NBA free agency is merely days away. As the league prepares for the legal free agency window to officially open on June 30 at 6 PM EST, teams, players and agents are already starting to make moves.
The excitement continues to build for one of the most anticipated offseasons in NBA history with marquee names such as Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant (albeit coming off surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon), Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and more on the market as unrestricted free agents. This much star power available on the open market, combined with the awful injury misfortunes of the league juggernaut Golden State Warriors, creates the remarkable potential to see a massive shift in NBA power this summer.
The anticipation is exceptionally high for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans, as the front office has been angling for two years now toward having financial flexibility available for this summer to chase these star free agents. It has all led to this.
General manager Rob Pelinka has been at the forefront of a massive roster reconstruction that projects a total of five players on the active roster with the Anthony Davis trade being agreed upon, leaving soon-to-be third-year forward Kyle Kuzma as the longest tenured player on the Lakers’ roster.
It all started when Pelinka and then-president of basketball operations Magic Johnson traded away D’Angelo Russell to shed Timofey Mozgov’s substantial contract and create more cap space down the road. Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart would eventually follow as casualties to the Lakers’ mission of adding superstars to the roster.
The Lakers signed LeBron James as a free agent last summer and now have a deal in place to pair him with Davis, with the financial means to add a third star to the mix. The Lakers, like any other team with a path to create the necessary cap space, will be trying to get in the same room as Leonard and the rest of the aforementioned star free agents in the coming days, as they attempt to build a super team.
Ironically enough, Russell was the very first domino in this plan to fall and he could also be the last one. Russell is a restricted free agent, meaning the Nets can match any offer sheet he signs with another team, keeping him in Brooklyn. But several reports have indicated that the Nets are the frontrunner to land Irving in free agency, and if that happens, they would likely renounce Russell and make him an unrestricted free agent.
If the Lakers are unable to land one of the top free agent options, Russell could seriously come into play as the third major piece next to James and Davis.
How could both sides reunite after the trade in 2017?
A few months ago, this notion seemed completely unrealistic and incredibly far-fetched. There have been rumors that Pelinka and Russell’s agent, Aaron Mintz of Creative Artists Agency (also the agent of Paul George and Julius Randle), have a history as rivals dating back to Pelinka’s days as a very successful agent. There has also been noise to suggest that Mintz and current Lakers brass have had issues working together in the last few years. But it’s important to remember that agents work for the players, not the other way around. It’s also important to note that Pelinka and Mintz have possibly at least tried to work together, even if the results have turned out poorly.
Additionally, Johnson is no longer running basketball operations for the Lakers. Johnson and the Lakers could easily frame the Russell trade with the Nets as one that freed them of Mozgov’s $16 million per year contract and gave them significant additional cap space moving forward. There is no question that this was the driving incentive to make the deal — along with receiving the 27th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, that ended up being Kuzma — but Johnson also let it slip that the deal was in large part due to the leaked video incident between Russell and Nick Young.
Magic Johnson said he traded D’Angelo Russell because of the “Shaggy P” problem.
He also said he wanted to fire Luke Walton and get a “better coach.”
Via @FirstTake pic.twitter.com/8qIFwXNJC6
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 20, 2019
This might also indicate that Johnson was the driving force of the trade, so who knows exactly how Pelinka felt about it. It is also possible that Pelinka and Magic have a poor relationship after the latter outed the former for some things going on behind the scenes during his appearance on ESPN’s First Take. So things could be drastically different with that dynamic out the window. Now with Johnson out of the way, Russell could reportedly be open to the idea of returning to the Lakers, as first reported by Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus.
Russell’s breakup with the Lakers wasn’t pretty, but it’s difficult to hold grudges in this league. With Johnson gone, some close to Russell have indicated he may be open to the idea if Brooklyn isn’t in the picture.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added on Tuesday that Russell would be “open-minded” to the idea of returning to the Lakers and that he could be at the “top of the list” for Los Angeles in free agency. But Wojnarowski didn’t stop there. He shined some light on the Lakers’ side of things, saying they are “rooting” for Irving to join the Nets, which could make Russell an unrestricted free agent.
Woj on the Lakers/D'Angelo Russell reunion possibility pic.twitter.com/RIBKvtCsfm
— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) June 25, 2019
What once seemed foolish to even consider has quickly become a realistic possibility. A few dominos need to fall first (Lakers missing on Leonard and other top free agents while Irving goes to Brooklyn), but there is now a feasible path to Russell and the Lakers reuniting in the very near future.
How does Russell’s market impact an offer from the Lakers?
