Welcome to part II of our series on Lakers team building options. The first option was laid out wonderfully by Reed, arguing the merits of a slow and steady approach to get the team back to contention. This is probably the most preferred course of action and the one which, in the big picture, makes the most sense. Watching the playoffs unfold, it’s easy to see the level the top teams are playing at and to then recognize how far away the Lakers are from that. Allowing their young assets to mature and reach their prime closer to the potential decline of the top teams while also leveraging those inexpensive rookie deals to sign players in FA down the line and build organically not only seems safe, but prudent.
That said, this is not the only viable approach. As Rob Pelinka has said many times, this front office must be prepared for multiple scenarios and, literally, have hundreds of plans and contingencies in place in order to pounce on opportunities that present avenues to improve the roster. What we’ll do today, then, is look at what steps the team might take in order to contend as quickly as possible — even as soon as next season. Now, to be clear, I don’t mean the Lakers would compete for a championship next season, but I am looking at a path to being a surefire playoff team and one that could make a run to the 2nd round or conference finals while possessing enough staying power to do so for multiple seasons.
The Case for Contending ASAP
I’m not going to throw phrases at you like “Lakers exceptionalism” or even talk about how fans in this market are used to winning championships. Winning in the NBA is hard and as the Lakers have learned since claiming their last title vs. the Celtics in 2010, the NBA is unforgiving and cares not for your storied past or fan expectations. A bad move (or three) not only can set you back years, but can crater you in ways which require nearly perfect execution to dig out. No one owes the Lakers anything and getting back to the top will be about the decisions they make and their ability to leverage every asset and resource at their disposal.
The Lakers are now on year 4 of missing the playoffs. The 3 previous years have netted some lottery luck and some late draft success to build up the talent base of the team. Depending on what happens in this year’s draft lottery, the team may have another top 3 pick in addition to a late 1st rounder to bolster those ranks. If that happens and the Lakers use both draft picks, the team can have up to 9! players – ranging from rookies to heading into their 4th seasons – who could be deemed as contributors (or potential ones):
Guards: Russell, Clarkson
Forwards: Ingram, Randle, Nance
Centers: Zubac, Black
Draft Picks: Top 3, #28
All of this looks good on paper. And, to be clear, you won’t find many people who have more faith in as many of the Lakers’ young players than me. As Reed argued, give these guys time, exposure to good coaching, and tap into their work ethic and it is a recipe for success.
Of course, there’s another side to this coin: First, you don’t win with a team of young players. Ingram (will not be 20 until September) and Zubac (will not be 21 until next March) were two of the youngest rookies this past season. Russell just turned 21 a week after the all-star game. Any rookie drafted in the top 3 is going to be a one-and-done player who will not yet be 20 when selected in June (save Josh Jackson) and who knows what type of player is selected at #28 (a young guy with potential who can develop? an older player who is more “ready”? a draft and stash guy?).
Plus, even though several of the aforementioned group are starting to be not-so-young — Black is already 25, Clarkson will be 25 on June 7th, Nance will be 25 on new year’s day 2018, and Randle is entering his 4th season — the experience level is what concerns. And, even if every year in the league nets you experience to build on, there’s a reason most contending teams have few (if any) high contributing players as young as the ones the Lakers possess. These guys make too many mistakes and simply don’t yet understand how to translate their potential into meaningful production on good teams.
Second, regardless of how high you are on any of the team’s young players (or guys in the upcoming draft), there is no guarantee any of them end up as good as some of the players the Lakers could target this summer in free agency or in a trade. Yes, the swap of great upside not even near their prime for player(s) already in their prime or at/near the end of it does not come without concerns. But if the goal is to ultimately compete at the highest level, getting players who have actually proven themselves to be able do that instead of relying on ones who have only shown some potential to do it is worth exploring, no?
No one is saying the young players on the Lakers’ roster won’t end up good (or even great). But even in a league where the results can seem inevitable (Warriors vs. Cavs for the 3rd straight Finals?), things can actually change quickly. A sprained knee, a free agent decision, or a big trade can change the landscape of the league quickly. Building towards the future is nice, but being in a position to compete at a high level and then pounce should a “favorite” falter is just as nice.
It’s obvious there are no sure things in this league (ask the Warriors about that 3-1 lead last year). But to further the above point — what seems like the better bet: building a contender with established all-star/all-NBA level players or building a contender by nailing multiple draft picks and then developing them into that caliber of player? Regardless of which way you lean, the former is a viable path and the Lakers are in a position to move in that direction should they choose to.
