LeBron James is a Los Angeles Laker, immediately shifting the franchise out of their rebuild. Now, it’s time to win.
Shortly after James announced his intentions, the Lakers filled in the roster around him, coming to terms with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo.
Still, something is missing. As currently constructed, unless Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, or Kyle Kuzma make a major leap during the 2018-19 NBA season, James stands as the team’s lone superstar.
Perhaps that’s enough. With quality young pieces around him and the fact that “superstar” may not even do James’ dominance justice (super-duper star?), it’s possible that the Lakers could be a legitimate contender.
It’s more likely, however, that they will need to bring in at least one more star, which shifts the focus to Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. He has made it clear that he wants to return home to Los Angeles now that the bridge between himself and the team has been Thanos-snapped out of existence.
Thus far, the Spurs want the moon for Leonard and the Lakers don’t want to give it to them. At some point, maybe a middle ground will be found that satisfies both teams, but we don’t appear to be close to that currently.
For Los Angeles, the argument is that, with Leonard hitting free agency next summer, they can simply hang onto their assets and sign him as a max free agent in a year.
As of right now, that’s not correct. The Lakers don’t have enough for a max salary slot for Leonard next summer.
But there is a path to get there.
The NBA’s salary cap is projected to rise to from nearly $102 million this season to $108 million the next, which helps the Lakers, but it’s not quite enough.
The cap increases but that extra breathing room is wiped out by the rising salaries of the Lakers already under contract. Brandon Ingram’s salary will make about $1.5 million more in 2019 than 2018, Lonzo Ball nearly the same, and James moves up roughly $3 million.
Add in a few hundred thousand each for Kuzma, Moe Wagner, and Josh Hart and poof, the cap increase is gone.
As presently constructed, assuming the Lakers renounce Stephenson, McGee, Caldwell-Pope, and Rondo when their contracts expire and don’t sign any other players to deals longer than one season this summer, they will be around $6 million short of having the room to give Leonard his max, which would be $32,400,000 next summer (part of the appeal of trading for him now is he only makes $20 million this season).
After renouncing Julius Randle and signing Rondo, the problem now stems from Luol Deng’s bloated contract, which will pay him $18.8 million in 2019-2020. That’s valuable cap space being tied up in a player who appeared in just one game last season.
So what can the Lakers do to finally rid themselves of Deng’s deal?
They may find that the cost of trading him this summer with two years and $37 million left on his deal is simply too great. Teams will want a fortune in assets to absorb that much salary.
It’s possible that next summer when Deng has only a year left on his deal and more cap room is available league-wide, the price may be more palatable. If the Lakers convince a team to take him on without sending back salary then they would have enough cap space to toss a max offer at Leonard and still have a sizeable chunk left over to use on ring-chasing free agents.
If a trade doesn’t materialize, the Lakers could use the stretch provision, which allows a team to waive a player and spread his salary out over several seasons. The number of years the deal is spread out over is calculated by doubling the length of the contract plus one year.
With two years and $37 million on his deal currently, to stretch Deng now would mean that the Lakers would have $7.3 million on their books for the next five seasons, and that would be “dead” money that can’t be moved.
That pill may be too big to swallow.
If they wait one more season and stretch the remaining one year and $18.8 million, the Lakers would instead pay $6.3 million over the following three seasons. This would free up a little over $12 million in cap room, plenty to cover the about $6 million they are short on a Leonard max.
The Lakers will celebrate the arrival of James and will continue to search for another star to place alongside him, but the decisions they make this summer will ultimately determine whether or not they are in the mix for the best of the best next summer as well.
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