The Lakers have maneuvered themselves to a position that makes them a formidable free agent destination. They went from a team of LeBron James and talented, high ceiling young players to a team with LeBron and Anthony Davis but not a max cap slot to a team with a LeBron and Davis and $32 million in spending power to chase the league’s best available players.
This was always a possible outcome, but the reporting on this often highlighted the gulf between what was possible and what was actually likely. The frequent focusing on this gap frustrated Lakers fans, I know, but sometimes the world of instant analysis and TV hits doesn’t bring full context of how to get to point B from point A, only that those two things are not the same.
Of course, none of that matters much now. The Lakers are a major player in the market. This is the story. What they do next, though, matters more than their present situation. Because, again, let’s not mistake what’s possible to what’s likely.
Despite this setup, I’m not here to rain on your parade.
What I am here to do is try to lay out the ideal Lakers free agency. Rather than just give you the lone ideal, though, I’m going to give you four. Why four? Because I think there are four outcomes which position the Lakers to be a real title contender. And, as we all know, that is the goal. As the the last four title winners have shown us, there’s more than one way. The non-KD Warriors, the LeBron led Cavs, the super-team Warriors, then the Kawhi-led Raptors offered us a diversity of approach that all led to the same outcome.
The Lakers are hoping to jump to the front of the line to claim the belt through a summer of smart spending. So let’s build out some rosters and get them there. I’ve already offered you a tiered list of players I’d hunt, so we’ll use that as the foundation to this approach. Let’s get to it.
Kawhi. Give me Kawhi.
This is straight forward enough. Kawhi Leonard is the top target, so sign him. He’ll reportedly take a meeting with the Lakers and at least one report says the Lakers should not be dismissed as a viable target. Great! Sign me up. I won’t get into this any more because, well, there’s no point. If you get Kawhi, you figure out the rest. So, let’s get to the rest.
With all $32 million spent on a single player, the Lakers have the $4.5 million room exception and veteran minimum contracts to fill out their roster. Assuming #46 pick Talen Horton-Tucker makes the team and with Kyle Kuzma already on the roster, the Lakers would have 9-10 more roster spots to fill out their team. Here would be my approach and guys I’d like to have and at what contract slot:
Room Exception: After signing a wing in Kawhi, the Lakers will need a point guard. Considering the market and positional scarcity, I see this salary slot going to a PG. My ideal candidate would be Darren Collison. I’m guessing he’d have better financial offers on the table, but the Lakers could offer him a starting position and a return to Southern California for the former UCLA Bruin. (UPDATE: In a stunning turn of events, the 31 year old Collison has just announced his retirement from the NBA after a 10 year career. With him no longer an option, I’d pivot to his Pacers backup, Cory Joseph — who I mention later as a candidate for this same exception in a different scenario.)
Veteran minimum players: Let’s go shopping, shall we? The Lakers need another big man and it should be someone who can start next to Davis but also be fine coming off the bench. They’ll also need another emergency big man, another point guard, and at least three more wings who can play SG, SF, or both. We’re looking at 8 players total, here’s my list:
- C: Robin Lopez
- PF/C: Jonathan Williams
- PG/SG: Alex Caruso
- PF/C: Noah Vonleh
- SF: Thabo Sefolosha
- SG: Garrett Temple
- SG: JR Smith
- PG: Trey Burke
This would take the Lakers roster up to 14 players, allowing for one more guy to be added later from the buyout market or to keep roster flexibility should a trade be made.
How likely is it that the Lakers would get all those guys at the minimum? Probably not likely at all. But it’s my ideal scenario, it doesn’t have to be likely — something you should keep in mind as you continue to read. Haha.
Kyrie Irving. Bring back the band.
I have my skepticism about Kyrie. I really do. But he’s the best point guard on the market, would fill a huge need on this roster as another shot creator at a position the team has no viable starter at, and is worth this contract amount. Sign me up.
Room Exception: With a point guard in tow, the roster needs shift somewhat. This shifts the focus to a wing, and preferably one who can shoot. My response to this is to bring back Reggie Bullock. We know Bullock well enough from his half a season on the team and I think he’d be a wonderful solution at this salary slot to step right in as the starting SG.
Veteran minimum players: Many of the same needs exist, so many of the names will be similar to the ones I’d want if Kawhi were in Kyrie’s place. That said, since Kyrie is a PG, there are some tweaks:
- C: Robin Lopez (he really is my top target at C)
- C: JaVale McGee
- SF/PF: Jared Dudley (give me one more veteran option, thanks)
- SF: Vince Carter (ditto)
- PG/SG: Alex Caruso
- SG: Temple
- SG/SF: Iman Shumpert
- PG: Devin Harris
With Kyrie a bit younger and with more….let’s call it…eccentricities than Kawhi, I’m looking at even more veteran leadership/positive locker room guys who can also play situational/rotation minutes. The age would concern of this group. But, beggars cannot be choosers.
D’Angelo Russell. The prodigal son returns.
