It has been said on this blog multiple times -- or perhaps this is just yours truly indulging in a bit of authorial hubris -- that from a long-term perspective, this year could not have gone better for the Lakers. Not only are they in line for a high pick in what is still widely considered a very strong draft, they have made major strides towards developing a farm of young players that was practically nonexistent at the start of the year. Kendall Marshall is the most prominent example of this, but Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and lately, Kent Bazemore have shown encouraging signs of developing into serviceable rotation players and all are either contract through next season or have options to tie them to the team. Combined with the draft pick and a good free agent selection, the Lakers could quite easily flip the script from this year into a winning record this upcoming season if they don't fall prey to the injury bug and the good chemistry under Mike D'Antoni endures.
That draft pick, however, as critical as it is to the Lakers' future fortunes, introduces some complications into this plan, particularly since the Lakers are likely trying to maintain maximum cap flexibility for the summer of 2015, when there is a juicier crop of big free agents that might be willing to don the purple and gold. This comes from the simple fact that the better the pick, the more you have to pay that young player who will probably be your franchise cornerstone going forward. Seeing that the Lakers' cap flexibility this summer already hangs on a thread because of Kobe Bryant's extension, we have a problem here:
|120% of 2014-15 number one pick rookie scale
|Lakers 2014-15 payroll
|Cap holds (4)
|Lakers 2014-15 cap space
Now, there are a few assumptions coming into play here. Although Bazemore, Kelly, and Marshall being retained is highly likely, this is not the case for Young, who probably could make much more on the open market should he decline his player option. The Lakers also have to renounce the rights to all of their other free agents, whether it is Pau Gasol, something that closes the door on admittedly rather unrealistic sign-and-trade scenarios, or Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and MarShon Brooks, all likely retention candidates. Finally, there's obviously no assurance that they draft first overall and the difference in salary between the first pick and even say the fourth pick is a considerable $1.5 million. That said, for the purposes of our scenario, going for the most restrictive option is probably prudent, so let's continue.
It was already clear that the Lakers aren't going to be major suitors for the 35% maximum salary candidates such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh and the reality of the Lakers' actual cap space only further tramples over such a possibility. The team would be required to use the stretch provision of Steve Nash to clear enough space and even then, coughing up the $22 million starting salary that they could all command on the open market isn't a smart thing for a franchise that has needs everywhere. It would only make sense if LeBron was willing to come to LA and needless to say, that's not going to happen.
But this isn't especially groundbreaking. The more significant implication is that this new cap situation screws with the Lakers' ability to offer the 25% maximum salary, or basically the amount they need to pony up in offer sheets to restricted free agents coming off their rookie deals such as Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward, and particularly Greg Monroe, the most obtainable of the bunch because how hard it will be for Detroit to keep him with Josh Smith signed for the long-term, Andre Drummond due for a massive extension soon, and the three not working well together. Yes, the Lakers technically have the space to offer the full 25% max, but that in turn wrecks their ability to maintain full flexibility for 2015:
|2014-15 25% maximum starting salary
|Total current expiring salaries
|Total possible expiring salaries
Yes, the cap should increase for the 2015-16 season, but as that in turn increases what maximum salaries can be allotted since their values are tied to the cap. The Lakers, moreover, will have to deal with the same issue next summer of multiple minimum cap holds owing to all the one-year deals they will have to give out in the summer, not to mention things such as Kendall Marshall's restricted free agency or possibly offering extensions to any of the numerous reclamation projects that will no doubt be added to the team next season. Altogether, the reality is that if they want to be players in 2015 for big free agents, they cannot offer any kind of maximum salary this upcoming summer. Period. The Lakers' draft position isn't set in stone, but at this point, them picking out of the top five is pretty hard to fathom considering their closing schedule and that enforces all of the aforementioned lack of cap flexibility.
We currently don't know how much the cap will increase by, but it stands that the Lakers will probably need at least $3-4 million more in expiring salaries to have a shot at offering the full 30% max to a certain former UCLA product. Factoring in minimum cap holds means that the Lakers might have even less spending money, making any long-term deal that inches into eight figures very questionable. The tough part is that there's really not a whole lot the Lakers can do to rectify this situation. Their biggest impediment to more flexibility is a particular two guard who already inked a big extension earlier this season.
So, what can the Lakers do in this situation? Yours truly wanted the Lakers to shoot for value in this free agent class even when the Lakers' cap situation was projected as being slightly more rosy and that's essentially the only path they can take in this case. Perhaps Monroe can be had for an offer sheet a few million below the max because Detroit might view matching and trading him afterwards as impractical, but he's likely alone among the crop of big restricted free agents in that regard. The suggestion of Kyle Lowry in the piece linked above probably becomes even more pertinent at this point, as relative to cost, he might be the biggest impact player available on the market for the Lakers with the money they have available to spend. Past Toronto retaining him, he has a very limited market and that might end up working to the Lakers' favor.
Past those two, however, and someone like Luol Deng, an iffy suggestion because of his tremendous mileage (thanks Thibs!) possibly contributing to injury issues and his probable asking price going into eight figures, the Lakers could just be looking to fill holes in the rotation this upcoming offseason with reasonably solid players. Former Laker Trevor Ariza might be a good option to pursue, especially in comparison to Deng since Ariza fits better with the Lakers' burgeoning identity as an athletic, transition-heavy unit and will no doubt come at a much more affordable rate as well. For much of the same reasons, retaining Jordan Hill becomes a more attractive option and the dearth of attractive center options on the market makes this an even more compelling option.
Who the Lakers ultimately pick will have a significant influence on what direction the team goes in free agency in terms of pursuing the above options, of course, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that a drafting a big will make things much easier going forward, if only since there are less frontcourt options to pursue in free agency than point guards or wings. This doesn't mean that the team shouldn't pursue a best player available (BPA) approach in the draft; point guard is currently the strongest spot on the roster, but if Dante Exum or Marcus Smart is the top option on the Lakers' board, they shouldn't hesitate to take them. This pick will have ramifications a half-decade down the road, so it behooves the Lakers to think about that and not about their immediate roster situation.
That being said, Joel Embiid or Noah Vonleh, and to a slightly lesser extent, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker would make the Lakers' job this offseason simpler, the addition of a five in Embiid or Vonleh being more valuable than a four such as Randle or Parker. It would give the Lakers more flexibility in chasing the best value available at point guard or on the wing because their biggest hole in the frontcourt would receive a significant talent infusion, allowing them to look elsewhere. Again, this shouldn't make the Lakers go against their draft board. Embiid is the highest player on the draft board of yours truly, but Vonleh and Randle are fifth and sixth after Andrew Wiggins, Parker, and Exum.
Altogether, the Lakers' offseason has become much more complicated since they don't possess the financial flexibility needed to be big players. On one hand, this is a good problem to have since the more restrictive their cap situation becomes, the better the pick they ended up with and yours truly has consistently emphasized that the biggest addition to the roster this offseason would come in the draft. It was an assumption, however, that the Lakers rebuilding strategy would include a major addition in the 2014 offseason, even if it wasn't the Bron or Melo addition many predicted when it became clear that hoarding cap space for this summer was becoming a coherent strategy. The restrictions on doing so don't necessarily mean that the rebuilding strategy can't proceed, but that Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss, and co. will have to find creative methods of adding to this team's future core in July.
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