Lakers’ Draft Pick And Salary Cap Changes Set Stage For Comeback

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers

Let’s rewind a few weeks to the night of the NBA Draft Lottery:

Most Lakers fans were on pins and needles at the thought of the team losing its top-five pick, as there was a 17.2 percent chance that could happen.

However, as soon as NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announced that the Sacramento Kings would receive the sixth overall pick, it was clear that the Lakers would get to keep their pick.

When Tatum announced the fifth and fourth place teams — teams not named the Los Angeles Lakers — the excitement grew.

Most would have been happy with the third pick, but that went to the Philadelphia 76ers, which just left the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Lakers with the top two overall picks.

105757-fullAlthough the Lakers didn’t get the number one overall pick, the second pick was certainly something to be very excited about, especially considering just moments before it was very possible that the Lakers would be left high-and-dry.

Essentially, fans were not only able to breathe a sigh of relief after learning their beloved team would retain its first-round pick for the upcoming draft, they were also able to scream in excitement at the final result.

Much of the talk following the lottery has been about who the Lakers will — or should — draft with their selection on June 25.

There’s certainly a pool of talent out there with the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, and recently, Kristaps Porzingis, in the mix.

The Lakers have historically built their foundation on solid big men, and given the need for one at the present time, I’d anticipate the franchise choosing either Towns or Okafor, depending on which player is remaining after Minnesota makes its selection.

The decision will ultimately depend on Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, however.

Recent reports have indicated that the Minnesota Timberwolves will select Towns, and the Lakers have settled in on the idea of picking Okafor. However, nothing is certain until it’s done, so we’ll move on.

Regardless of who the Lakers choose, though, the pick changes everything going forward.

Why?

First of all, Lakers management has options with regards to the pick.

They could choose a player on draft night, and regardless of who it is, he will be a young player with a lot of upside — whether or not he eventually lives up to the potential.

They could also trade the pick or player (once selected) for “an established player,” as Mitch alluded to in a recent interview.

Retaining the pick was really the first domino that had to fall in order for things to finally start going right for the Lakers again. The fact that they got the second overall pick was a huge bonus.

Additionally, the Lakers possess the 27th and 34th overall picks, which adds to the flexibility of the team. Mitch also noted in the interview that adding three rookies may be a challenge, so some player movement is to be expected.

Jordan ClarksonAssuming the Lakers keep the player they draft with the pick, the team will go forward with a talented rookie in addition to guard Jordan Clarkson (who was named All-Rookie First Team) and forward Julius Randle (who showed a lot of promise before getting injured in his first NBA game).

Add in one of the later picks (assuming the other gets moved for another player or other considerations), and that becomes a very promising group of young players going forward.

The Lakers also happen to have quite a bit of financial flexibility going into the summer, despite Kobe Bryant’s huge contract.

According to USA Today, the salary cap for next season is expected to increase to approximately $67.1 million, and $81.6 for the luxury tax line. The Lakers are currently committed to approximately $36 million in salary for next season, if management were to not exercise their player options on Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre, Jordan Clarkson, and Jabari Brown.

Because of the minimal salaries on Sacre, Clarkson, and Brown — who all have non-guaranteed contracts — if the team were to just not exercise Hill’s $9 million contract, they would still only be obligated to pay $40 million in salary — leaving roughly $27 million in cap space, according to HoopsHype.com.

Per Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are indeed unlikely to exercise Hill’s option, and by Woj’s math, the Lakers would have $24 million-plus in salary cap space.

If the Lakers do end up parting ways with Hill, the second-highest salary then becomes Nick Young’s at approximately $5 million per year, potentially until 2018 (he has a player option for 2017-2018); Young’s being the only contract currently obligated to be paid past next season (2015-2016).

Couple the financial flexibility with the added lure of a strong young team for years to come, perhaps free agents who previously may have hesitated on making the move to La La Land just might reconsider.

The Lakers could realistically add one — maybe two — significant free agents this summer.

Looking even further than that and fast-forwarding to the 2016 off-season when the Black Mamba’s contract will be off the books, the league’s salary cap is expected to jump significantly, per USA Today:

The salary cap and luxury tax line will increase to approximately $67.1 million and $81.6 million next season, up from $63.065 million and $76.829 million this season and starting in the 2016-17 – when the league’s new lucrative multi-billion TV deal kicks in – the cap will increase to $89 million and the luxury tax threshold to $108 million and it will spike again to $108 million for the cap and $127 million for the luxury tax in 2017-18, two people familiar with the projected estimates told USA TODAY Sports.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently confirmed the cap increases as well.

