This is the NBA's new math.
In what universe would the Lakers even consider dumping a four-time All-Star in nothing more than an accounting move to save a few bucks in salary and luxury tax? In this universe, that's what -- the universe created by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
According to ESPN.com, the Lakers have had discussions with the Cavaliers about a trade that would send Pau Gasol to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum. The motivation? With Kobe Bryant hurt again and the Lakers clinging to slim hopes of even making the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference, LA would then waive Bynum before the other half of his $12.25 million salary becomes guaranteed on Jan. 7.
Depending on how the deal is structured, it could save the Lakers millions in salary and luxury tax this season and nudge them under the tax threshold -- which would save them from the dreaded repeater tax next season.
Rival executives are dubious that the orbital patterns of the cosmos have changed so dramatically that the Lakers would simply fold their hand and give up.
"It stinks to me," one such executive said Tuesday.
Yet in the NBA's new financial and competitive landscape, that which stinks sometimes makes sense.
The Lakers had the league's highest tax bill last season at $29.3 million, which bought them a team that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. That was back in the good old days, when the tax rate was simply $1-for-$1.
The 2013-14 season is the first year of the enhanced tax rates (starting at $1.50 for the first $5 million and ramping up to $3.75 and more for teams that are more than $20 million over the line). Next season, teams that have paid the tax in each of the past three seasons will face incremental rates (starting at $2.50 for the first $5 million and increasing to $4.75 or more for teams that are more than $20 million over.)
With a $79 million payroll, the Lakers face a repeater tax rate next season. They currently have only $35 million in committed salary, including Steve Nash's $9.7 million -- which could be reduced by two thirds if they use the stretch provision on him. But if the Lakers want to go shopping in free agency and put some semblance of winning talent around Bryant -- who will be paid $23.5 million in the first year of a two-year extension -- paying repeater tax rates would seriously encumber them.
So it has come to this for one of the NBA's most storied and historically big-spending franchises: With Bryant hurt and with little hope of being a playoff team, dumping salary and punting on the season looks like a reasonable alternative.
Do I think the Lakers will do this? It would require a fundamental shift in their competitive and financial DNA. Not to mention the fact that skipping a season in the tax wouldn't by itself spare them repeater rates in 2015-16 -- the second year of Bryant's extension. The repeater rates are in effect for any team that pays the tax in four out of five seasons starting with the 2011-12 season -- meaning if the Lakers really are scared of the big bad wolf, they would have to take two years off from paying tax over a five-year period. If that were the case, why'd they sign Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension in the first place?
Also, there's this: If the Lakers stand pat, they'll have an $11.3 million tax bill this season -- about a third of last year's bill. That's pocket change to the Buss family. And forgetting about the repeater tax for a moment, if they ride it out with Gasol, they'll be free and clear of his contract next season. For the trouble of saving the Lakers a few bucks this season, however, the Cavs undoubtedly would ask a steep price in terms of LA taking back future money. If they simply keep Gasol and hope for the best, the Lakers at least know they'll have no future obligation related to him -- both in terms of his own contract and as far as any salary they'd have to take back in a trade.
In other words, in some ways trading Gasol would only make the Lakers' problems worse -- both in the short term and the long term.
So for this scenario to have legs, we need answers to several questions. Have the Lakers completely given up on Gasol, and in turn, on their season? Would they consider rolling the dice in a reunion with Bynum to see if they can salvage his career? Would they rather dump him, too, save millions and put off their day of reckoning with the repeater tax?
In the end, it will all hinge on the Lakers' appetite to be a repeater team. By signing Bryant to a $48.5 million extension before he even came back from his Achilles injury, it would seem that they've already answered that question.
The Lakers we used to know and love would never consider dumping Gasol's salary and giving up. But if they've altered their thinking so dramatically in the NBA's new universe, it would be the surest sign yet that it's time for us to do the same.