Executing a Contend Now plan
First, it must be said, being able to move in this direction is almost entirely dependent on the Lakers keeping their top-3 protected pick. Yes, there are scenarios where the team loses this year’s selection and is still able to make multiple moves this summer to build a contender, but it will be harder. After all, the goal is to use every available resource at the team’s disposal to exchange it for a more ready piece. A top lottery pick greases the rails.
Before we move into actual scenarios, it’s best to do an accounting of what assets the Lakers do/can have heading into the draft. For this part we will include the team’s own pick, but will discuss options without the pick a bit later. Also note, for the cap space calculation, we are assuming Nick Young opts out of his contract and that the team waives Tarik Black and his non-guaranteed 2017-18 contract:
- The Lakers can have roughly $24 million in cap space (this includes the cap holds for picks #2 and #28 overall)
- Ingram: Last year’s #2 pick, entering the 2nd year of his rookie scale contract
- Russell: Former #2 pick, entering the 3rd year of his rookie scale contract
- Randle: Former #7 pick, entering the 4th year of his rookie scale contract, currently extension eligible and can be a RFA next summer
- Clarkson: Entering the 2nd year of a 4 year contract, $36 million remain on his deal.
- Nance: Former late 1st round pick, entering year 1 of his rookie scale contract
- Zubac: Last year’s 2nd round pick, signed a 3 year contract with a non-guaranteed 3rd year.
- Draft pick in the top 3, draft pick #28
It’s important to note that in order to turn the above assets into players to help the team win now, there is a specific timing in which things must take place. If you listened to our podcast with Eric Pincus, he mentioned a scenario which the Lakers retained their draft pick and then agreed to trade whoever was selected with that pick at a later date in July, but before the signing moratorium period ends.
This is a crucial part of any contend now scenario as it allows the Lakers to have a “star” player in the bag heading into free agency. This player can then be used as the bait to entice a top free agent to sign on. It’s pretty clear star players don’t sign with bad teams in free agency. Having another star in place heading into FA allows the Lakers to sell that 2nd star that he will not be alone.
It’s also important to understand that, history tells us the Lakers will need at least 3 of the top 25-30 players in the league to be a team in the 2nd round/conference finals. The path to get there this summer is pretty straight forward: trade for two of them and sign one in free agency. The list of these types of players is finite and getting one, much less 3, on the team is going to be amazingly difficult. That said, I think it’s fair to say that there are a handful of them who will be available in either free agency or via trade this June/July or by the February trade deadline:
- Paul George
- Jimmy Butler
- Chris Paul
- Blake Griffin
- Gordon Hayward
- DeMarcus Cousins
Of the above list, three are free agents (Hayward, Paul, Griffin) and three are trade targets (George, Butler, Cousins). For free agency, Hayward/Griffin are in the 7-9 year range and will require a max contract at 30% of the cap while Paul is at the 10+ year mark and will require a max contract at 35% of the cap. For trade, the Lakers have 7 key assets (5 players, 2 picks) to spread out over two trades. They can supplement those with salary filler to make deals work under the cap. The goal should be to retain at least one of those assets (likely a player) to play next to the veterans traded for.
With all that out of the way, now comes the fun part…let’s make some deals.
Deal #1: Trade for Paul George. Determining the exact deal to convince the Pacers to agree to a trade is unknown. From the Lakers side though, it’s pretty straight forward: give them a good young player, at least one of the draft picks, and salary filler. Potential deals: Top 3 pick, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson (add in the #28 pick if needed).
Case for the Lakers to make this deal: It’s Paul George, who is a fantastic player. This is not a huge offer as it does not include Ingram or Russell.
Case for the Pacers to make this deal: This is not as much as what other teams could likely offer. A Celtics package looms large here, and they could easily outbid the Lakers. What could work in the Lakers favor is George’s pending 2018 free agency and whether Magic/Pelinka can get in George’s agents’ ear to scare off other teams from trading for him. Remember, George shares an agent with Randle and Russell, so they could veer into this type of discussion with a random phone call about, say, a Randle extension. If the Pacers find themselves receiving low-ball offers and it looks like they may lose him for nothing next summer, trading him now may be in their best interest. A Randle/Myles Turner front-court is all kinds of intriguing and Clarkson offers you what you wanted to get in Monta Ellis when you signed him in free agency. Add in a top-3 pick and you can also select your point guard of the future in whoever is left on the board between Fultz, Ball, or Fox. Suddenly, your own rebuild is well on it’s way with a core of Drafted Point Guard X, Clarkson, Randle, and Turner.