This is really the thing that is up in the air, because we just don’t know all the dealings that are happening behind closed doors in NBA front offices, despite so much information being reported nowadays in the social media era. While on the surface, it might not make sense for a team to pay big money for a certain player, sometimes it happens anyways.
First, let’s take a look at the Lakers’ cap space situation. Currently, they have anywhere between $23.7 million and $27.8 million in cap space, depending on if Davis waives or accepts his $4.1 million trade bonus that would count against the Lakers’ cap (this is also assuming the Lakers renounce the rights to all of their free agents to release their cap holds). A cap hold of roughly $0.9 million per empty roster space is assessed until a team has signed at least 12 players, as detailed here by @Reed_nba, along with a number of other scenarios related to the Lakers’ cap space.
There is a path for the Lakers to get about $32 million in cap space, as detailed by Pincus and by Albert Nahmad of heathoops.com. It would essentially require the initial Davis deal to expand to include the Lakers shipping out the salaries of Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones to the Atlanta Hawks, who acquired the No. 4 pick from the Pelicans, which they acquired from the Lakers in the initial Davis trade (confused yet?). Nothing is official or has been announced on this front, although Wojnarowski hinted at the idea of it. The Pelicans and Hawks would have to agree to such parameters being added.
So nobody knows exactly how much cap space the Lakers have just yet. It can range from about $23 million to $32 million, depending on a number of things.
The Lakers will likely try to get as much space as they can, as Leonard’s max is slightly north of $32 million with the projected salary cap total of $109 million for next season. The Lakers will want to get as close to that number as they can to give themselves a chance at Leonard and other max free agents. They also may deem it necessary to create the space anyways, as they could be of the mindset that the additional space can add more impactful players than Wagner, Bonga and Jones.
Russell falls in the criteria of a max contract of 25 percent of the salary cap (0-6 years of experience), putting his max salary for next season at $27.25 million. Not too long ago, Russell appeared poised to get a max offer thrown at him by either the Nets or another suitor, fresh off his first All-Star season. Unfortunately for Russell, things change quickly in the NBA and now his market looks a little murkier than it did even a few weeks ago.
The Jazz had a need at point guard but traded for Mike Conley. The Phoenix Suns have a need, but currently lack the necessary cap space to make a serious offer, and there have been several reports that despite Devin Booker’s friendship with Russell, the team wants a more experienced guard. Russell is also good friends with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, but the Timberwolves would need to move a ton of money off the books without taking salary back to be in the running for Russell. The Mavericks and Celtics have a large chunk of cap space, but they both reportedly have eyes for Kemba Walker.
The Magic seem like a logical fit, but their outlook is cloudy until Nikola Vucevic makes his free-agent decision. The Pacers make a lot of sense, but they also need to make decisions on their own impending free agents such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Wesley Matthews and more, while being reported as the likely destination for Ricky Rubio.
Any of these teams can step up and put themselves in a position to offer Russell a substantial contract, but it could take some maneuvering from some of them. All it takes is one team, and there are always surprise teams, but the point is that Russell’s market is much more uncertain than it appeared at the end of the season. Now, if Irving chooses someone other than the Nets, this might all be a moot point. But to this point, they are the favorites to steal him away from Boston.
This could mean that offers heading Russell’s way could be less than his max of $27.25 million. A popular number being floated around, in theory, for Russell is about $20 million per year (first seen by Pincus here). If the Lakers whiff on Leonard and the other A-listers, getting Russell on a four-year deal at a little over $80 million in total value could end up being quite the coup.
Why would the Lakers sign Russell even at $20 million per season?
Quite frankly, for a number of reasons.
For one, they need another ball-handler next to James. Davis is insanely talented from an individual perspective, but he could absolutely feast on defenses by finishing plays set up by James and another creator. That’s where Russell could fit into the Lakers’ offensive plans. He would provide creation ability and shooting to help space the floor for James and Davis to operate.
Russell averaged 21.1 points, 7.0 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game with the Nets last season while connecting on 37 percent of his threes at a very high volume (7.8 attempts per game). The lack of shooting around James hurt the Lakers last season, so adding Russell could be part of the remedy in that department while easing some of the burdens off of James and Davis’ shoulders. Also, Russell as a third option on offense behind two superstars is a role that he could really thrive in.
More incentive for the Lakers to add a third major piece with their cap space instead of spreading the money around to role players to fill out the roster is the insurance in case of injury to James or Davis. James will turn 35 this season and Davis has a history of minor injuries forcing him to miss some time here and there. The luxury of a third star-caliber player could allow the Lakers to rest a star player at various points of the season in an attempt to stay healthy and rested for the playoffs.
