At this point, it’s well-known that the Los Angeles Lakers plan to chase two max-level free agents this summer. The whales of the 2018 free agent class include LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George, DeAndre Jordan, and DeMarcus Cousins, giving hope that the team may return to the land of the living as soon as next season.
Durant and Paul are nearly certain to return to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, respectively. Nonetheless, any two of the four remaining would instantly thrust the Lakers back into the playoff – and possibly championship – race.
One problem, however, is that the Laekrs don’t actually have sufficient cap space to afford two max-free agents. Moves will have to be made, and in the current NBA environment, that may not be easy.
The Lakers would like to unload the massive contract of Luol Deng, which will pay him nearly $37 million over the next two seasons despite playing just 13 minutes total this year. No team is willing to take him on without getting paid with multiple first round picks or at least one of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, or Kyle Kuzma, which the Lakers are unwilling to do.
For now, the sins of the past regime will continue to haunt president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka.
Should they need the space, the Lakers will almost certainly have to negotiate a buyout with Deng and then stretch his contract. Or in the worst-case scenario, not come to terms on a buyout and be forced to eat the entire amount of money owed on the deal and stretch that amount.
Meanwhile, Julius Randle is heading for restricted free agency, and the Lakers have an interesting decision there. If they feel it’s not likely that they will bring him back despite what has been a stellar 2017-18 season, they may look to move him at the trade deadline to get some value in return or attach Randle to an unwanted contract.
They have reportedly also put power forward Larry Nance Jr. on the trade block, which is something of a surprise given his low salary of just over $2 million next season. He should return some positive value if he is indeed moved.
That said, the most interesting piece just might be combo guard Jordan Clarkson, who almost certainly has to be sent elsewhere in order for the Lakers to clear room under the cap. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that they could look to hang onto Clarkson until the summer since he theoretically helps them win games now. But one has to wonder if that was a negotiating ploy.
The Lakers are reportedly confident that they can move the two years and nearly $26 million remaining on Clarkson’s contract, but a quick glance around the league reveals that it’s not as simple as one might think.
If they wait until next summer, then the Lakers have to find a team that first, either has non-guaranteed contracts available or the cap space to simply absorb Clarkson, and two, is willing to do so.
That might be a tall order given the lack of teams with salary cap space this summer. Supply and demand drive price, and as such, we should expect teams to ask for a fortune in exchange for cap relief.
Clarkson is certainly a useful player, and some will point to the Lou Williams trade from last year that netted the Lakers a first-round pick. But keep in mind that Los Angeles had to take on the salary of Corey Brewer to get that pick, as well the fact that Williams’ is more productive than Clarkson while making over $5 million less.
These things matter, so getting positive value for Clarkson could be difficult if the Lakers also demand cap relief.
With the goal of maximizing cap space for 2018 free agency, the Lakers would ideally like to only take back expiring contracts for Clarkson. Based on a cursory glance at salary sheets, there are currently only nine teams that fit that have the expiring contracts the Lakers would need and could realistically make a move for Clarkson at the deadline:
Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings.
Here are the trade that could make some sense for each. While nine trades seem like a lot, keep in mind that there is no guarantee either side would be willing to make any of these deals, these are merely the ones that are feasible and somewhat realistic.
Hawks: Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. for Marco Bellineli, Ersan Ilyasova, and second-round draft pick
First and foremost, Bellineli and Ilyasova both have similar expiring deals at around $6 million each and both are productive veterans that bring the kind of shooting that the Lakers lack. There is a positive impact both in terms of cap space and on the court here for the Lakers.
Still, in a vacuum, this isn’t the kind of move that the rebuilding Lakers should make because Nance and Clarkson both have more upside at this point than either of the players they get in return. But with cap space factored in and the added benefit of the spacing Bellineli and Ilyasova provide, they would have to at least consider it.
For Atlanta, who are also attempting to rebuild, they would be adding two young players that could be part of their long-term future.
That said, contenders are sure to show interest in both Bellineli and Ilyasova, and the Hakws would have to weigh whether they may be better off trying to extract whatever picks they can from a contending team for their veterans.
Nets: Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas for Jordan Clarkson
Don’t get too excited by seeing the third overall pick from 2015 in here, this is basically a salary dump. Since trading for Okafor at the beginning of December, the Nets have only used him in two games, Stauskas has made more appearances and has shot well.
Brooklyn may see Clarkson as a better fit long term, though their backcourt is already crowded with D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, Caris LeVert, and eventually, Jeremy Lin.
It’s also possible for the Nets to simply absorb Clarkson this summer, especially since they don’t figure to be a major player in free agency. The Lakers are confident they can unload Clarkson in the offseason, so perhaps a team like the Nets has already made it known they would take him off Los Angeles’ hands if they don’t find anyone willing to give positive value for him.
