NBA Free Agency: Magic Johnson keeps mentioning cap space the Lakers don’t have

Magic Johnson doesn’t have a low-key bone in his body. He simply does not do subtlety. So when he’s asked about the team’s direction this summer, of course he ran with a narrative, facts be damned.

Here’s how he breaks down the Lakers’ options and how he’s looking to improve the team. (h/t: LakersNation’s Harrison Faigen and Spectrum SportsNet)

“I feel really good about it. Now, we have cap space for probably two max guys, but that’s not to say we’ll use both of them. We want to if we can, but we have a Plan A and we have Plan B. Say we only get one of those guys, then we’ll make a decision on not to use the cap space. We can do that and save it for the class that’s coming the next year. We’re not going to give money away just because we have the cap space. I’m not about that. If the guy can’t really take our team to another level, and we see what Kyrie Irving has done for the Boston Celtics. Put him with that young talent the Celtics have, and they’ve taken off. We feel the same thing can happen for the Lakers. If we get the right free agent, that guy can take our young talent to a whole ‘nother level.”

The starting point is Johnson’s continued belief the Lakers have cap space they simply do not. A quick glance at Basketball Insiders shows the Lakers will have anywhere from $49M to $59M in cap space, depending on which free agents to be they renounce the rights to.

In the NBA, maxes are handed out as percentages of the cap, with some guys deserving 25, 30 or 35 percent allotments. The projected cap as of right now is right around $100M, so the “two” max spots would have to be of the 25 percent variety, taking them out of the running for LeBron AND another superstar.

Everyone will point to Luol Deng’s contract as a way to open up more room, but it’s not nearly as easy as they think to simply ask another team to take on the remaining 73 trillion over the next three decades (rough estimate) he is currently owed. It’ll take another asset (or more) to convince a team to do this and, after seeing what it took to get rid of Timofey Mozgov’s deal, that initial asking price won’t be great.

Deng could be stretched in the offseason, opening up roughly $11M in space to spend next year — an almost guaranteed outcome if the Lakers can’t find a taker on his deal.

Jordan Clarkson could be moved to free up another $26M over the next two years, but you’d have to find the right partner with the enough expiring contracts to take on no additional money in order to take full advantage. And no, Magic firing off tweets about Clarkson’s improved play don’t actually help his trade value.

You could move Julius Randle now and avoid having to pay him this offseason, but do you really want to send away someone who’s proven he’s one of precious few who can guard positions one through five just to clear up enough room to maybe sign a star? That’s quite the gamble.

Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have been deemed untouchable by this front office, so they’re off the table, and it’s hard to imagine they’d be all that thrilled about trading Kyle Kuzma given the positive headlines they’ve earned by landing the steal of last year’s draft.

All that leaves someone like Larry Nance, Jr., who would be a nice addition to the right team, but isn’t the kind of asset that will convince anyone to take on Deng’s deal. Ivica Zubac’s value has fallen through the basement, so that isn’t an option and given no one’s seen Thomas Bryant play NBA minutes, his return would be pretty minimal by himself.

So, now what?

If we take Magic at his word and ignore the mathematical errors in his thinking, maybe he is serious about landing only one superstar to build with alongside all the promising you talent mentioned above. It’s a great idea in a vacuum, but as we’ve seen over the last few years, NBA players aren’t leaving their situations to simply be the big fish somewhere else. Superstars sign elsewhere as free agents to team up.

So we’re back to square one, which requires opening up enough room to allow guys like LeBron and Paul George to do so.

There’s also what the Lakers might do if they do land a couple stars. Might they demand a couple young assets be turned into a third star? We saw what happened with Andrew Wiggins when LeBron went back home to Cleveland. This is where things get insanely tricky, but it’s also a hypothetical question in an already unlikely hypothetical scenario.

Continuing to speak as if they have room that they do not have currently can’t feel great to potential victims of the desired cap space. Clarkson and Randle have both played well enough that their on-court success should be the story, but it’s hard to watch them and not wonder whether they might be on their way out anyway.

Transparency is usually a great policy for fan relations, but so obviously stating the goal as they have might not be the smartest way to head into negotiations with other teams. If another front office smells desperation to open up space, good luck garnering anything close to a fair offer.

Magic and Rob Pelinka have surely gone over the various scenarios a few times, but if they want this star-chasing plan to come to full fruition, they’ll have some insanely tough questions to answer along the way. As players play well enough to be taken off the negotiating table, another asset will have to take their place.

Of course, they could rethink this star-driven strategy, but there’s risk there, too. Is this what Randle will definitely be moving forward, or did his sudden improvement on the defensive end have as much to do with his upcoming contract status? Is Kyle Kuzma a legitimate prospect? Or are we watching another older rookie outperform lowered expectations? Ingram has been great and looks like he’s going to be for the foreseeable future, but if his growth stalls, then what?

There are no easy solutions to the Lakers’ path forward. It just might not be the smartest public relations policy to attempt to speak things into existence before they can become realities.

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