May 21, 2018, 9:34 pm
The Lakers’ leadership of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka had an excellent inaugural year. They successfully unloaded Timofey Mozgov’s anvil of a contract to Brooklyn and followed it up with an absolutely spectacular draft – stealing Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart at the end of the first round. Those moves, coupled with the positive development of core players Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle, led the Lakers to their best season in five years as they increased their win total from 26 to 35 games. They might have even significantly eclipsed that mark had they not suffered a plethora of injuries towards the end of the season.
Los Angeles heads into this offseason with a lot of excitement and optimism. It is crucial that they continue the momentum of last year and make sound decisions as they continue to mold their young team and budding franchise.
The first event that will set the table for the rest of this offseason is the NBA draft on June 21 in New York. The Lakers do not have their first found pick as it is conveyed to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the ill-fated Steve Nash deal. However, they do own the Cavaliers first round pick due to the midseason Isaiah Thomas trade – that pick is slated to be the 25th overall selection. While they are without their second round pick, which is owed to Orlando as part of the Dwight Howard acquisition, they do own the 47th overall pick as a result of taking on the burden of Jose Calderon’s contract in a savvy 2016 move, acquiring Denver’s pick via Chicago in the process.
Considering the recent success the Lakers have enjoyed when picking late in the draft (Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Jordan Clarkson and Josh Hart), there is some significant excitement surrounding the potential players that could be added to the already promising Lakers’ core. An added benefit to hitting on the late picks is that those players have low cap numbers – accruing relatively cheap players in bunches could afford Los Angeles the chance to sign a couple more expensive pieces and build a real contender in the near future.
The Lakers have already begun their due diligence, bringing in a series of talented prospects that may be available with either of their two picks. The focus is on players who fit the Lakers’ positional needs while also making sure the players mesh with both their offensive and defensive philosophies. That means they need players who can run the court, stretch defenses with 3-point range and move their feet quickly on defense – the area the Lakers stress more than any other element of the game. Los Angeles made a quantum leap in defense this year, improving from last in the league in defensive rating all the way to 12th.
Some of the players that the Lakers have worked out or interviewed are: Chinese Prospect Abudushalamu Abudurexiti, Deng Adel (Forward-Louisville), Udoka Azubuike (Center-Kansas), Sedrick Barefield (Guard-Utah), Hayden Dalton (Forward-Wyoming), Keita Bates-Diop (Forward-Ohio State), Donte DiVincenzo (SG-Villanova), Rob Gray (Guard-Houston), Ethan Happ (Forward-Wisconsin), DJ Hogg (-Texas A&M), Jalen Hudson (Guard-Florida), Jo Lual-Acuil Jr.(Forward-Baylor), Anas Mahmoud (Forward-Louisville), Caleb Martin & Cody Martin (Forwards, Twins, Nevada), De’Anthony Melton (Guard-USC), Chimezie Metu (Center-USC), Shake Milton (Guard-SMU), Mitchell Robinson (Center-N/A), Omari Spellman (Forward-Villanova), Allonzo Trier (Guard-Arizona), Lindell Wigginton (Guard-Iowa State).
The two most heralded prospects on this list are Bates-Diop and Robinson:
Bates-Diop, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, averaged 19.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 48.0 percent from the field, 35.9 percent from 3-point range and 79.4 percent from the free throw line. He has great size for a wing player, standing at 6’7” with a 7’3” wingspan. The primary concern regarding his game is his lack of elite athleticism and whether his game will translate well to the NBA level.
Little is known about Robinson as he did not play at a collegiate level. However, he was a five-star prospect and the number one overall center in the 2017 recruiting class. Considering his potential at a position of need, he is an exciting prospect should he fall to Los Angeles. Robinson stands 7’1″ with a 7’4″ wingspan, intriguing athleticism and the skill base for a solid offensive game. Multiple sources, including Bleacher Report, have reported that Robinson has received a promise from the Lakers that they will draft him with their 25th pick should he fall to them.
Cap & Roster Evaluation
The NBA salary cap is projected to be around $101 million for the upcoming NBA season. The Lakers are committed to only five players: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma and Luol Deng for a total of $34.5 million dollars. They also must reserve roughly $1.5 million for their first round pick.
