We’ve told you how much salary cap space the Lakers will have to spend in free agency. We also broke down the different approaches the team could take — either chasing stars or building up depth via higher quality role players. The only thing left to do, then, is spend some of the team’s money.
The Lakers are positioned well enough to do most anything they need to in free agency. If they need to chase a (7-9 year) max level free agent, they can (with some maneuvering). If they want to sign multiple players who make a combined $24 million (or so), they can. If they want to keep some of their own free agents, reducing some of their spending power in the process, they can. Their are a bunch of options for this team and should be looked at as a major player in this market.
Of course, being a major player doesn’t mean things will work out. Free agency is a two way street. The Lakers will need to convince players to come play for them. The carrots are teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis while getting copious amounts of playing time. The stick, especially for players not in line to earn max level salary, is probably less money than they could get in a market saturated with nearly as much cash as the 2016 cap spike off-season.
From my perspective, discipline and foresight are the Lakers biggest factors for success. That means seeking players at contract amounts where they will either be rightly paid or paid an amount which offers upside to outperform their salary. I cannot stress this enough: the Lakers are a team with enough cap space to be dangerous — not only to the league, but to themselves. If they spend wisely, they can propel themselves into the championship hunt. If they spend poorly, they can fritter away another year of LeBron and, potentially, negatively impact their future with Davis.
Nothing is off the table, here. I don’t want to over-dramatize it, but this is a pivotal summer. They need to get it right. Getting Anthony Davis is wonderful. There is much more work to do, though, and that might even be harder than simply upping your offer until David Griffin decides it’s nearly impossible to say no.
In getting back to the idea of value, I’ve broken up available free agents into contact value tiers. The players who typically outperform the value of their contracts are true max level players (LeBron, Curry, Durant, Giannis, etc) and players who make very little money relative to their talent level (players on rookie contracts and, in some cases, players who make the minimum or are slotted into the various other cap exceptions which have a set dollar value).
This is one of the reasons I prefer the Lakers chase max level players first. They are more of a sure thing. If they’re able to sign one of these guys, they then mostly move onto players who will barely make anything at all — guys who can be slotted into the “room exception” of about $4.5 million or on minimum contracts. Again, players on these types of deals can offer great value relative to what they earn contractually. Give me as many of these players as possible, please.
Now that my long winded setup is over, let’s get to players I’d like the Lakers to go after. Again, I’ve slotted these guys into tiers based on the money I’d offer them. These players (at least the ones below the max salary tier) may end up getting more than this from other teams. If they do, I wish them well. But if the Lakers can get them where I hope, I think they’d be very good additions…
Max Level Players
- Kawhi Leonard: He is the best available player on the market (Durant’s injury matters here). The reporting is mixed as to how much he might want to play for the Lakers, with most major news breakers giving them little shot. Until he turns down a meeting with the team or expresses to them — either directly or indirectly — he’s not considering them, however, he is the top target. Hopefully the Lakers can secure a meeting early in free agency. If they do, I hope they can sell him on something no other team in the league can: the ability to play with two other top 10 (or higher) players in the league and the type of brand-building opportunities that can enhance his bank account off the court; the opportunities that come with playing for a glamour franchise in a major market.
- Kyrie Irving: Kyrie has a lot of warts as a personality — his time in Boston did him no favors, here. But, he’s a former teammate of LeBron and has proven himself in the highest leverage situations the league offers. I certainly do worry about his injury history and the potential for locker room stuff to be a distraction. Those concerns cannot be swept under the rug. I love that he’s the same age as Anthony Davis, however, and that if you have both those guys you have an ideal perimeter/big man combo to build around post-LeBron.
- Jimmy Butler: He’s not as devastating a two-way force as Kawhi but he’s in that lineage. He’d help on both sides of the ball, brings intangibles in the form of toughness and IDGAF attitude, something that comes in handy when playing in big moments. His injury history and Thibs-minutes workload are real concerns. But his two-way play would pair wonderfully with Davis to help keep LeBron covered up on that end.
That’s my full max player list. I know there’s other guys out there who will be max level guys. But current injuries (Klay) and overall concern about contract value either remove them from my list or knock them down a peg.