In this scenario, we’re assuming Kyrie goes to the Nets who then renounce their rights to Russell. This scenario also assumes the market for Russell does not materialize as one might think, with Minnesota unable to clear the cap space needed to sign him to his max and the Suns Suns-ing it up by chasing veteran leadership at PG next to Booker rather than bringing in his best-bud Russell.
If all this were to happen (again, it’s my ideal scenario, I make the rules), Russell decides to come to LA at slightly below his max at a starting salary of $23 million in his first year. This leaves the Lakers an additional $9 million in cap space to sign another free agent to help. Let’s go shopping.
$9 million player: A lot of needs on the board, but one of them is not point guard, so let’s chase a wing. With a starting salary of $9 million, I target Danny Green who has a championship pedigree, can shoot, and defend his position at a high level. He doesn’t have a lot of ball skills, but that’s fine since he’ll be flanked by LeBron and Russell for most of his minutes.
Room Exception: With PG and SG off the table, let’s grab a big man here and slot in Taj Gibson. Gibson isn’t the ideal starting C, but he can defend up a position when playing next to Davis if need be. I love his toughness and rebounding. Also, Taj went to USC so let’s bring him back to Los Angeles.
Veteran minimum players: With Russell, a SG, and a PF/C in the mix, the needs list changes some and with the personalities at play, I’m changing up some of the names.
- C: Joakim Noah (reuniting him w/ his former Bulls mate Taj)
- PG/SG: Caruso
- PG: Jeremy Lin (come back to LA, but with your ring-mate Danny Green)
- SF: Sefolosha
- SG: Temple
- SF/PF: Dudley
- SG/SF: Iman Shumpert
This is an interesting roster and one that I think could be damn competitive due to an interesting top 7 guys. I’d prefer the Kawhi one for sure, but this is closer to the Kyrie one due to the higher quality depth at the top of the roster under the top 4 guys.
No max player. Find real value.
Some might call this the doomsday scenario. Others might call this the preferred course of action. I will say, though, that there is real potential for this path to produce a high quality team that can make a real run in the mold of the Raptors.
What would be the best way to break up the $32 million? I’d propose this structure: One $15-17 million player, One $8-10 million player, One $5-9 million player. Then you fill out the rest of the team with the room exception and veteran minimum contracts.
There are a couple of avenues to get these guys too. You can sign free agents outright. You can also explore the trade market for players who might be on the way out of their current team, so they could be had via that route. And that brings us to our first guy…
$15-17 million player: Hello there, JJ Redick. He’s not a good defensive player. He’s also not a primary ball handler. He is, however, one of the league’s best shooters and would instantly slot himself between LeBron and Davis as the perfect offensive complement to both. He can come off wide pin-down screens from Davis, play same side two man game in hand-off actions with either LeBron or Davis, and simply be a standstill weakside shooter to keep defenses honest. My offer would be a 2 year, $30 million deal to leave Philly, $15 million year 1 salary.
$8-10 million player: Hi, Julius Randle. The Lakers need another big man and I love Randle. He can play next to Davis (as he did in New Orleans) as the bruiser inside or play as the lone big man in more 4-out, 1-in lineups. He’s a demon in transition and offers switchability defensively. He has his limitations, but I’d welcome him back. My offer: 3 years, $28.4 million with a player option on the 3rd year, $9 million year 1 salary.
$5-9 million player: The Lakers have $8 million left in this scenario and…I’m going to switch things up. Reggie Bullock’s cap hold is for $4.5 million. If they keep that cap hold on their books, they can use $3.5 million in cap space to spend to the limit and then use Bullock’s Bird Rights to sign him to a contract, up to his max, after executing the Anthony Davis trade.
With that, I’m offering Quinn Cook a 3 year, $11 million contract with a 1st year salary of $3.5 million. If I have cook in hand, I then offer Reggie Bullock at 3 year contract at $22 million to add another wing shooter who can start if Redick isn’t available or play behind him to ensure the team always has a viable shooting option on the floor.
Room Exception: Hello Cory Joseph. Joseph might make more than this somewhere else, but I’m hoping a starting job on a Lakers team led by LeBron and Anthony Davis would be a great carrot. Joseph defends his position and is a steady PG who can capably initiate a team’s sets when needed.
Veteran minimum players: With LeBron, Davis, Redick, Kuzma, Randle, Joseph, Cook, Bullock, and Horton-Tucker the Lakers would have 9 players under contract and would need 5 more players to fill out the roster.
- PG/SG: Alex Caruso
- PF/C: Jonathan Williams
- JR Smith
- SF/PF Mario Hezonja (Mario hears Jimi.)
How realistic any of this is, I’m not sure anyone can say for sure. Current intel has Kawhi still favoring the Clippers or the Raptors, Kyrie Irving going to Brooklyn, and D’Angelo Russell’s RFA status still up in the air. Add to that the demand for role players on value contracts being in demand league wide and the Lakers have lots of competition around every corner for every player I’ve listed above.
That said, I’m not basing the above on any intel or reports from around the league. These scenarios are ones I’d back fully with little hesitation and a lot of confidence about how good the team could be next season. And, if nothing else, realistic or not, I’m rooting for one of these outcomes (or something close to it). Here’s hoping I get my way.