While I am firm believer the Lakers cannot be fixed in a single off-season, they are in position to make some important signings in free agency starting late Tuesday night when the 2015-16 NBA season officially opens for business. Should Jordan Hill’s option not be picked up (which it, reportedly, will not be), the Lakers look to have roughly $24 million in cap space. This is a healthy amount of money which can be divided in any number of ways to upgrade a roster that, while on the ascension, could sorely use more talent.
The purpose of this post, though, isn’t to look at who the Lakers should chase, but rather what approach they might take in spending their cap space. Before we get into those paths, however, a few points worth mentioning:
- The $24 million mentioned above is only an estimate, due to a few reasons:
- Jordan Hill’s $9 million option must be decided on before Tuesday.
- The Lakers have several players on non-guaranteed contracts for next year — Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre, and Jabari Brown.
- The Lakers two 1st round picks carry cap holds tied to their guaranteed contracts as first rounders
- Players of different years of service have different “max” salary amounts. Players who have 0-6 years of service have a maximum salary of 25% of the salary cap. Players who have 7-9 years of service have a maximum of 30% of the salary cap. Players with 10+ years of service have a maximum salary of 35% of the salary cap. Of course, there are ways around these numbers, but for the purpose of the Lakers’ free agency pursuits, these are the percentages that matter.
- There are unrestricted and restricted free agents. The former are free to sign with whoever they want. The latter are still tied to their current team via an ability to match any offer made to the restricted player. The team who has the right to match has three days to make their decision. During this waiting period, the cap space offered to the restricted free agent by the team making the offer is tied up in the offer and not available for an offer to any other free agent.
- The longest deal the Lakers can offer a free agent from another team is 4 years.
- Because the Lakers will once again fall under the cap, they will not have the “mid level” or “bi-annual” exceptions available to them. Instead, they will only have the “room” exception — roughly a $3 million salary slot to chase a mid-level type of player.
With all that information out of the way, below are the three general approaches the Lakers can take in free agency. For the purposes of this post we are going off the $24 million cap space estimate. Let’s start the slideshow. (Just kidding.)
Chase the 7-9 year Max Player
The Lakers have already been said to be looking at several of the top free agents, most of whom are players who have been in the league for 7-9 years. This makes them eligible for a 30% max salary. The numbers of what that deal would look like are not set in stone, but the general thought is that a four year maximum contract for this player would be for a value of $80 million. Players who are likely to command this type of contract are LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan, Goran Dragic, and Marc Gasol.
The Lakers are said to be after these players, so just expect the offers to happen. Based on the numbers above, though, if they were to actually sign one, they would only have about $6.3* million in salary cap space and their “room exception” remaining to sign any additional priority free agents. After that space and the exception was spent, they would need to fill out the roster with minimum salaried players.
If the Lakers could actually lure a max level, top tiered player, this off-season would be a home run and everyone should celebrate. The Lakers remain a powerful brand, but they are not a great team. Getting a great player to sign on with a team who was as bad as the Lakers were last season would be a coup.
Chase the 0-6 year Max Player/Dabble in Restricted Free Agency
As implied above, restricted free agency is tricky. The players’ are typically hard to pry away from their current teams and while waiting for the other team to (more than likely) match the contract, the money you want to spend is tied up and unavailable to offer to someone you may actually want/be able to sign. It’s this reason teams often don’t even try to sign away RFA’s and instead focus their energy on unrestricted guys.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, most of the players who are eligible for the 0-6 year max are still RFA’s. The most desirable guys from this group include Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Draymond Green. So, even though these guys will cost less they are almost all likely to be retained by their current team.
There are a couple of notable players who don’t fall into this category, however. The first is Tobias Harris of the Magic. Harris is a RFA, but the Magic just drafted Mario Hezonja with the #5 overall pick, who just so happens to be a SF (the same position Harris plays). Reports are the Magic are hesitant to match a max offer for Harris. Of course, those are just reports. The second player is Greg Monroe, who is an unrestricted free agent after signing his qualifying offer last summer (bypassing RFA in the process). I won’t get into the merits of Monroe’s game here (we’ll cover that before free agency opens), but chasing him comes without any strings of RFA attached.
Should the Lakers go this route, they will have about $9.3 million left in cap space as well as their room exception. Clearly this path leaves the Lakers with a fair amount of space to continue to round out the roster, maybe even signing another upper-mid level guy who could potentially start or be a key contributor off the bench.
Avoid Max guys, Chase Role Players, & Roll Over some Cap Space
The least flashy of any of the approaches, the Lakers are unlikely to pursue this path unless it is a last resort. If they end up going after a few mid-level guys (and signing them to deals in the $6 to $8 million range) it is likely because they struck out on getting any of the max level guys (UFA or RFA) to come on board.
This would leave them to fill out the roster with useful players who help improve the talent base for this upcoming season and for the following ones. Having these players on board likely makes the roster, even if only slightly, more desirable to “win now” free agents who do not want to come to a team with a bare cupboard or with only young players who are not quite ready to contend without additional contributing veterans who have at least some playoff experience.
Safe to say, if this is the direction the team goes they will not spend all their cap space, but instead will hold some back in order to combine with the massive space they expect to have in the summer of 2016 when Kobe’s contract comes off the books and the cap is expected to rise as high as $90 million. This wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but it would be a bit disappointing considering the fact many other teams will also have hoards of cap space to chase the same players the Lakers will want to sign.
It is hard to know how much appeal the Lakers will actually have when free agency opens on July 1st. They do have money to spend, however, and combined with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Kobe returning there is an interesting mix of young talent and a veteran legend to team up with. Whether that is enough to get any one (or more) of them to come on board remains to be seen, but it is clear the Lakers would like to make a push now and then a big splash next summer to leap back into the contention. We’ll see if they have the tools to get it done, but however it plays out it will be one of the paths above they travel down.