The glory days of Kobe and Phil may seem like ages ago, but a quick peek at a calendar reminds you that it really was only three years ago that the Lakers sat at top of the NBA pyramid. But my, oh my, how things have changed. The roster doesn’t look good, the future isn’t looking all that bright, and we still don’t have a coach. So, how did we get here? Let’s take a step-by-step look at just how things went so sour so quickly for the Lakers, starting with the end of the Phil era.
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I have openly wondered whether or not the Lakers would make another move in this free agent period. My hope, of course, is that they will. In order to sign another impact player, however, it’s important to understand what tools the team still has in their bag to accomplish this goal. With that in mind, I did some research on the Lakers’ cap situation to try and sort out exactly where they stand and what they can still do to improve the roster.
As of Monday, the Lakers have financial commitments — either already on the books or verbally — to nine players. Below are those players and their salary cap numbers (please note that these numbers are pretty rough, but should get us in the ballpark of where the team is payroll wise):
- Kobe Bryant – $23.5 million
- Steve Nash – $9.701 million
- Jeremy Lin – $8.374 million
- Jordan Hill – $6.770 million (cap hold; salary will go up to $9 million once contract is signed)
- Julius Randle – $2.497 million (100% of his slotted salary spot; will go up to $2.997 when his contract becomes official)
- Nick Young – $915K (cap hold; salary will go up to at least $4.5 million in the first year of his contract, could be higher)
- Ryan Kelly – $1.016 million (this is the amount of Kelly’s qualifying offer that made him a restricted free agent)
- Robert Sacre – $915K
- Kendall Marshall – $915K (non-guaranteed salary)
If the Lakers were to renounce the rights to all the other free agents they have on their roster, they would also add cap holds in the form of $500K each for four additional players to bring them up to the minimum roster of 13. Add all these numbers together, including the aforementioned $500K and the Lakers are roughly — again roughly — at a payroll of $55.877 million*. The salary cap for next year is $63.065 million, leaving the Lakers about $7.5 million in cap space.
Of that $7.5 million, Nick Young’s salary eats up a major piece of it. Remember, until he is signed, he is only on the books for the amount of his cap hold. After Young’s salary, the rest of the money is slated to go to Jordan Hill who, like young, will be paid more than the amount of his cap hold. So, basically, the Lakers don’t have any cap space.
Not so fast.
Due to Jordan Hill** not yet signing, the Lakers actually do have cap space. As mentioned above, the difference between his cap hold and his starting salary next season is about $2.3 million. As long as Hill remains unsigned, this difference is cap space the Lakers have at their disposal. Also important is that the Lakers have Hill’s Bird Rights. This means they can go over the salary cap to sign him to his contract as long as they never renounce his free agent rights (meaning his cap hold will remain on the Lakers’ books).
What does this mean? It means that the Lakers have a little bit of wiggle room to chase another free agent. That, however, could be a bigger chunk of room if the Lakers take one last step: waiving Steve Nash via the “stretch provision”. This provision would allow the Lakers to spread out Nash’s salary this season over 3 years, reducing his cap figure to a shade over $3.2 million this season and opening up an additional $6.468 million in cap space.
Suddenly, the Lakers would have around $9 million to chase a free agent. This is not a small number and could, potentially, land a very good player (Lance Stephenson?) or two good, rotation players.
Of course, the Lakers would need to be willing to take the hit on Nash’s contract while essentially paying him to go away all while forfeiting cap space over the next two summers when they would be looking to add to the roster via free agency. Those scenarios inherently mean maximizing cap space and having Nash’s since expired deal still counting against the cap would be a drain. With the cap likely rising the hit wouldn’t be too severe, but it also wouldn’t be nothing.
When looking at this from every angle, I would be okay with using the stretch provision on Nash if the Lakers had a free agent commit to them who was worth it. The only target on the market I could see being worth this is Lance Stephenson since A). he’s an unrestricted free agent and once he commits there is no recourse from the Pacers to match (unlike Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe) and B). he is young enough where, if he can be had on a short 2 or 3 year deal (arguable if that is even possible) he can be a good asset in the short term who can be evaluated as a potential long term fit.
That is a lot of ifs and not a sure thing by any means. But the idea is worth exploring. The Lakers are in a position where they have used all their cap space and need to try and explore creative ways to generate more spending to improve the roster on the floor if they are really going to sell people that they are trying to compete for a playoff spot next season. Because as it stands now, filling out this roster with veteran minimum contracts after simply inking Young and Hill to their deals is highly unlikely to be a good team next year***.
*Thanks to Larry Coon and Eric Pincus for help in trying to sort out these numbers and the rules that the Lakers would be trying to navigate. Again, the numbers I have listed should not be taken as gospel, but they are in the ballpark and close enough that they are worth exploring.
