The Los Angeles Lakers are heading into the summer heat feeling the pressure of turning their massive ship around. Last season saw them win a franchise-worst 17 games, which currently serves as rock-bottom for a team that has 16 NBA titles hanging in the rafters along with the jerseys of a number of all-time greats.
Still, in spite of the hard times that have befallen the most popular franchise in the league, there is an air of optimism around the Lakers. Star guard Kobe Bryant had the greatest send-off game possibly in the history of sports, notching 60 points in his final performance as a professional.
To top it all off, Los Angeles was fortunate enough to retain their top-three protected pick in the NBA draft lottery, finishing with the second selection in what is considered by many to be a two-player draft.
All of those things certainly help to ease the pain of a third consecutive disastrous season, but whether or not the Lakers can get back to their winning ways will largely be determined by how successful they are at wooing free agents in July.
Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of issues, it appears as though the deck is stacked against them.
It’s true that the Lakers will have more money to spend in free agency than any other team in the league, with noted capologist Eric Pincus projecting them to have $64.4 million available. Qualifying offers to restricted free agents like Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, and Marcelo Huertas could cut into that figure a bit, but the bottom line is that the Lakers are poised to make it rain on free agents this year.
But maybe they shouldn’t.
This free agent class isn’t exactly bursting with franchise-altering stars. There are good players, certainly, but for a Lakers team that needs a Shaquille O’Neal-level signing, landing an Elden Campbell isn’t quite going to cut it.
Looking at the available free agents, we can identify tiers of players who will be available:
Tier 1 – Superstars unlikely to sign with a rebuilding team:
Tier 2 – All-Star caliber players:
Tier 3 – mid-to-high level role players:
Dion Waiters (restricted)
Festus Ezeli (restricted)
Jordan Clarkson (restricted)
Evan Fournier (restricted)
Allen Crabbe (restricted)
Now, pretend that all of the guys with (restricted) next to their names aren’t there. The Lakers have historically avoided tying up their cap space with restricted free agents, so while there could be an exception (ahem…Barnes), the Lakers generally won’t bother pursuing players whose teams can and will match their offer.
Then take out the veterans like Duncan and Nowitzki who won’t leave their teams. Other vets, like Gasol and Horford, will most likely want to win now. Remove Howard, because…well, you know why.
The pickings get slim awfully quick, don’t they? To make matters worse, the competition is going to be fierce.
The Lakers aren’t the only team with plenty of money to toss around this summer. Thanks to the rising salary cap, over two-thirds of the league could have enough cap space to offer a max contract, including teams that have the lure of one or more stars already being in place, like the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, and Washington Wizards.
With so few meals available it’s clear that some teams will have to go to bed hungry, and the difference between the have’s and the have not’s could very well come down to which teams are ready to win now and which aren’t. The Lakers, unfortunately, fall into the latter category.
Now factor in that the Collective Bargaining Agreement includes a salary floor, which requires that teams spend at least 90 percent of the available cap. Based on a salary cap of $92 million, that’s $82.8 million that teams MUST pay. There is no getting around it; if a team’s payroll doesn’t hit that number the difference will be divided up and given to the players on their roster.
In other words, as far as the team is concerned, the money has already been spent, so missing out on a free agent this year won’t necessarily carry with it the silver lining of keeping some cash in the bank.
From the perspective of a free agent, the situation is fantastic. Basic economics says that if supply is low and demand is high prices will go up, and that means players are gong to get paid.
That’s why Apple never makes enough iWhatevers to satisfy all the customers who want one when they launch. They keep consumers in desperation mode, camping out in front of stores ready to hand over fistfuls of cash so they can walk away with a shiny new toy.
Guess where most of the NBA’s general managers (including Mitch Kupchak) will be when free agency opens at midnight Eastern Time on July 1st? On the doorstep of one of a handful of free agents, ready to fork over every penny they can to get them to sign on the dotted line.
With the exploding cap and shallow talent pool, free agents this summer are going to make boatloads more than they would have in the past. Contracts will sound completely outrageous, but those figures are going to become the new normal. In just a few weeks we are going to be living in a world where Bismack Biyombo, who had a career-high average of 5.5 points per game this season, is going to make more than unanimous MVP Steph Curry.
