The NBA offseason has already been a thrilling whirlwind of activity, with the Los Angeles Lakers smack in the middle of the beautiful chaos. They kicked things off by completing a trade that sent D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn in exchange for center Brook Lopez and rookie forward Kyle Kuzma, then pulled off a deal on draft night that landed them an extra pick that was used on Thomas Bryant.
Additionally, rumors have persisted about Indiana Pacers star forward Paul George winding up in Los Angeles sooner or later, which would give the franchise a much-needed star to build around.
With all of this activity, one would expect the start of free agency at 9 P.M. Pacific Time tonight to usher in another frenzy of moves, however, it appears that things should actually be fairly quiet from the Lakers.
Despite having nearly $18 million in cap space to play with (if they don’t pick up Tarik Black’s $6.6 million team option), Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are committed to saving money for next summer, when George, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and DeMarcus Cousins will be available.
The hope is that Johnson and Pelinka will succeed where Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak failed by convincing one (or maybe two!) of them to sign in Los Angeles.
Still, preserving cap space for next summer doesn’t mean that the Lakers will sit back and twiddle their thumbs during free agency, even though it does complicate things. Let’s take a look at the options that may still be available to them.
Absorb Expiring Contracts
Just because the Lakers have cap space, that doesn’t mean that they have to use it to sign players. As teams around the league make moves, they sometimes need more cap room than they have available, and the Lakers can be there to help them by taking on unwanted salary…for a price, of course.
Los Angeles has employed this tactic in the past, most notably when they picked up the first-rounder that became Larry Nance Jr. by taking on Jeremy Lin’s deal in 2014. Lin may be long gone, but Nance, the real prize, is now beloved in Los Angeles.
There is value to be gained by absorbing bad contracts, after all, the Nets just landed Russell largely because they were willing to take on the remaining three years on Timofey Mozgov’s bloated deal.
For the Lakers, however, their ability to take on salary is limited to players who only have one year remaining on their deals, as anything more than that would cut into their precious 2018 cap space, which is a non-starter.
As a result, the return for taking on a contract wouldn’t be substantial, but little moves can add up in the long run.
They are few and far between, but there are potential opportunities out there. For example, if the Miami Heat land a max free agent this summer they would need to free up some space, which the Lakers could help with by taking on the final year of Josh McRoberts’ deal in exchange for some sort of minor asset or two.
It may not happen, but it’s the kind of situation the Lakers should be searching for.
Overpay For One Year Deals
The Lakers roster, as currently constructed, has some major holes in it. Here’s a very early guess at a depth chart:
PG: Lonzo Ball
SG: Jordan Clarkson/David Nwaba/Josh Hart
SF: Brandon Ingram/Luol Deng/Corey Brewer
PF: Julius Randle/Larry Nance Jr./Kyle Kuzma
C: Brook Lopez/Ivica Zubac/Thomas Bryant
That’s thirteen players, and the team will still need to make a decision on Tarik Black’s team option for one more year at just over $6 million.
Clearly, the Lakers badly need a backup point guard, as well as a knock-down shooter. Clarkson can take over some of the ball-handling responsibilities, but it’s still a must that they find at least one more person who can run the offense, preferably a veteran who can help mentor Ball.
Unfortunately, with 2018 cap space taking priority, Los Angeles is limited to giving out one-year deals, which is not ideal for free agents looking for long-term security. In order to get quality players to take such a short contract, the Lakers would almost certainly have to overpay them.
Darren Collison tops the list of realistically available guards, but even a one-year deal for $11 million (all of their remaining cap space if they keep Black) probably wouldn’t be enough to get him to forego a multi-year offer elsewhere.
Perhaps it would be enough to persuade a veteran like Deron Williams to forego ring chasing or convince Brandon Jennings to return to his Los Angeles roots. Emphasis will be placed on finding players who can help not just on the court, but also act as mentors for an increasingly young team.
The Lakers can afford to overpay in exchange for a free agent agreeing to a one-year contract, and that should be an option that they seriously investigate.
Take Chances On Struggling Players
Taking on reclamation projects has been a Lakers specialty over the last few years. Free agents like Ed Davis, Brandon Bass, and Nick Young all rehabbed their value by signing for below-market-value in Los Angeles that included opt-outs after one year. This allowed them to put up big numbers under the bright lights of Hollywood and then cash in the following summer.
While the current Lakers can’t afford to offer a second year player option that acted as insurance against injury for the three aforementioned players, a similar tactic could be used if meaningful offers don’t materialize for players like Michael Carter-Williams, Ben McLemore, Aaron Brooks, Jodie Meeks, and a handful of others.
Getting a player on the cheap in exchange for giving them a chance to use the rebuilding Lakers to increase their value can be a win-win, and may make sense as the number of teams with cap space dwindles and players without deals begin to look for backup plans.
Stay Aggressive On The Trade Market
Johnson and Pelinka have already shown a willingness to wheel and deal, and since they didn’t personally acquire the majority of the current players on the team, they may not be as attached to certain players as Buss and Kupchak were.
Clarkson’s name already came up in trade rumors prior to the draft, and it’s well-known that Los Angeles would love to move Deng and his gigantic contract. Most of the young core figures to stay put unless a superstar becomes available, but minor deals can still be made to fill holes in the roster as well as free up future cap space.
The Lakers may be somewhat handcuffed by their determination to keep the books clear next summer, but they will still have plenty of decisions to weigh during the free agency frenzy.