**This is possible to do with Hill, but not Nick Young because the Lakers do not possess Young’s Bird Rights. They also need to fall below the cap to absorb Jeremy Lin’s contract, so Young’s salary must be paid out of cap space.
***There is a strong argument to be made that even by stretching Nash and adding Stephenson, the Lakers wouldn’t be good enough to make the playoffs, so why spend the money? I understand this sentiment and don’t entirely disagree. The West is a minefield and, just like last season, the odds are a good team (or more) miss the playoffs out West. The reason why I’d support signing a guy like Lance is because at some point the Lakers must actually add talent to their roster and build the foundation for a winning team. Lance is not a superstar, but he’s a good player. He has been a fixture of the Pacers’ best lineups the last two seasons and has excellent two way potential.
The Lakers need more players like him if they are to attract quality free agents. Don’t think of it as “will stars come to play with Lance Stephenson?” but rather “will stars come to play on a barren roster devoid of talented players?”. I think the answer to that question is “no” even with the Lakers’ brand and history making the pitch. At some point the Lakers need to start grabbing mid to upper-tier prospects — especially young ones — who can form the nucleus of a good team that superstars want to join or be the base of trades to acquire them.
Just as we figured, the LeBron James decision has started a flurry of moves around the league as teams now move on to their own plans. That includes the Lakers who have helped facilitate the Rockets’ pursuit of Chris Bosh by taking Jeremy Lin off their hands. From ESPN:
The Houston Rockets have traded guard Jeremy Lin and a future first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers, a league source told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.
The Lakers were amenable to this deal, according to sources, because Lin is only under contract for one more season, thus preserving their cap space next summer. They also covet draft picks, after trading away their first-round picks in 2015 and 2017 to Phoenix and Orlando as part of the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades, respectively.
If the Lakers are going to miss out on the big name free agents this summer — and with each passing minute that seems increasingly likely — they needed to move on to their Plan B and start to fill out their roster. Acquiring Lin helps in that.
Lin is the exact type of asset the Lakers have said to be pursuing this summer. He’s a good player (we will get into this later with a full analysis) and he is only signed for one more season. This allows the Lakers to preserve their cap space and financial flexibility for next summer when they can again pursue the top free agents on the market.
The sweetner here, however, is the 1st round pick the Lakers will also receive. While the Rockets are likely to be one of the top 5-10 teams next season and deliver a pick in the mid-20’s next June, that pick is much better than the one the Lakers would be slated to have should they finish outside the top 5 selections — which would be no pick at all. Now the Lakers will be armed with a pick that can be used in another trade or used to select another young player who can potentially be part of the team.
Viewing the deal through this dual prism, I am quite happy with what the Lakers have accomplished. When the Lakers talk about “financial flexibility”, this is one of the ways in which they use the term. Having money under the cap isn’t just about signing FA’s, it is about leveraging that space to absorb players and getting additional assets for their trouble. The fact that Lin can actually play, fills a position of need, and has other marketing qualities that will help the Lakers is icing on the cake.
It is about time the Lakers got creative and started to use all the assets at their disposal to improve the team in the short and the long term. Drafting Julius Randle was step one in this process. It remains to be seen what becomes of Lin as a player next year or what the pick they will receive from the Rockets produces, but the hope is that they too become pieces that improve the short and long term trajectory of the team.
According to a report from Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski (quite possibly the most trustworthy reporter in the sport), Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak met with Mike Dunleavy Wednesday morning to discuss the team’s vacant head coaching position. Yes, the same Mike Dunleavy who was fired by Donald Sterling (!!!) after leading the Clippers to exactly one winning season in his seven years at the helm. Like I’m sure many of you were, I was less than thrilled to read that report this morning.
Sure, I understand that the Lakers and Dunleavy have a history. He took over after Pat Riley’s departure and led the team to two consecutive playoff appearances. But that was twenty-four years ago. And I get that Kupchak has pledged to interview a multitude of candidates before finally making his decision, so Dunleavy’s odds are bleak at best. But I have a question for the Lakers-and other teams- that I’ve been wanting to ask for years now: What has changed since Coach ___’s last firing that you believe he’s ready to lead your team to the promised land?
When the Lakers hired another Mike (D’Antoni) who’s less than popular in Los Angeles, it made sense roster wise.
Mitch Jim’s thought process was that the Lakers had a roster tailor made to fit the D’Antoni system- Nash and Dwight, if the latter proved willing (which he didn’t), would run a nasty pick-and-roll with Kobe on the wing and Pau ready to hit the elbow jumper at the high post. Mitch had the seven-seconds-or-less Suns in his mind when he sat down with D’Antoni, but he conveniently overlooked D’Antoni’s tenure with the New York Knicks. He went 121-167 in New York and was subsequently fired. While I was one of the many Laker fans (don’t act like you foresaw last year’s trainwreck coming- no one did) who salivated at the thought of that offense firing at full potential, maybe the front office should have seen D’Antoni’s failure in New York as writing on the wall that maybe he wasn’t the right man for the job.
