Barring a miraculous roster turnaround this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers will not be competing for their 17th NBA championship next season.
Although the mentality of the purple and gold in years past has been championship or bust, that changes when you hit rock bottom. The Lakers finished a franchise-worst 17-65 last season, but have seen nothing but upward projection since the unforgettable regular season finale that saw Kobe Bryant exit in a way that only he could, giving us 60 more points to marvel at.
Who will take the torch that Bryant left behind? While many believe that it could be D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle or perhaps the player that the Lakers select with the second overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Los Angeles will shoot for the stars when the free agency period begins on July 1.
The Lakers have a long history of making transactions that send shockwaves throughout the NBA, and have spent the past two summers trying to do so in free agency, with nothing to show for it. Reports have indicated that they will swing for the fences again, but how many true stars will be on the market in free agency this summer?
In terms of massive difference makers, the free agent market is extremely dry this year. Everyone will try to get in the same room as Kevin Durant, seeing as he is the only true superstar on the market this year — unless LeBron James shocks everyone and wants out of Cleveland again — followed by some talented players such as Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan and Hassan Whiteside.
The Lakers can certainly add talent to the roster and they should look to do so, despite a shortage of the star players they typically covet. And while they would ideally like to sign guys that fit seamlessly into the current structure of the roster and the system that new head coach Luke Walton will implement, an overall upgrade in talent can be considered a glaring need as well. The important part is to avoid getting tied up giving long-term money to players on bad deals. If the last two summers have shown us anything, it’s that the Lakers don’t spend money just because they can.
With an excess of $60 million in salary cap space this summer due to an exploding salary cap and a number of expiring contracts, the Lakers will have the flexibility to splurge on free agents this summer, but should they?
Expect Los Angeles to spend some long-term money if they can get some players they really want, but they should save a considerable portion for the summer of 2017.
As I mentioned, there are talented free agents on the market, but this is one of the weaker classes in recent years when you look at depth and star power at the top. In 2017, however, it’s the opposite.
Early projections have shown the salary cap will spike again from around $90 million this summer to somewhere around $110 million next year. So virtually every team should have at least some cap space again heading into free agency, but since max contracts are a percentage of the total cap amount, some teams may not be able to offer them to players that they do not possess Bird rights for.
But what does next year’s pool look like? Here are five of the top players at each position that could be free agents next summer.
C.J. McCollum (RFA)
Victor Oladipo (RFA)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (RFA)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (RFA)
Bojan Bogdanovic (RFA)
*Kevin Durant and LeBron James could be free agents by taking a short-term deal this summer
Nikola Mirotic (RFA)
Steven Adams (RFA)
Rudy Gobert (RFA)
Nerlens Noel (RFA)
As you can see, the talent that could be available next July is far more intriguing than this year’s crop of free agents, so if the Lakers want to make a splash like they have generally attempted to do in the past, 2017 would be the better year to spend big money on long-term deals.
Additionally, Los Angeles would presumably have a better product to sell next summer. They would have another season of development for their young core that will add the No. 2 pick in the draft, along with a year of head coaching experience under the belt of Walton and what should be an improvement in the quality of play, and of course, the win column.
The Lakers should look to add long-term talent this summer, but if they miss out on the top guys that they want, we could see them fill up the immediate cap space with one-year deals as a way to maintain their flexibility moving forward, just like we have seen the past three offseasons.
It would be unpopular amongst the fan base, but unless the Lakers are able to land multiple stars this summer, they are only going as far as their young talent takes them in 2016-17. But that’s alright, because showing a vastly improved product on the court and from their coach — while possessing the upside that they do — will enhance their odds of attracting free agents next summer.
After all, next season is about progression, not winning a championship.
All free agent and salary cap information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.