Mavericks: Josh McRoberts, Devin Harris, and a second-round pick for Jordan Clarkson
Again, a salary dump. McRoberts can’t crack the rotation in Dallas and would be even less likely to do so in Los Angeles. Harris could be a steady backup point guard to Lonzo Ball, but since his deal isn’t guaranteed he could be waived if the Lakers want to give a longer look at Alex Caruso or Vander Blue.
Should the Mavs not be convinced, the Lakers could entice them by adding a Julius Randle-for-Nerlens Noel swap, which they reportedly discussed earlier this year. This also wouldn’t hurt their efforts to cozy up to Rich Paul, who is the agent for Noel, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and a guy named LeBron James.
Pistons: Avery Bradley and Erik Moreland for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Make no mistake, Avery Bradley is a better player than Clarkson. He’s shooting 41 percent from three this season and is a much better defender. He would be an upgrade at shooting guard over Caldwell-Pope (hence Detroit’s decision to let him walk when they traded for Bradley) but his pending free agency could be an issue for the Pistons that adding Clarkson would solve.
Moreland is on a non-guaranteed deal and certainly doesn’t have the value that Nance does, but he gives the Lakers more space under the cap assuming they waive him.
Admittedly, this one’s a long shot.
Pacers: Al Jefferson for Jordan Clarkson
This would make some sense for the Pacers, who project to have some cap space but aren’t typically a destination for free agents. They already have Victor Oladipo, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and Lance Stephenson in their backcourt, so there may not be a need for Clarkson, but he could still be a solid addition.
Unfortunately, Jefferson isn’t a great fit for the Lakers on any level. They are already set at Center and $4 million of his contract is guaranteed for next season, which cuts into the cap savings that the Lakers would receive. As a last-ditch option this saves some money, but not as much as the Lakers are hoping for.
Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins for Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and Ivica Zubac
Now this trade would get Lakers fans excited. It still clears cap space because Cousins is on an expiring contract, but the goal here would be to keep him around long-term by using the remainder of this season to sell him on staying in Los Angeles.
Of course, the Pelicans wouldn’t trade Cousins unless they had a strong suspicion he is leaving anyway, so for them this trade be about getting something for him rather than watching him walk away and leave them with nothing.
From the Lakers side, they would be moving pieces in Clarkson and Randle that they would almost certainly have to part with anyway in order to land a pair of stars, and Cousin’s cap hold is actually $3 million less than his max salary, which means they would free up a little more wiggle room.
The Pelicans are unlikely to go this route, but for the Lakers, it would appear to be a no-brainer.
Magic: Mario Hezonja and Shelvin Mack for Jordan Clarkson
Hezonja has been a bust since being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 Draft, but because the Magic declined his option, he’s an expiring contract (just like Okafor). Mack’s contract is only guaranteed for $1 million next season, so the Lakers would get significant savings there.
In terms of production on the court this would be a weak return. In fact, they may even ask Orlando to give back one of the second-round picks the Lakers owe them from the Dwight Howard trade.
For Orlando, they would take two players who aren’t giving them much and turn them into a productive guard off the bench, although the cap room they would be eating up could be a deterrent to a deal.
Suns: Greg Monroe for Jordan Clarkson and Corey Brewer
The Suns picked up Monroe when they sent Eric Bledsoe to the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, Monroe’s large expiring contract worth nearly $18 million is sure to attract some interest.
The rebuilding Suns would ideally like to use it to add more long-term pieces to their puzzle, and perhaps Clarkson would be of interest as a backcourt partner for Devin Booker, even if he isn’t an ideal point guard.
For the Lakers perspective, Monroe could take over the departed Bogut’s spot minutes while providing insurance in case of another Brook Lopez injury. He’s a solid player who can help the team, though his presence could rob the Lakers of any opportunities to see Zubac or Thomas Bryant in action.
Brewer is simply salary ballast in the deal and could potentially be bought out by the Suns, but it also doesn’t hurt that he’s played some of his best games this season against them.
Kings: Vince Carter for Jordan Clarkson
While the Kings may very well look to trade the former ‘half man, half amazing,’ it’s doubtful that they would find Clarkson all that appealing. With Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, George Hill, Garrett Temple, and Frank Mason all needing minutes at the guard spots it would appear that there is simply no room for Clarkson.
From the Lakers side of things, however, bringing on a veteran like Carter wouldn’t hurt the team’s locker room dynamic, even if he can’t contribute much on the court at age 40. Carter is essentially relegated to being a spot-up shooter at this point in his career, but that may not be such a bad thing given the Lakers’ lack of marksmen.
Again, it’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Assuming the Lakers are looking for expiring contracts in any Clarkson deal, there options will be limited. Johnson and Pelinka have their work cut out for them between now and the trade deadline on Feb. 8th.
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