown on the fan base over the past few weeks, playing through a difficult schedule to win seven of 14 games.
With Bryant agreeing to a two-year, $40-million to $50-million contract extension, what does it mean for the team's current roster of scrappy players?
The Lakers have long eyed the summer of 2014, when players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Dirk Nowitzki and Greg Monroe possibly will hit free agency.
The NBA projects the salary cap to climb to $62.9 million in July. Bryant's making roughly $24 million gives the Lakers relatively limited spending power.
Exactly how much the Lakers can spend in free agency and which players on the roster they can keep is not an easy answer.
The team has five players under contract for the 2014-15 season including Steve Nash at $9.7 million and Robert Sacre at $915,243.
Nick Young has a player option at $1.2 million, and the Lakers have Elias Harris on a non-guaranteed contract at $816,482.
If Nash medically retires before playing 10 games this season, his salary will come off the books in July (although he will still be compensated).
Nash recently said he isn't considering retiring. Instead, the Lakers may need to waive Nash while stretching out his salary over three years at $3.3 million a season.
Assuming Nash is stretched, Young opts in and Harris is cut, the Lakers would have just three players on the books (Bryant, Young and Sacre).
Complicating matters is that even unsigned players like Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and Steve Blake eat up millions of dollars in cap room. For the Lakers to fully maximize their space, they would need to renounce each and every free agent.
The team also has a first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft, which could cost the team roughly $1.5 million in salary with a middle-of-the-road selection. That number would climb to as much as $4.6 million if the Lakers do not make the playoffs and win the top pick in the NBA's draft lottery (or as little as $911,400 if the Lakers finish with the best record in the league).
After renouncing every free agent, with four players under contract (including the draft pick), the Lakers would seemingly have $32 million in cap room -- but the NBA also includes a $507,336 roster charge for every open spot a team has under 12.
That would drop the team's cap room down to about $28 million.
What of the current crop of Lakers, helping the team climb to .500 despite playing without Bryant?
Jordan Farmar, Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson are all on minimum contracts. Their cap holds will be just $915,243 next summer, allowing the Lakers to keep all four while still maintaining up to $26.3 million in cap space.
The Lakers can negotiate small (7.5%) raises for each, if both sides are willing -- after the team uses its cap room.
The bigger decision may concern Gasol, whose cap hold is $20.3 million, leaving the Lakers with only $6.6 million to spend in free agency.
If the Lakers first signed Gasol to a contract starting at $10 million, the team would still have about $16.8 million in spending power (while keeping Farmar, Williams, Henry and Johnson).
That might not be enough to please Gasol, whose time with the Lakers could be nearing an end.
The younger Jordan Hill may become a priority. His cap hold is $6.7 million. The Lakers have the ability to sign Hill to a bigger contract after using their cap space. Hill, without Gasol, would give the Lakers $20.2 million to spend in free agency.
Jodie Meeks also has a reasonable cap hold of $2 million, the Lakers may be able to keep his rights and $18.7 million (along with Hill but no Gasol).
The Lakers will also have to deal with cap holds for Chris Kaman ($3.8 million), Steve Blake ($7.6 million) and Ryan Kelly ($1 million).
Additionally, once the Lakers finally use their cap space in free agency, the team would gain a $2.7-million "room exception" to spend -- which might help add one more quality player.
The Lakers may be able to field a roster with Bryant, Hill, Young, Johnson, Williams, Farmar, Henry, Meeks, Sacre and a first-round pick -- after spending $18.7 million in free agency on one or more players, along with a $2.7-million exception.
Locking in Bryant took away one variable for next summer, but the path ahead is still complex.
Though the team may be able to keep some of their young talent, and possibly the emerging Hill, it's difficult to see exactly where Gasol and Nash fit into the team's future.
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Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.