As you may know, the Lakers love to spend money on big-time free agents who can help win championships, when allowed to do so without penalty (and sometimes even with penalty). The anticipation of salary cap spikes in the near future is good news for Lakers fans.

Now picture this:

It’s the summer of 2016 and Kobe’s contract is off the books. The Lakers acquired two significant free agents the previous year, and now have a solid core of the two players, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and our yet-to-be-seen number two pick, along with a couple of other solid pieces. All of the young guys made strides during 2015-2016 and the Lakers have become a very strong, cohesive group.

Maybe Nick Young is still here, or maybe he got traded along the way. Maybe Kobe Bryant is planning to return for one last season, or maybe not.

— Have you seen the ‘Lakers Nation’ phone case? —

In either event, without the Lakers doing anything, they now have at least an extra $22 million to spend that they didn’t have the previous year, assuming they didn’t go over the cap. But they also don’t have Kobe Bryant’s $25 million contract either, which automatically frees up $47 million that wasn’t available before — some of which could be used to re-sign Jordan Clarkson, if all goes as planned in his development — for the summer of 2016. Randle and “Number Two,” as we’ll call him, would still be on their low-cost, rookie contracts.

On the other hand, if the Lakers only came away with one big-name free agent the previous year (or none at all), they may have significantly more than that to spend, especially if they made a conscious effort to not max out the cap.

Now, if you’re Lakers management, you’ve got a solid young core, a ton of money, and a free agent class that has been touted by some as being the best ever.

Not a bad spot to be in, no matter what (or who) exactly you came away with the previous summer.

Here’s a chart that shows projected salary cap space per team (with no new contracts added, to date) following the 2015-2016 season, courtesy of BusinessInsider.com:

NBA Salary Cap Chart

This, of course, would be with just Julius Randle and Nick Young’s contracts on the books, but you get the picture: Even if the Lakers sign some new players and retain some core players (like Jordan Clarkson and Number Two), they’ll still have the ability to spend a lot of money next summer.

The bottom line here is that getting the number two pick coupled with the Lakers’ financial flexibility gives the franchise leverage and options over the next two to three years — plenty of them:

Maybe Mitch and Jim decide to trade Number Two for an impact player who will contribute right away.

Okay. Aim for the playoffs by aggressively trying to pursue free agents and meaningful trades that will make the team better, sooner rather than later. With this, add on to an already decent team in 2016.

Maybe they decide to keep Number Two (which I anticipate them doing), but can’t lure any big names this free agency.

Fine. Develop the young talent, add a few solid players, and try again next summer, while continuing to build along the way.

Maybe they lure a couple of solid free agents to act as role players and make some trades for other pieces, while saving a bit of money.

Great! Compete hard, aim to be young contenders, and try to make a splash next summer and the summer after that.

Or maybe they lure one (or two) of the big names this off-season, along with a few solid role players.

10.-secret-handshakeEven better! Become a playoff contender, and look to become even better via the 2016 and 2017 free agencies — selling free agents on joining an already-competitive team and using the increased salary caps to fund these players.

These are all hypothetical, unsophisticated scenarios with many variables, but as you can see, there’s certainly a number of options for the Lakers to get back to the promise land once again — one of which, as you may have noticed, is spending big in 2016 and possibly even 2017 if the cap indeed rises again.

The best way the Lakers can ensure they will spend big — which would mean actually being able to land a free agent (or two) the magnitude of Kevin Durant in 2016 or Russell Westbrook in 2017 — is by leveraging their low-cost, young talent right now and making the team as appealing and competitive as possible by then.

They don’t necessarily have to spend big in order to forge a comeback, either. Certainly, they’ll look to acquire the biggest names, but if the team has a solid, young foundation, finding the right pieces via trades and free agency will be much easier.

It will likely take some years before the team contends for a championship again, but now there are a number of roads for the Lakers to travel which will eventually get them back to the top of the mountain.

The first piece of the puzzle was retaining their top-five pick, and now that they’ll be making a selection with the second pick, it makes this journey that much easier to navigate.

The next defining moment in this process will be whom the Lakers select on Thursday night.

Fast forward ten years from now, and hopefully it will be remembered as the day the franchise turned things around and began the process back towards greatness.

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