Another reason is the fact that Russell at $20 million annually now could be very team-friendly moving forward. The salary cap is expected to jump from $109 million for this upcoming season to $118 million the following year. So, let’s say it bumps up to $120 million in the 2021-22 season, which would be the third year of a four-year contract for Russell. That means that Russell, a max candidate now at 25 percent of the salary cap, would account for around 17 percent of the team’s cap that year. Not to mention, the Lakers would be getting him heading into his prime years, while acquiring his Bird rights once again (allows teams to go over the cap to sign their own players and offer more years and money to max free agents) as James presumably rides off into the sunset and retires.
Additionally, the Lakers are probably done hoarding cap space like they have the past few years. With James and Davis in the fold, the time to capitalize is now. The 2020 free agent class takes a colossal nosedive in comparison to this year’s crop of free agents. The Lakers are likely going to spend the money available to them this offseason and Russell has proven already that he can be a very impactful offensive player. If the Lakers are able to free up the full $32 million in cap space and get Russell for less than his max, they could have space to add more shooting and defense to the roster (perhaps someone like Patrick Beverley, Danny Green, etc.).
The Lakers have two legitimate MVP candidates in James and Davis forming the best one-two punch next season. It’s time to get some horses to run with them.
But shouldn’t the Lakers be looking at “win now” options instead of a 23-year-old who struggles defensively?
Yes, Russell is a below-average defender, which is probably why the Nets aren’t eager to pair him and Irving in Brooklyn. James also plays with inconsistent effort on the defensive end, but this is where the coaching staff comes into play. Head coach Frank Vogel has a strong reputation as a defensive coach and if the Lakers are able to pry assistant coach Ron Adams away from the Warriors? I would have supreme confidence that the Lakers could add enough defensive personnel, even on cheap contracts, to scheme around the monster in the middle that is Davis (career average of 2.4 blocks per game).
As for the “win now” approach, I certainly understand that line of thinking. The Lakers should be trying to win now. With the Warriors decimated by injuries, the Western Conference is completely up for grabs, and the Lakers are in a prime position to make a run to the Finals next season. So if they wanted to max out an older player like Butler or Al Horford, it would make sense.
But simply having a win now mentality can eventually catch up with a team and put them in NBA purgatory. It happened to the Lakers after the 2012-13 season and the team hasn’t seen the playoffs since. Now, I’m not saying Davis is the same as Dwight Howard, because it is expected that the former will be with the Lakers long term, but this situation does have a few parallels to that dreadful year (Bryant was also 34 years old that season, Howard could leave at the end of the year, etc.). The 2019-20 season has incredible upside if things bounce the right way, but the Lakers have to at least be aware of potential disaster, even if the chances are minimal.
Russell at the right price could give the Lakers the best of both worlds. It could be seen as a “win now” move, adding a third All-Star to the roster, while keeping an eye on the future. Say Davis re-signs with the Lakers as expected in the summer of 2020 and it’s still just him and James as the cornerstones. At the end of James’ contract, it could be just Davis if James retires, heads elsewhere or has greatly declined by then. With a player like Russell in the fold, the Lakers could still have a formidable duo that could be enticing for other players to join.
The Lakers could still be banking pretty heavily on free agency in a few years with a number of first-round picks being sent to New Orleans (and this year’s free agent acquisitions being expired before or at that time), so having the best sales pitch possible could be important when James’ contract is up. At that point in time, Russell would be either 25 or 26 years old, with Davis still just 28 or 29, giving the Lakers two marquee players in their prime years.
Is Russell the best option for the Lakers? Of course not. If you can form a trio of Leonard, Davis and James? Nobody would ever say no to that. That’s a trio that, if healthy, destroys the league for at least the next three years and has quality veterans lining up for free championship rings by signing minimum contracts. There are certainly better options out there for the Lakers than Russell this summer.
But that doesn’t mean that Russell is a bad option for the Lakers. At the right price, I would still label him a very good target for the Lakers. Russell has grown as a player and as a person since his time with the Lakers. If both sides are prepared to let bygones be bygones, the fit has terrific potential for both Russell and the Lakers. The Lakers would be getting a much different version of Russell and vice versa. The Lakers would be even more solidified as a contender and Russell could compete for a championship while having access to the financial benefits that come with the market of Los Angeles.
Nobody knows just how free agency will unfold in the coming days, but it could be time for Russell to come home.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @garykester.