Not Max Level Players but will get the Max so unless
they’re cheaper, no thanks
- Kemba Walker: I love Kemba. And his fit next to LeBron and Davis would be wonderful. His durability has been great too, so he’d be a great guy to carry the load if/when LeBron and/or Davis are out of the lineup. He’s also a small guard, will be 30 next May, and has never not been the top option on his team. And while I do not question his fit, I think the adjustment period would be real and he’d ultimately be walking into a role that would not mirror the one he’d be leaving in Charlotte. If you told me the Lakers could sign Kemba for $27 million a year, you’d have my attention. At the full $32 million max, I wish him well wherever he ends up.
- D’Angelo Russell: The Russell rumors have intensified over the last few days as the talk of Kyrie being Brooklyn bound amplifies. But, Russell remains a restricted free agent, so his inclusion here is not quite real…yet. If he did become an unrestricted free agent, I’d perk up, but still not at his full — even if at the lower threshold — max salary. Russell is a 4-6 year (25% of the cap) max, so his salary starts at $27 million. That’s still too rich for me, honestly. If he were to accept a $21-23 million deal (as a UFA), I’d do business. His offensive skill set is a great complement to James and Davis while his age lines up with Davis very well. Russell will never be a top level defender and I think it’s fair to question whether his success last season was just a “hot” year or something that will prove consistent and sustainable. That said, the talent that originally landed him as the #2 pick by the Lakers is blooming and the belief I had in him back then as a prospect is still there. I’d welcome him at the right price.
That’s it, that’s my list for this tier. Khris Middleton would have been in this section if I was not certain he’d be returning to the Bucks. Other names to consider are Al Horford and Tobias Harris, but both are front court players which happen to be where all the Lakers current roster strength is concentrated. Both would be great fits, but the overlap with current personnel likely creates diminishing returns and undercuts their contract value.
Room Exception Players
I’ll keep these player descriptions shorter, but here you go…
- Reggie Bullock: We saw some of what Bullock could do last year and his skill set fits nicely — even more so now that Davis is on board. The amount of the room exception is nearly the exact same as his current cap hold. My hope is that he’d be a top option for this slot regardless of what the Lakers do in free agency.
- Taj Gibson: I love Gibson’s toughness, rebounding ability (on both ends), smarts, locker room presence, and overall professionalism. I think he’d be a great fit next to Davis and LeBron in bigger lineups and as a backup center when Davis is off the floor.
- Wayne Ellington: The Lakers need shooting and Ellington provides it. Can be used as a spot-up guy and someone who can come off pin-downs and other screen actions to occupy defenses. At this price, I’d love to have him.
- Ed Davis: See Gibson, Taj, only younger and left handed.
- DeMarre Carroll: Probably duplicative to Kyle Kuzma in a lot of ways, but would offer good wing depth and another tweener forward option who could play next to LeBron as both a defender and willing shooter.
- Terrence Ross: I’m sure he’ll make more than this, but I’m including him here because this is about what I’d want to pay him. If the Lakers were to go a different route with their cap space by splitting it up, Ross could be an option to make more than this and still be a good signing, but I’d be more weary. Ross offers shooting and athleticism, both of which will be sorely needed by these Lakers.
- Darren Collison: Like Ross, he’ll likely cost more than this. His shooting and ability to capably run an offense would be very useful.
- Cory Joseph: The other Pacers point guard from last season behind Collison. Not as good a shooter as Collison, but is bigger and offers steady defense. The Lakers will need more guys to handle the ball and initiate sets behind LeBron.
- Quinn Cook: Including Cook here as well because if the Lakers were to sign a wing like Kawhi or Butler to a max contract, they would still need guard depth and Cook, like Collison and Joseph, can help here. He’s probably more a backup than a starter and would be playing above his head if thrust into too large a role, but he can shoot and (at least) tries on defense.
I could go on and on here, but that’s a good sampling of guys I’d be looking at for this level of contract. If you notice a theme, this list is bigs, point guards, and shooters. The Lakers need all three in spades so they’d do well to get one — preferably a shooting wing or a point guard — in this salary slot.
Minimum Contract Players
This list is very long, so rather than give you fully developed reasons behind each guy I’m just going to offer up a nice sampling with a quick take attached.
- Vince Carter: Veteran leader who still has enough game to play spot/situational minutes and even take on a semi-regular rotation position.
