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Brandon Ingram is perhaps the most interesting and important player on the Lakers as we begin this new season. Is he a blue chip prospect who will make repeated all star visits in his prime, or is he going to end up “just” a really good role player? Where he falls on this spectrum will massively impact the Lakers’ future, and I see a wide variety of possible outcomes.

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Trading D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Nets for Brook Lopez confirms that Magic and Pelinka see maximizing and using cap space as their priority for building out the long term roster. I believe the Russell trade was a serious mistake for several reasons, but won’t litigate the issue here, and will instead focus on analyzing how the deal fundamentally reworks the team’s salary cap picture as we head into free agency and the future.

Magic and Pelinka’s comments in connection with the trade made clear that the team’s plan is to hoard 2018 cap space to add two max level stars, with one presumably being Paul George (whether by trade this summer or free agency next). I will lay out below the team’s current and future cap situation, and how various contingencies could impact their ability to sign free agents in subsequent offseasons.

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With a new front office entering their first offseason, and a collection of exciting but unproven young players, the Lakers’ future feels wide open. The team could literally go in dozens of different directions over the next few years, depending on the front office’s team-building philosophy, how the young core develops, and in response to countless variables (lottery luck, free agent decisions, trade opportunities). They could, for example, stick with a slow, patient rebuild, cash in their recent lottery picks for established stars in a push to quickly contend, or try something in between, and each path has its risks and benefits.

Team building is ultimately about being opportunistic and flexible, rather than having a rigid plan that you follow no matter what. Rob Pelinka has spoken several times of the need to be prepared for uncertainty by coming up with “Plans A-Z,” which account for various possible future events. In that spirit, Darius and I have thought about different ways the team can build towards a contending roster, based on how key events unfold (e.g., keeping/losing the 2017 lottery pick, using cap room on significant free agents at different points in time, trading for a star player, etc.), and have put together a series of posts that will explore different roster construction options.

One key in building a successful long term roster is having a clear vision of timing. Teams inevitably cycle in and out of contention based on the age/health of key players and various other factors. History shows that it is important to make moves based on a clear sense of when the team is trying to make the ultimate push to contend. Getting to the point of contention is very difficult in a league of 30 teams playing a zero sum game, and typically requires making sure your limited assets are all firing at the same time. In other words, contending teams don’t typically have the resources to combine developing, teenage lottery picks with an older, ready-to-contend core. And, conversely, rebuilding teams don’t typically have the ability to rebuild effectively if they have too many productive veterans taking prospect minutes, or driving too many wins… Getting stuck in the dreaded no man’s land can set a team back years (see, New York Knicks).

In thinking through the team’s future, Darius and I see three big picture paths forward, driven by the timing of when Magic/Pelinka push to contend:

  • Slow Rebuild: committing to a patient, slow rebuild, and trying to contend in 4-5 years, when the current core enters their primes.
  • Expedited Rebuild: pushing to acquire a foundation star as soon as possible to quicken the rebuild, with the goal of making the playoffs next year, and ultimately contending in 2-3 years.
  • Immediate Contention: cashing in the team’s young assets in a push to immediately become a legitimate contender.

The team could conceivably be successful under each path if they make smart decisions and things break their way, although the first two options appear more likely to succeed for obvious reasons. Darius and I will attempt to work through the pros and cons, and how the team might build towards contention under each path, considering the impact of the draft, free agency, and trades.

And, while having a clear and defined vision for the team’s timeline is critical, it is also important to recognize that team-building is inherently a fluid exercise, and sometimes your timing can become accelerated (or depressed) based on unforeseen events, which may result in a need to pivot towards a new timeline/objective. Sometimes you are Cleveland, mired in a messy rebuild, having drafted Anthony Bennett first overall, and Lebron decides to swoop into town and catapult you to instant contention… And sometimes you are Los Angeles, coming off two recent titles, and with a Kobe-Pau-Dwight-Nash core, and you suddenly find yourself in the depths of rebuilding… The best front offices always maintain some level of flexibility and understand when it is time to move from one timeline to another.

I will start this exercise by considering below how the team might approach option (1) – a slow, patient rebuild, with the hope of building a long-lasting contender when the current core enters their primes in 3-5 years. I am not necessarily advocating for this plan over others, but I do think it merits real consideration given the potential benefits.

