“What should the Lakers free agency plan be?” is a question I pondered long before the team traded for Anthony Davis, and even more since that trade put the team into a fluid salary cap situation that could see their cap space fluctuate by more than $9 million.
The summer of 2019 has long been considered the year the Lakers would need to spend their money. When the roster was full of young players, this was the last summer before cost-controlled rookie contracts would turn into more expensive extensions. Now that those young players are (nearly all) gone, the impetus to spend is as present as ever, but it’s simply evolved into surrounding LeBron James and Davis with the best team possible to contend for a championship now.
Which brings us back to the Lakers free agency plan and how to divvy up all that cash. There’s really only two options here, chase (and hopefully sign) a max player or divide the money among several role players to fill out a roster currently lacking the necessary rotation players needed to make a long playoff run. Both options offer their pluses and minuses, so let’s make the case for, and against, both.
The Lakers, as a brand, have been built on star talent. Dating back to the days of George Mikan, this is a franchise whose best players have told the history of the league, not just been organizational icons. Adding LeBron in the summer of 2018 and trading for Davis now only carries on that tradition. Adding another, then, is in the Lakers’ DNA and will be their first order of business.
Beyond optics, though, this approach makes sense on the court, too. Star players are the rare commodities that not only have the ability to provide outsized value relative to their own contracts, but to also elevate every player on the court to help them do the same.
Role player contracts, especially players who will play under the “room” and “veteran minimum” exceptions the Lakers will be signing, are rarely difference makers in the traditional sense. But, the way they can fill those shoes is by being put in positions to play in a right-sized role that does not ask them to do more than they’re capable. And the best way to do that is by surrounding them with the type of elite talent that draws individual and team defensive attention; by slotting them appropriately in the hierarchy so they’re rarely the focus of game plans. LeBron and Davis will already provide this to the Lakers role players, but adding a 3rd who can do the same will create these opportunities for longer stretches and over the course of full games.
This same principle applies to the star players themselves. No matter how great a player is, their teammate’s play can help them be better. When the Lakers first signed LeBron, I spoke about the symbiotic relationship he has with his teammates; how surrounding him with shooters, a lob threat, and defenders would help open up the floor for him offensively while covering up for his shortcomings defensively. The Lakers, of course, did not do most of those things and while LeBron’s numbers did not suffer, the team’s overall success did. With Davis now flanking him, expect their synergy to lift both players’ production and effectiveness in ways that that will have a ripple effect across the rest of the roster.
Adding a 3rd such player to the mix only multiplies this effect for LeBron and Davis. As a trio, three players — in either strong side dominant formations or with one of the three lurking weak side — the schematic options to generate high level offense are limitless. Further, a 3rd star allows each of the three to carry the appropriate level of burden as the front facing, primary option offensively not only when all three share the floor, but when creating lineups throughout an entire game. Not to mention, in the days where “load management” is a permanent fixture of the league’s lexicon, three stars allows each top guy to rest throughout the season to ensure freshness for an extended playoff run.
The argument for this, then, is simple. Build out a roster with top talent and let that dominance trickle down through the rest of the roster while also creating a burden sharing plan that gets the most out of all the stars. The argument against, however, also offers its benefits…
Role Player Roulette
The law of diminishing returns tells us you actually can have too much of a good thing. Unless the fit is pristine, one of the star players’ production almost always suffers and the ability to actually extract added value from one of their contracts goes down. Don’t get me wrong, players like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love were critical contributors to championship teams, but their numbers and, at times, effectiveness suffered simply because there were not enough touches to optimize each player in a way that got the most out of them consistently. It’s fair to say, the same would be true of the Lakers if adding nearly any of the star players available this summer.
Further, as the Raptors just showed us, having an extended rotation with several capable role players allows a team multiple options to plug and play to ensure great dependability at the group level rather than being overly reliant on one or two of the players at the sub-star level where, if one of those parts fails the overall likelihood of success plummets.
For the Lakers, a team that, after the Davis trade as presently outlined, will only have 5 players under contract (and, if altered to create more cap space, could be as few as four), there is much work to do to build a viable roster that can withstand poor play from key rotation players. Is it best to build out that depth by using the single mechanism of the $4.4 million “room exception” and veteran minimum contracts or would it be to split their cap space among 2-3 players and then use the room exception and veteran minimum contracts to build out the team?
Minimum roster size is 13 and maximum is 15 (and up to 17 when including two-way contracts). If the Lakers have (as many as) 9 roster spots to fill, taking more bites at the apple to get quality players seems like a sound strategy. This is especially true when talking about the skill sets this team will need to be successful. Players who can shoot well are not cheap. Players who can shoot well and defend at a level to not be a liability are even less cheap. It would remain to be seen if the Lakers could even sign one or two of these types of players to begin with — they’re rare and the market for their services is competitive — but if they chase a star, the likelihood diminishes.
Remember, the priorities we set dictate outcomes as much as anything else. Let’s say the Lakers chase a star and get one. That’s great! But those shooter/defender types are almost instantly out of their grasp due to economics and market scarcity. But, let’s say the Lakers chase a star and fail. The time it takes for that process to cycle through and complete likely removes some of the best targets from the market because they received strong interest from some other team first. As Steve Jones Jr. said on twitter, remember that your “Plan C” in free agency is probably some other team’s “Plan A”.
In my typical “yes and no” fashion, I see both sides here. There are potential pitfalls on both paths, but if I were the one making decisions I’d go full steam ahead pursuing a 3rd max player — with the caveat that my search is limited to one or two true max level players (something we’ll get to before free agency opens).
I am a firm believer in the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats and a 3rd high level performer has the ability to offer exponential positive impact, not only on all the role players the team will sign, but on LeBron and Davis too. Add to this that LeBron and Davis might be two of the best players in the league to amplify the skills of a 3rd max guy, I think there is strong potential for the 3rd max guy to outperform even a max salary slot.