Deng presents a massive conundrum as he is due $18 million dollars this year, along and an additional 18.8 million the following year. In order to free up money to add two max-salary contracts, the Lakers would need to find a taker for his bloated contract. However, in order to do so, the Lakers would have to add significant assets to unload his deal. Most pundits believe the burden would be this year’s first round pick and an additional item of value such as a current player or future pick. That simply may not be worth the cost. The other option is to stretch his contract which would defer the financial burden across several future years – either $7.4 million over five years or sign him to a three-year extension, stretch him and then pay him $3.3 million a year over 11 years. The latter would afford the Lakers a lot of space to maneuver under the cap and may prove necessary.
A pivotal piece for their offseason and future plans is Julius Randle, who has a $12.4 million dollar hold on the Lakers’ cap until he signs with them for a larger amount, signs with another team, or they renounce their rights to him. Therefore until the matter of his Laker future is resolved, the Lakers will have an estimated $48.5 million dollars committed, leaving them with $52.5 million in available cap space – by far the most of any NBA team this offseason.
The 23-year-old power forward demonstrated vast improvement while playing all 82 games for a team that was otherwise beset by injury. He averaged 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 55.8 percent from the field. Randle worked incredibly hard in the offseason to hone his game and physique — his efforts translated to both ends of the court. Laker fans would be sorely disappointed if the budding star is not retained.
The Lakers have several non-guaranteed salaries, many of whom are affordable and young, but may be expendable pending free agency plans. They include Ivica Zubac ($1.5 million), Tyler Ennis ($1.7 million) and Thomas Bryant ($1.4 million). Considering the dearth of depth at center and point guard in Los Angeles, the Lakers are likely to try to retain these cost-effective contributors.
Bryant showed tremendous potential as a stretch big man in the G-League last year, earning All-NBA G League First Team honors while averaging 19.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while shooting 59.5 percent from the floor and 36.4 percent from 3-point range. He is therefore least likely to be a cap casualty.
The Lakers must also decide what to do with a slew of unrestricted free agents including Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas.
Potential Free Agent Acquisitions
There are a tremendous number of players that are eligible to change teams this offseason, potentially drastically altering the landscape of the NBA. Listed below are some of the more notable options, several of which are potential additions to the Laker franchise.
Wilson Chandler, Dewayne Dedmon, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Paul George, Danny Green, LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan, Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn, Thaddeus Young
The Lakers have made no secret of the fact that they made strategic moves to position themselves to be able to add at least one max contract, possibly two, this offseason. In particular, they have emphasized a focus on adding a marquee player such as LeBron James or Paul George – both of whom have the ability to opt out this year. There is even the thought that they may try to add both players together. This may prove difficult as James is projected to earn up to $35.4 million a year and George can max out at $30.3 million.
A couple of players who are underrated but would help the center starved Lakers significantly are Dedmon and O’Quinn, who are both likely to opt out in search of larger paydays. Both players excel at defending the rim and should come at a fairly affordable rate. Both big men also work within the framework of the Lakers’ strategy on the offensive end as they have developed their 3-point range.
Unrestricted Free Agents:
Trevor Ariza, Will Barton, Aron Baynes, Michael Beasley, Marco Belinelli, Avery Bradley, DeMarcus Cousins, Seth Curry, Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Favors, Yogi Ferrell, Jeremy Grant, Mario Hezonja, Ersan Ilyasova, Amir Johnson, Alex Len, Kevon Looney, Greg Monroe, Jameer Nelson, Nerlens Noel, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, JJ Redick, Anthony Tolliver, Dwyane Wade.
DeMarcus Cousins is the only superstar on this list; however, due to his ruptured Achilles tendon and expected max contract demand, one could argue that he may not be the ideal fit. He also has a history of being a difficult teammate and a disruptive locker room presence. When healthy, he is one the most dominant and skilled big men in the entire league and should the Lakers miss out on other free agent targets, they may be tempted to roll the dice on the mercurial Cousins.
There are many other players on this list who could be positive additions to a growing team, including some with a lot of potential. Nerlens Noel is possibly the most interesting player on the list, a center with terrific athleticism, quickness and the potential to be an elite defender. His potential is so alluring that Los Angeles reportedly entertained the notion of trading Randle for him in the early parts of last season – a trade they were fortunate to avoid as Randle elevated his game while Noel had a disappointing campaign. Consequently, Noel may be available at a significant discount compared to the deal he was expected to sign last offseason.
Several other players on this list have depressed value coming off of injury plagued or otherwise limited seasons including Curry, Bradley, Lens and Favors. It would behoove the Lakers to explore cost effective deals that may develop into cost-controlled assets and contributors in the future.
Restricted Free Agents:
Kyle Anderson, Nemanja Bjelica, Clint Capela, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Rodney Hood, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Napier, Jusuf Nurkic, Jabari Parker, Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart.
