Trying To Make Sense Of The Lakers Uneventful Offseason (So Far)

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Kobe Bryant and Kwame Brown

I remember I had spent a few days back in 2005 thinking about why the Lakers acquired Kwame for that much money until it finally hit me. In February of 2005, the Lakers failed to make a trade for Baron Davis because they lacked something the Warriors had, the big expiring contract of Dale Davis. In January of 2006, the Lakers couldn’t make a play for Indiana’s Ron Artest because they lacked the big expiring contract the Kings had in Peja Stojakovic. When two teams over the salary cap make a trade, the contracts need to match up. For all the talk during the Summer of 2007 about Kobe wanting Andrew Bynum shipped out for Jason Kidd, the Lakers couldn’t have made that trade without including both Kwame and Lamar Odom because Bynum was still on a rookie contract while Kidd was making around $20 million annually.

pau-gasol-draft-tradeEven after the Lakers had obtained Kwame Brown, they missed out on other available players because Kwame’s contract still had at least another year on it. In 2006, the Hornets traded P.J. Brown’s expiring contract and J.R. Smith for Tyson Chandler. The following year, the Celtics were able to trade for Kevin Garnett because they had Theo Ratliff’s expiring contract. In February of 2008, the Lakers were finally able to use Brown’s big expiring contract when they traded him to Memphis for Pau Gasol. Because he was the first pick in the draft, Brown was eligible for a substantial pay increase. However, because he was a bust, he wouldn’t require the same type of long-term offer that good players usually get with their second contract. Consider that the Wizards re-signed Caron Butler that same summer for $46 million over five years. In other words, Jordan Hill’s $9 million contract, just like that of Kwame Brown’s $9 million expiring contract in 2008, is for the purpose of a future trade.

By virtue of signing a player with Bird Rights to a deal for only one guaranteed year, Hill can’t be traded during the upcoming season without his consent. However, I see no scenario in which he would block a trade. If he knows that the Lakers have no intention of exercising his option for 2015-16, why wouldn’t he take a chance that his new team would consider it? So the Lakers have essentially signed Hill to be an expiring contract for next season and possibly the following one, as well as an ideal trade target next summer for a team looking to shed payroll.

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As things stand, the Lakers have 13 players including Jordan Clarkson, who has yet to officially sign. With two available spots, I’d like to see them add a true small forward. Kobe, Young, Henry, Johnson, and Randle can all play small forward if needed, but I don’t know think I’d prefer any of them starting there. For a team still lacking in scorers, I’d much prefer Young and Henry coming off the bench.

Jeremy Lin and Steve NashAs far as potential trades are concerned, they have the expiring contracts of Nash ($9.7 million) and Lin ($8.3m) plus Hill’s ($9 million) unguaranteed deal. Those three contracts, along with Julius Randle and the first-round pick they got from Houston in the Lin deal, give them better assets than they had to work with last year. But even with the Rockets’ 2015 first-rounder, the earliest pick the Lakers can trade of their own is in 2019. Because the league forbids teams from trading first-round picks in back-to-back drafts, the Lakers can’t trade their 2016 or 2018 picks because they’ve already traded their 2015 and 2017 picks. If they end up keeping their 2015 pick, then the Suns would get the Lakers’ 2016 pick and Orlando would be owed their 2018 pick. If that’s the case, then the earliest pick they could trade is in 2020. Due to the uncertainty of where that pick will end up, the language of a potential trade could just describe any future pick as being two years after they have fulfilled their obligation to Orlando. Although it’s unlikely, the Houston pick also allows them to make a trade that would give the other team the better of the two picks, should the Lakers end up keeping their pick in next year’s draft.

From top-to-bottom, their roster is still pretty underwhelming, especially for the Western Conference — at least as of now. It might be just a tad better than last season’s roster but not enough to realistically see a jump from 27 wins last season to more than 35 wins next season. I hope that I’m wrong. It’s more realistic that the Lakers keep their pick in next year’s draft than it is of them fighting for a playoff spot. At the same time, there’s very little a team can do to guarantee themselves a top-5 pick without finishing with one of the league’s two worst records. The Celtics had the league’s fifth-worst record last season and ended up with the sixth pick.

If I had to guess what the Lakers’ new strategy is, I’d say they’re buying time. They probably didn’t anticipate that LeBron would test free agency so soon. It seemed like everyone expected him to stay in Miami for at least another season. Nothing they did this summer compromises their flexibility going forward. With the salary cap expected to increase along with increased league-wide revenues, they have $35 million committed to four players in 2015-16 and only $9 million committed to two players in 2016-17. For the time being, all they can really do is wait for opportunity to knock.

Lakers fans are not exactly used to being patient. But as long as the league is set up to reward the worst teams with the best incoming players and give incumbent teams the biggest advantages when it comes to re-signing those players, we don’t really have a choice.

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