Because I am a basketball nerd, one of the things which most interests me about the free agency period is how team execute their signings in order to maximize their cap space and get the most bang for their buck when building their team. Because of all the exceptions, triggers, and rules surrounding the execution of contracts, one of the things teams do is organize the order of how they execute the deals they agree to with players in order to ensure they operate within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement.
What does this have to do with the Lakers? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the press releases, the Lakers haven’t actually executed all the deals they have reportedly agreed to this summer. Oh, you’ve seen the pictures of Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, and Jordan Clarkson signing their deals. They have even formally announced the acquisition of Jose Calderon via trade.
Other deals, however, have remain unannounced. And that’s because they technically have not yet been signed. I’ll let Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders explain:
The team has held off on signing Tarik Black, Marcelo Huertas and second-overall pick Brandon Ingram, keeping an eye on what could be $13.6 million in cap room (assuming the team also waives and stretched Nick Young).
Without getting into too much detail, the Lakers tendered qualifying offers to Black and Huertas, making them restricted free agents. They also have “early-Bird” (Black) and “non-Bird” (Huertas) rights to both players, allowing the team to give them specific types of raises in their next contracts while also exceeding the salary cap. For now, though, only the amount of the qualifying offer counts against the Lakers’ cap.
As for Ingram, a not often discussed aspect of rookie contracts is that even though there is a slotted salary for each draft pick, teams can pay drafted players anywhere from 80% to 120% of that slotted amount. Typically players get 120%, but until they actually sign, their cap hit is only the amount that is predetermined by their draft slot.
This is the context to Pincus’ note about the Lakers not yet signing these players and why they maintain enough cap space to acquire a pretty good player. Why are they doing this, though? More from Pincus:
The Lakers do have an unnamed trade target in mind, but are also preserving space for another opportunistic Calderon-like deal.
It is interesting that Pincus is reporting the Lakers aren’t holding onto this cap space to actually sign anyone. Instead, he’s saying they want to use it to facilitate a trade. So, let’s explore Pincus’ two scenarios.
Starting with his second point first, a “Calderon-like deal” is pretty straight forward. In the deal for Calderon, the Lakers absorbed his salary into cap space to help the Bulls clear room to sign Dwyane Wade. For their trouble, they received two 2nd round draft picks from Chicago. With up to $13.6 million in space (assuming Young is stretched), the Lakers could eat that much salary and receive an asset for doing so.
It should be noted, however, that their aren’t many teams looking to clear cap space at this point. In fact, there may not be any. The free agent crop is nearly totally barren, save for some restricted free agents and guys who still want to get a good contract but don’t have many logical suitors (JR Smith, Lance Stephenson, etc). In other words, Don’t expect teams to come calling the Lakers to take on money in a deal to grease the wheels for their own free agent push. There just aren’t available guys who will require that*.
So, if there’s really not many “Calderon-like” deals left to make, that brings us to the Lakers and an “unnamed trade target” they have “in mind”. Without speculating too much, I can only imagine that target remains Russell Westbrook. The OKC point guard isn’t yet on the trading block and there is reason to believe he won’t ever get there. But my guess is that the Lakers likely feel they’d be wise to keep tabs on that situation and remain flexible enough with their roster and cap space to be able to facilitate a deal should the opportunity arise.
Now, if you are wondering about how the mechanics of such a deal might work, this is where the Lakers having cap space matters. By having, potentially, $13.6 million in space, the Lakers wouldn’t actually need to match salaries in this hypothetical trade. Westbrook currently only makes $17.7 million. The Lakers could absorb Westbrook into their cap space by only sending a little over $4 million back in salary.
I won’t speculate on what any deal might look like as that requires multiple moving parts and an understanding of what OKC might want and what the Lakers would be willing to give up. That’s too much to consider and only leads to fans on both sides shouting “that’s too much!” and “that’s too little!” and “Kupchak/Presti would NEVER do that!”. Which is all pretty pointless. I’m just noting the mechanics of how a deal would work, not what it would actually take to make it happen.
Now, I am on record saying the Lakers shouldn’t be worried about Westbrook. He is a free agent next year and if the Lakers are to actually be good enough to a) sign Westbrook outright or b). be a contender with him in the fold, they should probably worry about developing their own players and helping them reach their own potential. While getting the player now sounds great, executing it in a way where you do not give up so much talent that you repeat the mistake the Knicks made in trading for Carmelo Anthony would be difficult.
Ultimately, though, scenarios like this remain out there. And they will continue to as long as the Lakers keep holding onto some cap space by not signing Black, Huertas, and Ingram.
*There is an argument to be made that the Lakers could still take on a bad salary which runs beyond this season in order to get an add-on asset. But this doesn’t make much sense for them. Taking on any contract dollars that run beyond this upcoming season is likely a non-starter since the Lakers want to be a major player in free agency next summer. They have already structured the Deng, Mozgov, and Clarkson contracts in a way to maximize cap space for the summer of ’17. Eating into that space now to facilitate a salary dump for another team doesn’t make much sense.