As we outlined in our free agency primer and our podcast on potential plans once July 1st hits, the Lakers’ plan to chase stars in the summer of 2018 impacts what they can do in free agency this summer. When you need every spare penny to sign two max salary players a year from now, whatever you spend now needs to be carefully counted for then.
Even if this wasn’t simple math, the front office came out and told us as much on Thursday. Mark Medina has the intel at the OC Register:
“We’ll be very strategic to keep the cap space in 2018,” Pelinka said after the draft. “We’ll be very sacred about that. We worked very hard to get into that position. So we’ll be smart in free agency.”
To be smart in free agency, the Lakers also have set their eyes on two realities. The Lakers are not expecting to acquire George from the Indiana Pacers amid their insistence on keeping Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. With their hopes set on George becoming available next summer, the Lakers want to pursue players who fit specific criteria that would accelerate the young roster’s development…
…But at what cost? The Lakers want to minimize multi-year contracts, but they are open to spending a bit more as a way to compensate for a one-year deal. As much as they want to attract elite stars again in 2018, the Lakers are also intent on acquiring veterans who will have a positive influence on their young roster.
First, let’s talk Medina’s last point about limiting 1-year contracts. As we’ve discussed plenty, this is to be expected.
The Lakers simply do not have the financial flexibility on their roster to add salary which runs through the summer of 2018 without having to cut that same money (and more) to open up the space needed to chase the stars they covet. Taking this approach will impact their negotiations and reduce the number of viable targets they can sign, which many in the local media are taking to mean the team simply will not be very active when the bidding opens at midnight eastern July 1st.
Expecting a nice, quiet weekend on the free agency front for the Lakers. Nice of them to ease me into the world of NBA free agency.
— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) June 29, 2017
As for the team not expecting to trade for George, I read this a bit differently.
First, I do believe the Lakers are not willing to include Ingram or Ball in any deal while knowing that’s pretty much the entry point to serious conversations with the Pacers. Multiple reports have the Pacers asking for greater returns than the ones received in trades for DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, and Chris Paul, so how likely is it they’ll make a trade with the Lakers that doesn’t include (at least) one of Ingram or Ball? Regardless of how realistic that is for the Pacers, if that’s the price, the Lakers are smart to say what they are.
Maybe Indiana is playing this perfectly, and L.A. will yield on Ingram if they sense Boston or Cleveland might pounce. Maybe the Lakers have full confidence that George and Superstar X are coming in a year, a double dip that would have almost certainly required jettisoning Russell (along with Randle and Clarkson) anyway.
If they’re wrong, the Lakers are engaged in a delicate dance. Without George, they will be bad again, with little to sell beyond a vague and fading allure. With George in exchange for Randle and Clarkson, they would still top out as mediocre.
Let me pivot, for a moment. In a perfect world, I believe the Lakers would like to move Clarkson, some non-guaranteed salary (Tarik Black), and a future pick (or more) in a trade for George. My reasons for this are 3 fold:
1. Randle still has value to the Lakers on a roster with George and, in the long term, I think the team still believes in him as a potential key contributor. Keeping him into his second contract would take some cap maneuvering with Luol Deng’s contract, which will be difficult, but I think they’d like the chance to try. This is a big year for Randle and, my sense is even if the team decides they want to move him later, they want to get real value on him and not just use him in a salary neutral deal for George that leads to a roster that may not be as strong as they need it to be (as Lowe explains).
2. Clarkson is more expendable with George around. There are only so many minutes available on the wing/perimeter and I think the Lakers want more shooting and/or defense than what JC provides. Also, Clarkson’s contract is enough ballast to anchor a deal for George AND will need to be moved to clear the cap space to chase another big free agent to pair with Paul. Again, this would take moving Deng for pure salary relief, which is difficult (but could be easier next summer).
3. I’ve hinted at them above, but the salary math comes down to two major points. 1). The Lakers need to dump Deng and, assuming that happens, 2). The Lakers will need to decide between Clarkson and Randle. Clarkson’s salary in 2018-19 is $12.5 million, Randle’s cap hold for 2018-19 is $12.3 million. If the Lakers do not trade for George and do not add any long term money to their books this summer, they will have roughly $38.5 million in cap space next year (assuming a cap of $101 million – which is slightly conservative). Remove Deng ($18 million) and one of Randle or Clarkson and you have an additional $30 million in cap space. The team will need around $65 million to sign George and a 2nd max player, so you can do math and see how that works (38.5 + 30 = 68.5 or just enough room). If the Lakers trade for George now and add his cap hold to the mix, this changes things, but the team could still make it work and keep Randle, though it would be tighter and more difficult.
Considering all this, I think the Lakers are trying to signal that 1). they understand their offers are not up to the Pacers standards and 2). that they have the means to means (i.e. cap space) to chase George in free agency. If this gets them some leverage in the process, great — the team has surrendered some of that lately with the leaks of other team’s interest and the perception that no one wants any of the team’s young guys not named Ingram or Ball.
Snatching back some of that leverage with the proposition of “we’re the Lakers, we have cap space, and we have that Magic Johnson guy now to close on the player who already said he wants to play here…” is one of their only plays left and they’re doing it right now.
And when you add that approach to the stance they’re taking in free agency, it turns out we may just be doing a lot of waiting and seeing other teams do all the dirt. Which is fine. I could use a bit of free time!*
*Just typing this means that something big is going to happen and I won’t get any free time at all. That’s how this stuff seems to work. Haha.