Deal #2: Sign Gordon Hayward in free agency. The Lakers would need to clear additional salary cap space to make this happen. The easiest way to do this would be to use the stretch provision on either Luol Deng or Timofey Mozgov. Stretching either would open up about $10 million in cap space. While this would create dead money on the team’s cap for the next 7 years, this is the price you pay to lock up Hayward with George through both of their primes. In this case, I would stretch Mozgov since he makes less money overall.
Case for the Lakers to sign Hayward: Hayward is just entering his prime and is an excellent two-way player. He works well on or off the ball and could pair nicely on the wing with George. It does not matter if Hayward is a “SF” as positions mean less in today’s NBA. He can defend either wing spot, shoots a high percentage from distance, and creates shots for himself and others.
Deal #3: Trade for DeMarcus Cousins. It’s unclear whether Cousins is actually on the market or not. After all, the Pelicans just traded for him and would seem like they’re invested in making a Boogie/Brow combination work. But the Lakers could make an offer that would be hard for the Pelicans to turn down, especially considering what they gave up to trade for Cousins in the 1st place. Potential trade: Ingram, Zubac, Corey Brewer, #28 pick (if not included in a trade for George)
Case for the Lakers to trade for Cousins: You don’t have to convince me that Cousins is a wild-card personality. And, if you were arguing you do not want him influencing a locker-room of young players, I would be open to having that discussion. In this scenario, though, that’s not what’s happening. You would be adding him to a core which includes George and Hayward, players on an equal footing to Cousins. Plus, no one can deny Cousins’ talent or stature as one (if not the) best bigs in the game.
Case for the Pelicans to trade Cousins: Cousins can be a free agent in the summer of 2018 and if the Pelicans don’t have a good year, they are at real risk of losing him for nothing. The trade deadline showed a cool market for Cousins overall and while a return of Ingram/Zubac/Brewer as the core might not seem great, it’s better than what you sent out to get him. In essence, this deal would translate to a Hield/Galloway/top-3 protected pick for Ingram/Brewer/Zubac (and #28 if not included with the George deal). Balancing the Lakers (hypothetical) offer against Cousins walking for nothing or a potentially better deal is the line the Pels would need to walk here. I don’t have a good answer as to whether they’d do it or not, but I’d imagine they’d consider it.
Summary and Final Thoughts
If you’re scoring at home, I’ve managed to add Paul George, Gordon Hayward, and DeMarcus Cousins to the Lakers while not trading D’Angelo Russell nor Larry Nance, Jr. The roster, heading into the latter part of FA would look like this:
Starting 5: Russell, Hayward, George, Nance, Cousins
Bench: Nwaba, Deng
The combined salaries for the above players is roughly $94 million. Add to that, roughly, an additional $4 million for cap holds and another $6.86 million for Mozgov’s stretched contract and the Lakers would be slightly above the projected $102 million salary cap. They could then add a player using the full mid-level exception or simply sign players using the veterans minimum. In other words, they’d have ways to add to their roster to supplement the existing talent.
Now, how likely is all of this? Not very. As with any trade scenario, you need a lot of things to go right and for teams to be cooperative to your offer. And, again, in the scenarios above the Lakers are reliant on keeping their top-3 pick. Without that asset in their pocket, they likely have to include Russell and/or Nance in one of the above scenarios which either lessens/eliminates the talent the team can retain or impacts whether the above teams would even want to make the proposed deals.
In saying all that, though, the above is the type of path the Lakers could, in theory, take to try and build a team to contend in a short period of time. It depends on gutting the roster of nearly every young asset they’ve attained over the past several years and of removing any depth the team would have.
Personally, I would not be on board with this approach even if the front office could pull it off. I mean, I could convince myself to root for that team, but part of what I like about being a fan is establishing a connection to players over the course of several years and seeing how they can grow and develop into productive NBA’ers. In the scenario above that experience is swapped out for cheering on an accumulated batch of mercenary talents, thrown together to try and achieve a goal.
Don’t get me wrong, having that many really good players on the team would be fun, it would just be a little bit less enjoyable than seeing this young group of guys grow together.