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Lakers gain more cap flexibility at seven, but still a fine line to walk for the future

Future cap flexibility has been the driving goal behind the Lakers' rebuilding strategy, but maximizing the returns from their available spending power still isn't an easy task, even with a small boost from their draft position.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With the draft lottery in the books, you could be forgiven for thinking that a lot of the tension and drama have been drained out of the Lakers' offseason. Regardless of where the Lakers ended up, it was clear that Kobe Bryant's extension has severely limited the team's ability to spend significantly in free agency this summer, especially with the team's sights set to a 2015 free agent class that appears to hold much more potential for accelerating the rebuilding process. Indeed, satisfying the pleas of Laker fans and landing in the top three of this upcoming draft could have significantly hamstrung the Lakers' ability to make almost any medium-sized move this summer. This certainly isn't to say that the Lakers wouldn't prefer to be drafting say Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid instead of Noah Vonleh or Aaron Gordon, but their cap situation is slightly rosier going forward:

Player 2014-15 salary
Kobe Bryant $23,500,000
Steve Nash $9,701,000
Kent Bazemore $1,115,243 (QO)
Ryan Kelly $1,016,482 (QO)
Robert Sacre $915,243
Kendall Marshall $915,243
120% of #7 pick rookie scale $2,997,360
Total $40,160,571
Minimum cap holds (5) $2,536,680
2014-15 cap $63,200,000
Cap space $20,502,749

There are a few assumptions here, although none of them are especially difficult to fathom. The qualifying offers to Bazemore and Kelly are cheap options to pick up for young players still developing, Nick Young declining to exercise his player option when he stands to make much more on the open market feels like a fait accompli, and the team will very likely renounce the rights to all of their current free agents to open up as much space as possible. If you are wondering why whomever the Lakers' rookie ends up being is making 120% of the scale for his draft slot, it is more or less standard practice in the league for high picks. To illustrate, there was a lot of hoopla when Memphis was initially reluctant to give Xavier Henry the full 120% as a matter of course a few years ago.

So, that's quite a bit of cap space, no? $20 million is certainly nothing to sneeze at and it seemingly would put the Lakers in position to at the very least throw out the full 25% max ($15.8 million) that players coming off their rookie deals into restricted free agency such as Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe, and Gordon Hayward are able to make. The wrench in this equation is that the Lakers still want to maintain room for the 30% max players that are available in 2015 and if we go by salary cap guru Larry Coon's projection that the 2015-16 cap will be $66.5 million, that 30% max will be $19.95 million. To put this in perspective, let's look at the players who will be under contract in 2015:

Player Salary
Kobe Bryant $25,000,000
120% of #7 pick rookie scale $3,132,240
Kendall Marshall $1,181,348 (QO)
Robert Sacre $981,348
Total $30,294,936
Minimum cap holds (8) $4,200,744
2015-16 projected cap $66,500,000
Cap space $32,004,320

If you want to go so far as to earmark a 30% max for one player in 2015, then we get a resulting cap space number of $12,054,320 -- the minimum cap hold for the roster spot doesn't go away until that player is under contract, for those of you doing the math as we go along -- which is more or less the amount of long-term money the Lakers can dish out this summer on free agents and still have space for a 30% max in 2015. And they technically even can't spend that much since we presume that whatever free agents they bring in this offseason will be receiving raises in the second year of their new contract. The team is limited by the CBA to 4.5% yearly raises for free agents signed from other teams based on the first year of their new deal, so that gives the Lakers more or less around $11.5 million in spending money for contracts that go beyond the upcoming season this summer.

(It's not entirely outlandish that the Lakers work out some contracts that actually decline going into the second year or at the very least, play with the guaranteed money available, but that's impossible to prognosticate, so for the purpose of this analysis, let's suppose that's something resembling their actual spending number.)

That prices the Lakers out of the conversation for just about every major restricted free agent this summer, as conventional wisdom states that you have to overpay in order to make teams seriously think about not matching. That doesn't mean that there aren't options that could conceivably fit into the Lakers' budget, however. We put forth Kyle Lowry as an option months ago, although that was admittedly before he had an All-Star caliber season and emerged as a vocal leader of a plucky Toronto playoff squad. There are few teams with cap space and a legitimate point guard need, but one could see Toronto paying to retain Lowry if Masai Ujiri desires to keep the team together instead of rebuilding as he tried to do earlier in the year.

As a result, we are pushed into the next tier of free agents, in which one could easily see the Lakers experiencing some buyer's remorse if they don't play their cards well. Lance Stephenson, for instance, might be a tantalizing option for a Lakers team lacking playmakers on the wing, but one wonders whether his volatility and potential immaturity are a worthy gamble to make for a Lakers team that lacks a firm foundation in the locker room with no coach and only Kobe as a mainstay (short verdict: ultimately depends on the price; anything below eight figures is a bargain). Other options include former Laker Trevor Ariza, who has "contract year" painted all over his gaudy shooting statistics from last season, or Luol Deng, about to edge into his 30s and exuding a "running back with too many career carries" feel after years of Tom Thibodeau treatment.

So the options available to the Lakers have significant flaws or caveats, although we should remember that the Lakers shouldn't be looking for home run free agent acquisitions. This team is not going to be rebuilt into a contender overnight and it behooves the Lakers to treat these options as pieces of a potential future rotation rather than the centerpiece. To extend the baseball analogy, if the Lakers can hit a double and a handful of singles this offseason in free agency, they should be fairly content, especially if you consider the draft pick arguably the best long-term asset they could acquire this summer. In an ideal world, the Lakers would have the necessary flexibility to chase the cream of the crop young talent in this class coming into free agency such as Bledsoe or Hayward that they desperately need to help replenish the roster, but at this juncture, they simply have to do the best with what they have. This is the situation they're left in as a result of Kobe's extension and barring some insane hijinks by Mitch Kupchak and co., another difficult season is likely on the horizon.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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