Let that sink in for a moment. Teams will be fighting each other for the right to throw huge deals at Biyombo (who I still like a lot), Parsons, Anderson, etc. simply because the money is already spent and they are desperate to not be the person left chair-less when the music stops.
For the Lakers, all of this makes landing an impact free agent on a good contract extremely difficult. They do have the advantage of having enough space to offer two max contracts, which would help them if a pair of free agents wants to team up somewhere. Otherwise, with the money essentially being equal for most teams, Los Angeles is in the unenviable position of attempting to sell free agents on the merits of their extremely young roster or grossly overpaying mediocre talent in order to get them to turn down offers from win-now teams.
It could be a cruel summer, indeed.
However, it’s really not all that bleak if the Lakers keep their wits about them. The dangers are certainly there. The pressure to improve immediately will be enormous, and the fact that they will be paying out at least $82.8 million in salaries regardless of whether or not they sign anyone could make them overly-generous.
Payroll and cap space are not one in the same, though.
Should they come up short in free agency, whatever cap space they don’t use will still be there the following summer, when the free agent class is much deeper and includes the likes of Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Rose, and Serge Ibaka, among others.
As much as it may seem that teams this summer are incentivized to pass out max contracts like candy on Halloween, there is an argument for frugality. It’s going to be important that the Lakers identify which players they are willing to break open the bank for, and not bend from that when a guy who doesn’t really move the needle much wants a long-term, big money contract.
Sometimes, the best move is the one that you don’t make.
It may not fit with Jim Buss’ infamous deadline, but if they strike out again in free agency this summer, the Lakers will have an opportunity to spend next year after spending the 2016-2017 season proving the quality of their young players. If all goes well, they then head into the summer of 2017 (when the cap goes up again) with all the space and momentum they need to make an enormous move.
So if the Lakers whiff on the big-time free agents and balk at giving big money to non-stars, what will they do in the meantime? We have already seen the blueprint for this plan, and while it isn’t pretty, it can be effective.
We could see the Lakers once again use their cap space in creative ways to field as competitive of a team as they can while following the rule that they must not tie up future flexibility.
It was this mindset that caused them to give Jordan Hill a 2 year, $18 million deal that had a team option for a second year back in 2014. They overpaid Hill for one season but left themselves an out so cap space would be free the next year to chase other options.
We have also seen the Lakers use their cap space creatively to acquire assets, as they did when they absorbed Jeremy Lin’s contract from the Houston Rockets two seasons ago. The Rockets thought they were about to sign Chris Bosh and needed to clear cap space, so they got the Lakers to agree to take Lin’s expiring deal, with the Rocket’s 2015 first-round pick heading to Los Angeles as payment. Bosh never did sign with Houston, but the pick that they sent to the Lakers ended up being Larry Nance Jr.
Not bad for renting out a little cap space for a year. Also, keep in mind that should the Lakers suffer another losing season and keep their top-three protected pick again next summer, the first round pick they owe to the Orlando Magic thanks to the Dwight Howard trade becomes two second-rounders instead. That’s one heck of a silver lining should the team be forced to take the route of rolling over cap space and then get lucky in the lottery.
Of course, this isn’t the ideal outcome for the Lakers. In a perfect world, Kevin Durant and LeBron James will suddenly realize how badly they have wanted to play in Los Angeles all along, and both sign max deals to become Lakers. Or, more realistically, maybe the Lakers use the trappings of Hollywood and the young core to sell a couple of younger free agents, like Whiteside and Barnes, giving the team two solid pieces to jump-start their rebuild with.
That’s plausible, although unlikely, but it’s certainly the Lakers preference rather than rolling their money over to 2017. They want to win now, and will do what they can to make it happen. However, there also needs to be a breaking point, lest the team burdens itself with bad contracts.
The temptation to spend wildly must be kept at bay. The Lakers have felt the sting of paying players who don’t live up to their contracts, and it’s not fun.They would be wise to remember that, and not fall into the madness that this summer’s free agent frenzy is sure to bring.
The purple and gold are certainly on the upswing, but patience is going to be required if more championships are to be hung in the rafters of the STAPLES Center.