Many of the players on this list will be hard to pry from their existing teams due to the ability of the initial team to match any offer. That being said, Capela would be an absolute dream as he has shown the ability to dominate the paint, even outplaying Rudy Gobert for the bulk of the Rocket’s second round victory over the Jazz.
Should the Lakers fail to retain Randle, Gordon makes a lot of sense as a combo SF/PF, who is developing his outside shot while possessing world class athletic ability. The 22-year-old has potential star ability and could be a great addition and easy fit in the Lakers up tempo style of play.
Another target might be Smart, a tenacious defensive-minded guard who would add a lot of defensive ability and grit to the Lakers. He may simply not be worth the necessary investment depending on what other moves Los Angeles is able to make.
The Lakers would love to build on the solid pieces they have already acquired, however, a recent report by Tania Ganguli made it clear that no one is untouchable if the right deal presents itself.
The trade most discussed at this time is a possible acquisition of Kawhi Leonard, the All-World forward for the Spurs. Leonard missed most of the season due to a calcified bruise in his quadriceps. Due to strife between his representation and San Antonio over the management of his injury and his subsequent reluctance to play for the franchise, there has been speculation regarding his future. Since Leonard is a Southern California native, Los Angeles has been mentioned as a potential landing spot.
The difficulty here is that Leonard is a free agent in 2019 and can earn a max deal at that time. The Spurs must solve the acrimonious relationship with their star as well as decide whether to offer him a max-salary deal around $40 million a year. Should they fail to do so, they have no choice but to explore trade options or risk losing him for nothing the following year.
Recent reports suggest that the Spurs have every intention of offering him a super-max, $219 million deal over five years.
The Spurs have already made it clear that they would want a king’s ransom for Leonard, a statement that makes his acquisition challenging. Although it is difficult to assess his health considering he only played eight games last year, should he pass a team physical, he is one of the best two-way players in the entire league. However, is the cost of his procurement worth the young cost-controlled talent that it would take? The Lakers’ brass will have to decide if he is worth the gambit.
Summary & Opinion
The max-salary contract player most worth adding to the Lakers’ budding young core is LeBron James. As badly as Los Angeles wants to add a star to accelerate their rebuild, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins are simply too risky for several reasons. Both players have a significant injury history including offseason knee surgery for George and the doubt surrounding Cousins’ recovery from his Achilles rupture — arguably the most devastating injury an NBA player can endure. Another major concern is cost as both players are likely to command a max-salary while their ability to contribute at the corresponding level is somewhat in question. Coupled with the overwhelming deficit between the Lakers and the top teams in the West, it appears that the Lakers’ future would be best served to maintain a slow-build for the near future.
James is an entirely different beast. He is one of the greatest players of all time and is once again in the midst of leading a team to the finals, this time with a cast far less impressive than the current Laker core. He would instantly make the Lakers contenders to go deep into the playoffs and possibly even championship contenders with the right supplemental additions. Although James is approaching 34 years old and has unmatched court mileage, he does not appear to be slowing down. He has no major injury concerns and may be able to use his high basketball IQ to maintain his level of play through a four-year contract should the Lakers succeed in convincing him to bring his talents to Los Angeles.
Arguably a more appealing plan is to retain Randle while continuing to develop the young nucleus for one more season before looking to land a big fish in the 2019 free agents class. Among the potential players headlining that class are: Eric Bledsoe, Jimmy Butler, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Ricky Rubio, Klay Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic and Kemba Walker.
A long-term strategy affords the Lakers other avenues and benefits such as the cap space to retain Randle and further vet their other young players before making financial commitments to them.
The Lakers can also accrue assets instead of relinquishing them in order to create cap space or unload Deng’s behemoth of a deal. Simply waiting a year to deal with his contract significantly reduces the assets required to move him or the financial burden of using the stretch provision on him.
In the interim, the Lakers could use their league-leading cap space to sign players with breakout potential, perhaps creating trade value or cost-controlled contributors. The remaining space could be used to assist financially strapped franchises willing to part with future draft picks to rent the Lakers’ cap space — giving the Lakers assets that could put them in a position of power as their young core reaches its prime and teams like the Warriors leave theirs.
What is evident is that the Lakers are in a better position than in recent memory. There is a positive aura surrounding the future of this team and tremendous excitement entering this momentous offseason. There is excitement on the court, financial freedom and trust in management. It will be fun to see how they execute their plans and continue to rebuild this once preeminent NBA franchise.