Bringing Showtime Back to the Lakers: Planning 2018’s Off-Season
It may seem a little premature to talk about Summer 2018, but for the Los Angeles Lakers the upcoming free agency will be pivotal. Even this past offseason all of the Lakers moves were done with an eye towards the coming summer. First they traded D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets to get out of Timofey Mozgov’s long-term deal. In exchange for Russell and Mozgov they received Brook Lopez and the 27th pick, which landed them fan-favorite and obvious future MVP Kyle Kuzma. Lopez is on an expiring $22.6M deal while Kuzma’s rookie salary only counts for $1.7M against next year’s cap. Meanwhile Russell would have had a $7M qualifying offer while Mozgov was due to make $16M in 2018-19. This trade made it possible for the Lakers to feasibly afford two max-salary players next summer. ‘
The Lakers other signings were also made with preserving cap space as the top priority. After the Detroit Pistons rescinded Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent, the Lakers added him for one-year at $17.7M. The Lakers also re-signed backup point guard Tyler Ennis to a one-year deal. As it currently stands LA has about $50M in guaranteed salaries on their cap sheet next season. The current Lakers signed for 2018-19 are Luol Deng ($18M), Jordan Clarkson ($12.5M), Lonzo Ball ($7.46M), Brandon Ingram ($5.75M), Larry Nance ($2.27M), Kuzma ($1.69M), and Josh Hart ($1.66M). They will also have the option to offer Julius Randle a $5.5M qualifying offer and hold unguaranteed contracts for Ivica Zubac ($1.54), Tyler Ennis ($1.65M), and Thomas Bryant ($1.38M).
If the Lakers manage to trade Deng or Clarkson they will be guaranteed enough room for two max contracts. The one benefit to the Lakers not owning their 2018 1st round pick is they don’t have to worry about adding another salary to their cap. The problem with the plan to create enough room for two max players is whether or not they will be able to obtain two guys who are actually worth the money.
Things were looking better for the Lakers before the Pacers dealt Paul George to the Thunder. If George had stayed in Indiana it would have been a near lock that he would sign with the Lakers this summer. George being in OKC complicates things. With the Thunder’s newly constructed roster they are now a legitimate threat to make the Western Conference Finals and be one of the top challengers to the Warriors reign. Things are even murkier for the Lakers now that Russell Westbrook locked in and signed a 5-year extension with the Thunder. Westbrook has always been a hard player to get a read on, but some were hopeful that his UCLA roots and California upbringing would have him LA-bound. Russ’s extension doesn’t only take him off the table for the Lakers; it may also hurt their chances at George. With Westbrook committed, the Thunder’s foundation is set for PG to rejoin a legitimate contender — especially if the Thunder are successful this season. George has constantly said that winning is the most important factor for him choosing his next team. That does not bode well for Los Angeles.
Rumors of LeBron leaving Cleveland for the Lakers have also heated up ever since the Kyrie Irving trade. If there’s one thing we can learn from LeBron’s previous free agency experiences it’s that no one other than LeBron himself really knows where he will go. LeBron will be 33-years-old in December and that makes one thing clear: he doesn’t have the time to wait around for the young Lakers to develop. The only way he will even consider going to the Lakers is if another established star, like George, joins him. With Westbrook off the table, if George isn’t the one to join LeBron, who will? The other top potential free agents next summer will be Kevin Durant (player option), Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan (player option), Jabari Parker (Restricted), DeMarcus Cousins, and Carmelo Anthony. For all intents and purposes Durant shouldn’t even be on this list since he appears to be a lock to stay with Golden State. The one guy that might make sense is Cousins. As a center his position wouldn’t overlap with LeBron or any of the other young LA players. In addition, Cousins is in the midst of his prime at just 27-years-old and has been relatively healthy. No one has ever questioned the talent of Cousins, but it’s hard to imagine LeBron jeopardizing his legacy by teaming up with such an unpredictable character.
Another option for LeBron in LA would be forming the famous “banana boat” team by joining forces with Wade, Melo, and Paul. The Lakers should add anyone LeBron asks if that’s what it takes to get him in purple and gold. But by next season LeBron and Paul will be 33; Anthony, 34; and Wade, 36. At this point in their respective careers it is hard to picture that group getting past the Warriors, no matter how good LBJ still is.
The Lakers have already lost out on Westbrook, and they could be in a bleak state if they lose out on George and James as well. The team can always try again the following summer, but this year they won’t have the luxury of adding another top lottery talent. If the Lakers can’t land the superstars they desire, their best course of action could be re-signing some, or all of Randle, KCP, and Lopez if the prices are right. The 2018-19 Lakers will likely look very different from the current group. What remains to be seen is which, if any, stars will constitute Magic Johnson’s first free agent splash as team president.