The Los Angeles Lakers are heading into one of the most important offseasons in their history, with the team badly needing to right the ship after a 2014-2015 season that featured a franchise-worst 61 losses. While the future is certainly bright thanks to a collection of young talent and the addition of the second overall pick in the draft, there are still a number of very difficult decisions facing general manager Mitch Kupchak this summer.
The choices that he and the rest of the front office staff make are going impact the club long-term, so it's going to be crucial that they choose wisely. To complicate things further, every decision made has implications further down the line, like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book except you can't keep your finger on the page and flip back when you realize that venturing into the dungeon has caused your hero to get eaten by the dragon.
For that reason, the NBA's off-season can sometimes be just as important as the regular season. Summer is the time when general managers have to come up big in the clutch and acquire the assets necessary for their teams to be successful. For Mitch Kupchak, making the right moves can lead to championship parades down Figueroa and purple and gold confetti raining down from the rafters at the Staples Center, while the wrong ones will prolong the misery of the past three seasons.
First and foremost, the Lakers need to decide who to use their draft picks on. The nice thing about having the 2nd overall pick is that it brings certainty, as only one player out of a group of 5 or 6 potential candidates will not be available to them. Last year the team had to sweat it out, hoping a highly-talented player would fall to them at the number 7 pick. It worked out, as by all accounts Julius Randle was ranked much higher than 7th on the Lakers board (he may have been as high as 3), but still, it's nice not having to wait through a tense 30 minutes of hoping "the guy" drops far enough.
While it sounds unlikely that Karl-Anthony Towns will be available, the Lakers will have a number of other prospects to choose from, including D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Emanuel Mudiay, Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja, and Justise Winslow. While it can certainly be argued that one prospect may fit better than the other with the current Lakers squad, the bottom line is that Mitch has to figure out which of the players available to him has the best chance of becoming a superstar. Fit shouldn't be a major factor for a team in the midst of a rebuild like the Lakers are.
The NBA history books are littered with general managers who made the mistake of drafting for need rather than talent (*cough* Bowie over Jordan), and Kupchak would do well to simply take the best player available and worry about fit later.
The Lakers draft decisions don't stop with the second overall pick though; they have the 27th and 34th picks as well. It's also possible that the team is able to move up or down in the draft via trade, which means the front office staff needs to evaluate and rank around 60 or 70 prospects in order to be prepared for the draft.
It's important that Kupchak not only identifies talent but also quantifies exactly what each player is worth so that he can respond appropriately in trade situations. For example, last season the team had Jordan Clarkson ranked much higher than his eventual draft spot of 46th. When they saw him start to drop the decision was made that he was worth a financial investment to acquire his rights, and spent $1.8 million in order to buy a draft pick from the Wizards to select him.
Looks like it was was money well spent
The move ended up being a home-run, as Clarkson finished the season on a tear and made the All-Rookie First Team. While not every decision pays off like that, the importance of diligent scouting and player ranking can't be understated.
While a number of decisions still face the Lakers, the draft is the first domino to fall. Nearly every other decision that will be made for the rest of the summer is going to hinge on what happens here. On June 25th, Woj will tweet who will be donning the Golden Armor about 1 minute before the pick is actually made, and thus the team's direction will be established.
The Lakers hold options on 5 players: Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre, Jordan Hill, and Jabari Brown. The team can let any of them go and erase their salaries from the cap, which would give the Lakers more money to play with in free agency. It's on Mitch to decide which players are worth their cap hit and the opportunity cost of adding someone else in free agency.
Realistically, Clarkson and Black are safe, as both performed above expectations and have minimum salaries, which means the odds of finding someone better at the same price are very slim. Jabari Brown's deal is non-guaranteed for next season, which means the team can cut him from the roster even after the season begins and remove him from their cap. That feature, combined with his low cap number and productive time with the team last season, means he will be given every chance to continue his campaign to stick in league next season.
Robert Sacre, on the other hand, is about as likely to stay in Los Angeles as a rain cloud. He has been with the Lakers for the past three seasons and has shown only marginal improvement during that time. While his 7', 260-pound frame is certainly an advantage, his numbers suggest he may not even be a backup center in the NBA. The main culprit is his 41% shooting from the field, which is bad for any position, but for a big man it's unforgivable.
Still, size does have value in the league, and Sacre's contract would cost the Lakers just under $1 million to keep him around. He's a solid teammate, and his celebratory antics from the bench are always fun to watch. However, Tarik Black is younger, cheaper, and more athletic, and outplayed him for the backup center spot last season. For cap purposes I'm going to say that Mitch decides to keep him around as an expiring trade piece; expect to see him sent elsewhere before the season begins. Should Mitch determine that there is no market for Sacre, he will likely see his option declined.
Conversely, Jordan Hill is, by all accounts, a solid NBA player. He is a phenomenal offensive rebounder who improved his range last season, although he admittedly ran out of steam playing starters minutes. Still, in his three and a half seasons with the Lakers he has had a role as a fan favorite, and his ability to play either front court position helps his value. However, to keep him around next year on his current deal would cost the Lakers $9 million in cap space, and would likely prevent them from being able to truly chase after the crop of 30% max contract players (Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge, et al.).