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With the Lakers’ season over and the new front office frequently emphasizing free agency as a means to strengthen the team, fans have been focused on ways to create more cap room and targeting potential free agent targets. This may just be my impression, but it sounded like the primary justification for hiring Pelinka was his ability to navigate the cap and leverage his relationships with agents and players to recruit free agents, and Pelinka has probably spoken more on that aspect of team building than anything else.

After the misadventures in free agency the team has experienced the last few years, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking through the best way to obtain and maximize cap room. A few months ago I worked through the Lakers salary cap picture for the next few years, highlighting how much room the team likely have under different scenarios and ways the Lakers could build around the core and add impact players like Paul George. That analysis drove home the need to take advantage of a two-year window to add pieces using potential cap room, before Randle, Russell, and Ingram’s extensions kick in and eat up any possibility of meaningful space.

In this post I will try to forecast this summer’s free agent market conditions by looking at the available capital and free agent pool, comparing these conditions to the last few summers (including last year’s mind-blowing bonanza), and then thinking through how the market should impact the Lakers’ strategy.

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With Magic and Rob Pelinka taking over the front office, fans are understandably excited about where they can take the Lakers over the next few years. One huge component of this future will be whether the Lakers can (finally) lure first rate talent to join the young core, particularly given Magic’s potential gravitas as a recruiter, and Pelinka’s deep connections throughout the league. The news that Paul George is “hell bent” on coming to the Lakers during the 2018 offseason has only fueled this hope.

As a consequence, the Lakers’ immediate and future cap situation under the new CBA becomes critical. If the Lakers are going to sign George or acquire other leading players they will need to have the cap flexibility to make it happen, even in the face of the Mozgov/Deng disastrous deals and the pricey extensions coming to the young core.

Just how much flexibility will Magic and Pelinka have to work with the next few years? Is George a realistic target in 2018? And what can they do to clear out more room? I attempt to work through those questions below, and highlight potential issues and options for building the team under the new CBA. At the outset, I will set out my high level findings, and then work through them in more detail below.

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Where are we? How did we get here? And where are going?

The fundamental questions of theology hang over this Lakers season, particularly as the losses mount. The team is in the midst of perhaps their most interesting rebuild, at least that most of us have experienced. Through a perfect storm of disasters, lottery luck, and drafting prowess, the team has gathered a deep and diverse collection of young players, who we now watch find their way through fascinating and usually frustrating games.

This season feels like the critical moment in the rebuild, when we mostly transition from asset gathering to asset evaluation and development. In other words, we likely either have the primary pieces of the next contending era already in place, or we are halfway (gulp) through a vicious cycle back to the beginning.

This year will tell us much about which direction we are heading, which makes the answers to the posed questions all the more important. Those answers will also, I believe, reveal something about whether the front office is capable of leading the team into the future, which is a question that Jeannie apparently isn’t going to let die.

Let’s start at the beginning.

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We know from everything Luke has said, taught, and done that one of his core coaching philosophies is the need for an unselfish team approach to offense. He speaks more of ball movement than perhaps anything else, and recently emphasized the importance of achieving 300 passes per game as a team. This philosophy is unsurprising given Luke’s style as a player, and given his training under both Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson, who both tried to implement team offensive systems over one on one play. Just today, Luke commented that he learned from Phil that “One bad pass to start a possession can start a chain.”

The Lakers have made substantial strides so far this year on offense, and currently sit 9th in the league in offensive rating at 109.6, which is a stunning increase from where they finished last year (101.6 and 29th). This has made me think about Luke’s offensive philosophy and how his approach compares to some of the great offenses of the past few years.

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Laker fans are understandably anxious to find quick evidence of two things as the season begins:

  • Can Luke transform the way the team plays to create meaningful schematic advantages (like other great coaches), after suffering through two years of Byronball?
  • Are the young players, individually and as a group, making the kinds of developmental strides that are critical to the team turning the ship around?

While the preseason admittedly is an imperfect medium for assessing fundamental questions of this nature—given the sample size and quality of play—I saw glimpses of progress on both fronts that offer real hope. And those observations were supported by a few trends in the team’s preseason statistics, which are highlighted below. As always, I’m sure others saw more interesting things.

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