Kupchak recently told reporters that he’d prefer for whoever is hired to have some head coaching experience. My question is–Why? By definition, each and every coach who’s out of a job was fired before he was last hired. He didn’t do a good enough job at his last job to be retained, so why are we supposed to believe that he can lead our team out of the lottery, through an ultra-quick rebuilding stage and back to the promised land?
All the greats were once first-time head coaches. Phil Jackson took over the Bulls from Doug Collins once upon a time. Gregg Popovich went 17-47 in his first season leading the Spurs. Erik Spoelstra took over the Heat despite having zero NBA playing or head coaching experience and we all see how that worked out.
Look, I know that choosing a young guy who’s not established is inherently riskier. But the fact of the matter is that the Lakers aren’t in their normal position. They don’t have established veterans who are one piece away from a championship. There’s work to be done- this rebuild will more than likely be a multi-year process if we’re calling a spade a spade. The established names that have been thrown around, like Tom Thibodeau, probably don’t want to leave their current winning ways to undertake a full rebuild.
The Lakers are traditionalists, for sure. They were, after all, the last team to send a representative to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Just as they look for coaches with experience, they look for players with experience, and the team has long preferred to trade draft picks in hopes of acquiring established stars to help them avoid a rebuilding period. But you know who else are traditionalists? The Boston Celtics. But after realizing that their aging core would never topple the Miami Heat, they blew things up by trading away their best players and securing future draft picks. And who did the Celtics hire to lead them through the dark years? Brad Stevens, a first-time NBA coach who was the head coach of Butler before the Celtics. Yes, the Celtics hired a coach from a college mid-major.
The number 7 pick will result in a hyper-talented, likely raw player who will require development to become a star. The type of player the Lakers come up on about once every 10 years. The roster will be different, and I believe the man coaching the roster should be different to. I know it’s blasphemous to say, but the Lakers need to look toward a younger, more energetic guy to lead the team. That way, both the coach and roster can develop together. And in the process, maybe, just maybe, you stumble upon an all-time great coach. Because all-time great coaches don’t fall into your hands after getting fired by their previous teams.
Earlier we wondered how lucky the Lakers would be in the draft lottery.
Seems the answer is, based on your perspective, that their luck on Tuesday night was either slightly bad or neutral as the slid down a spot from their slotted 6th position to settle into the 7th selection in next month’s NBA draft. (As an aside, I don’t think you can argue they were unlucky considering the second most likely spot they would pick at was 7th and that’s exactly where they will pick. But I digress.)
Regardless of what is said in the aftermath, this is not the “worst case scenario” for the Lakers (that would have been falling to 9th). In fact, it’s not even that bad a spot to be in.
Most pundits would tell you that this draft, like every other, has talent that falls into tiers. The very top tier consists of 3 players — Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, and Jabari Parker. The next player on most draft boards is Dante Exum, a player who is the most intriguing prospect and has a high ceiling, but also someone we don’t know much about due to him being from Australia and not playing in a major European league. So, lets slot him in his own tier right below the aforementioned big three.
The next tier, however, is about four players deep and consists of Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh, Aaron Gordon, and Julius Randle. If the top four picks go as expected, at least one of these players will be available when the Lakers pick. Any of these players would instantly help a talent barren Lakers’ roster that only has 3 players under contract heading into free agency.
Of course we are early in the process. Player ranks are subject to change and are sure to fluctuate as guys go into their individual and group workouts. By the time we actually get to the draft, who knows how those workouts, agent maneuvering, team needs, and several other variables will shape draft boards of all the teams — including the Lakers’.
What we do know, though, is that the Lakers are very likely to have more than one very good player available when they pick. Will it be one of those top two to four players we all lusted after just 12 hours ago? Probably not. But it will be someone who has a chance to come in, compete for a rotation spot and, through hard work and proper development be a high level contributor for years to come for this franchise.
That, more than anything else, is my takeaway from tonight.
With Kobe and Nash the Lakers have name recognition and with Robert Sacre (and, if his contract option is picked up, Kendall Marshall) they have a young player who will work hard and fight for a rotation spot. But beyond those players, they are a blank slate. They need talent and especially young, athletic talent. The players likely to be available when the Lakers pick should be both young and talented. If they are also smart, hard working, and willing to take in some of what Kobe and Nash (and other veterans the team is likely to sign) have to offer in terms of experience and how to be a professional in this league, they can grow into the type of player we will all be proud to root for.
Time will tell what happens with this pick, but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t excited. The Lakers need good players and whoever they draft has an opportunity to be one.