- Jared Dudley: See Carter, Vince, only a little younger.
- Robin Lopez: Would probably get more than this on the open market, but would love him at this price. Rugged rebounder with enough defensive chops to be a really nice rotation big. Love his energy, competitiveness, and general personality.
- Joakim Noah: See Lopez, Robin. I also love Noah’s passing and general basketball IQ.
- Alex Caruso: We know him well. I’d love to have him back as backup PG or a 4th or 5th guard who has good size, plays hard, and competes defensively. If his shooting comes around (and his aggressiveness with it), he could end up a really good value. He’s an NBA player and deserves to be on a roster.
- Trevor Ariza: Could also be a “room exception” candidate, but if he could be had for the minimum I’d be all for it.
- Lance Stephenson: I’m not advocating bringing Lance back by any means. But the wing talent in this price range is slim and Lance has a relationship with Vogel from their time together in Indy. If Vogel were on board to bring him back, this is a move I could at least be neutral about. I’d prefer Ariza or the guy right below here.
- Thabo Sefolosha: Wing defense and some capable spot up shooting. Also known to play basketball in AirMax 90’s, which is amazing.
- JR Smith: While not yet a free agent, JR will likely be traded and waived before the summer is up. At that point, he’d be a decent wing option for the minimum after the team had signed other players first. Not sure how much he can still defend, but is a threat from behind the arc and in a limited role he could be of some real use with potential to impact a game for stretches (both good and bad, I suppose).
- JaVale McGee: I’d be fine running it back, but hopefully in a smaller role and being less dependent on him from night to night.
- Nerlens Noel: Think McGee, but younger. I’d prefer Noah or Lopez here, but if McGee doesn’t return, Noel would be a viable replacement. Also note, Noel has the same agent as LeBron and AD.
- Trey Burke: Intriguing point guard option who played well in New York. Offers scoring punch and has shown he can be a league average 3 point shooter. Could do much worse at the minimum for a point guard who can play.
- Noah Vonleh: A nice enough 4th or 5th big man.
- Nik Stauskas: Shooting. I’ll take it.
- Devin Harris: Veteran PG.
- Jeremy Lin: Ditto.
- Kosta Koufos: Another big man option who should come cheap. Unclear how much he has left in the tank, but could platoon at center in a deeper rotation behind Davis.
This isn’t the entire list, of course. There’s lots of guys every year who end up taking the minimum and many of them can play. Also, it should be said, expect to hear Carmelo Anthony’s name as a candidate here as the offseason progresses. I didn’t list him above b/c he’s basically a stretch PF only now, which is where LeBron and Kuzma are entrenched. But, like JR Smith, at the minimum, the upside potential vs. contract value is there. We’ll see.
There is, of course, a different path the Lakers could take. Rather than signing one max (or near max) level guy and a bunch of cheap guys, they can split up their cap space and spread it among several players. If going down that route, players like the aforementioned Ross or Collison are guys to look out for. Other names should include our old friend Julius Randle, (ditto) Brook Lopez, Patrick Beverly, either of the Morris twins, JJ Redick, Danny Green, Seth Curry, and Bojan Bogdanovich. There’s others, too, but this is a good starting point.
I don’t recommend going down this path immediately simply because I do not expect the value to be here in these signings. Again, the league is flush with cap space and it’s in this middle-class of player where contracts can get out of hand pretty quickly.
That said, good players who can contribute to a winning team live in this zone. And, the Lakers could be smart to pivot to this path while other teams chasing the biggest stars wait on their decisions. Striking quickly could be in their favor. So, I get it. Especially if you trust Rob Pelinka to mine this group and then be principled enough to not overpay.
I, though, am not sure if Pelinka can successfully thread this needle. Which isn’t a major knock. A lot of GM’s, even really competent ones, might not be able to under the Lakers’ constraints and in this market that has so many teams with cap space. Add in his relative inexperience in his current role, and I think it’s fair to question how well he’d pull this off in his first offseason of being the top decision maker.
So, I’m hoping Pelinka can lure a star. Sure, that wouldn’t leave the Lakers many options, besides minimum level contracts, to fill out the roster. We’ll see where this all goes, starting on Sunday. I cannot wait.