Just days ago, the Los Angeles Lakers’ task at the trade deadline and in the coming summer was simple: Clear as much cap space for the summer of 2018 as they possibly can, at all reasonable cost.
Sounds simple enough, but as other teams knew exactly what the Lakers were trying to do, of course their jobs were made tougher. In essence, the simplicity of their plan complicated their attempts at pulling it off. Now that the Lakers have reportedly shifted their focus to the following offseason, they have options moving forward.
Let’s figure out what that might look like.
Now, while they may have reportedly moved off of an almost religious edict to clear cap space for LeBron James, Paul George, Boogie Cousins or whomever, by no means have they deserted those plans altogether. So with that in mind, acquiring another team’s bad contract at the going rate of a draft pick is out of the question.
That probably changes after they take a meeting with the aforementioned superstars, but for now, they still very much want to take said meetings and wouldn’t be able to if they add the kind of money teams consider meaningful enough to attach a first rounder to.
Based off of this, and the reported frustration with the kinds of deals teams have offered for Clarkson and Randle, let alone to take on Luol Deng’s contract, this trade deadline should be pretty quiet.
The same cannot be said about this summer.
Everyone knows about the contracts expiring at season’s end (Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez, etc.). Of everyone who might walk, only Randle has performed well enough where losing him for nothing would hurt. If others want to come back at basement level value, cool. But otherwise, adios, amigos.
The other factor that absolutely has to be pointed out is how few teams are going to have money to work with this summer. The Lakers are joined by only the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, and Dallas Mavericks. That’s it.
For some context, Lou Williams just signed an extension under the full midlevel exception and if that’s any indication of how things are going to go for free agents, it’s going to be a bloodbath.
I simply cannot ascribe to a theory in which Julius Randle of all players gets some monster offer as a restricted free agent. Why would one of the above teams whose main advantage this summer will be spending ability commit it a large portion of it to the three-day waiting period that all restricted free agents’ teams get to decide whether or not to match? I just don’t see it.
So with that in mind, the Lakers can probably get away with a team-friendly deal on Randle over a couple years, or he signs his qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent the following summer. Either scenario makes sense.
What would probably be the best case for both parties is a two-year deal at reasonable money (say, $9M), giving the Lakers flexibility when Deng’s contract finally is up and Randle the opportunity to reenter free agency when most of the terrible contracts signed in 2016 come off other team’s books.
Which leads me to my next point: The Lakers should plan everything around the development of its young core and the end of Deng’s contract.
If the Lakers still believe they have a chance at this year’s superstar free agents, fine, stretch Deng and trade away any money that isn’t tied down. But if those meetings end without an agreement, hit the market and find any and all value they possibly can.
Deng’s deal ends the summer of 2020. That would make Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball right around 23, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart 25 and Julius Randle 26. By that time, the Lakers (and almost just as importantly, the rest of the league) should have a pretty clear idea of what that young core will look like. Before that time comes, the top priority should be putting complementary pieces around them to make absolutely sure the needed development occurs.
Then, once Deng’s corpse is mercifully off the books, the Lakers will have a burgeoning young core and a flexible cap situation to offer to any superstar they might want to pursue either in free agency or via trade.
Given the nature of the market this summer and probably next, there will be value to be had, and probably fairly easily, so long as the Lakers are willing to dig in the middle ground between league minimum and maximum guys.
And that doesn’t even count the trade market.
That fateful summer of 2016 meant for several smaller markets that they would find themselves in cap purgatory. Owners of those teams are going to pressure front offices into doing whatever they can to make the bottom line more manageable. Here’s where the Lakers can take advantage of their cap space and market size while the core develops.
Go ahead and roll your eyes, but the Brooklyn Nets are a great example of this. They weren’t going to be good anyway, but they desperately needed young talent. So, they took on the Timofey Mozgov deal to add D’Angelo Russell to their roster. Maybe the Lakers won’t be able to land a top two pick, but there will be first rounders to be had, and in the current CBA first-round draft picks are gold.
What would Atlanta offer for the Lakers to take Kent Bazemore off their hands? How about the Miami Heat and any one of their expensive, mediocre contracts like Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside? The Orlando Magic and Bismack Biyombo? Sure, those names are not all that inspiring, but they’re semi-useful players their current teams might not want to pay anymore and could come attached to a legitimate asset.
Those mid-market deals and the names listed in the previous graf aren’t the kinds of guys who will win headlines, but they can win basketball games, and in this market, given what does convince superstars to leave their situations, those wins are almost as important as cap space itself.
Stars aren’t signing with teams as the first piece that turns an organization around. They’re teaming up. They’re going to playoff teams. They’re forcing their way out of losing situations.
The sooner the Lakers learn this, the sooner things will actually start improving. The minor moves I’ve laid out are ways to help the organization take steps forward so as to present itself as a viable situation if a star becomes available.
My final macro-level point here: Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have options, especially now that they may have come down from their superstar-or-bust edict. This makes them less predictable and thus, more dangerous.
These next few months are critical for the Lakers. This we know. But Johnson and Pelinka bought themselves some time by rethinking the plan they brought with them. Time and leverage they should use wisely, as they and the team they inherited grow together.