Additionally, should the team indeed select Jahlil Okafor in the draft (or Karl-Anthony Towns), there will be very few minutes available for the dreadlocked big man. Based on these factors, it's very likely that the Mitch makes the decision to decline Hill's option and that the two sides part ways.
One of the most exciting moments of the NBA offseason is free agency, which begins at midnight on July 1st. There are always a handful of GMs ringing the doorbell of an impact free agent as the clock strikes 12, and given how aggressive Kupchak has promised to be, we can expect him to be one of them.
Just who the Lakers target will likely come down to a few factors. First and foremost, the team needs to know how much money they have to spend. With a salary cap set at $67,100,000 and the contracts of Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Ryan Kelly, Julius Randle, Tarik Black, Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown, Robert Sacre, and the 2nd and 27th pick on the books the Lakers will have a total payroll of $44,681,670 (including cap holds for open roster spots) which leaves them $22, 418,330 to spend on free agents.
With the massive salary cap increase coming during the summer of 2016, it's less likely that deals given out this year, even max ones, end up being bad contracts. However, not all max deals are equal. A max contract for a player like Greg Monroe, who has just five years in the NBA, would start at around $15 million per season--this is why I consider him to be one of the best values this summer, as his relatively low "max" contract nearly guarantees positive trade value in the future. If a player like Monroe is added, then the Lakers will still have ~$7 million to spend bringing in other players.
However, should they give a max contract to a player like Goran Dragic, a veteran with seven years of experience, his deal would eat up nearly all of the Lakers available cap space. It's going to be up to Mitch to determine whether or not such a deal is worth it not only this summer but whether that contract is likely to be a positive asset in the future.
This is an area Kupchak struggled in last year when he gave a 4-year, $21.5 million deal to Nick Young. While Young had a career year in 2013-2014, Kupchak was essentially betting that Nick would continue shooting at a relatively high percentage, which was a big gamble to take on a 29-year-old known for taking (and sometimes making) difficult shots. When Young lost his, well, swag, his trade value took a major hit and now the Lakers have a player who is about to turn 30 on a contract that pays more than his production suggests it should.
This summer Mitch will need to avoid striking out on similar gambles in order to bring success back to the team.
Who the Lakers select in the draft will also be extremely important here. If they take D'Angelo Russell or Emanuel Mudiay, that would likely mean that Kupchak will focus on adding a big in free agency. With names like Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe, DeAndre Jordan, Paul Millsap, Draymond Green, Tyson Chandler, and possibly Kevin Love, Al Jefferson, and Brook Lopez on the market, there are plenty of opportunities to add an impact big man this year.
However, should the Lakers select a center like Jahlil Okafor in the draft, that would rule out most of the free agent centers on the list, as the team would already have its post player of the future and free agents rarely want to play with one of the top picks in the draft fighting them for minutes. In that scenario, only the players who can slot in at power forward would remain options for the Lakers.
Going with a center in the draft would also seem to require that the Lakers focus their attention on wings and guards in free agency, but this summer is lacking in both areas. Aging guards like Rajon Rondo, Dragic, and Monta Ellis will be available but are less than ideal. Younger guards like Reggie Jackson and Brandon Knight are restricted and their current teams are very likely to match any offer presented to them (after 3 days of tying up the Lakers cap space).
Wings are similarly scarce thanks to restricted free agency, with Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler locks to be retained by their incumbent teams. Khris Middleton and Tobias Harris are also restricted, but going after either of them would require the gamble of offering up a max deal and then holding your breath for 3 days while the Bucks or Magic decide whether or not to match.
Tobias Harris' versatility on both ends of the court could be attractive to the Lakers
Should Kupchak decide that attempting to sign restricted free agents is too risky (which has been his stance in the past), the Lakers would be left to chase after unrestricted free agents DeMarre Carroll, Danny Green, and Wesley Matthews, though all have their downsides and would likely cost more than the team would like to pay thanks to the scarcity of available talent at the position.
Needless to say, team building is a complicated process. Every player's production on the court has to be weighed against their contract in order to determine their overall value and whether or not they are perceived as an asset.
For example, most Lakers fans are retching over the thought of Rondo winding up in a Lakers uniform. Not only is he a poor fit on the court thanks to his terrible jump shot, his attitude is also a concern. If Mitch were to present Rondo with a 4-year max contract this summer, the likelihood of an angry mob gathering outside the Lakers' El Segundo training facility with torches and pitchforks would be extremely high.
However, what if Rondo accepted a one-year deal at, say, $3 million in the hopes that he could play his way into a bigger contract next year (aka the Nick Young/Ed Davis plan)? Wouldn't his experience, ability to pass the ball, and tiny contract (thus allowing cap space for other free agents to be signed) be worth the gamble? Some might still say no, but Kupchak's job in free agency is not just about getting the right player to sign on with the Lakers, it's about finding a number that allows the team to build the best roster with the most assets.
Navigating the tangled web of free agency will be Kupchak's greatest task this summer, but if he gets it right, the team will be on the road to redemption next season.
The Trade Market
The final challenge to face Mitch Kupchak this summer is the trade market. Trade talk typically picks up during this time of year, as teams head into the draft and free agency period with specific goals in mind. Most teams are a little more willing to talk trade over the summer than they are during the hectic regular season, as it provides their newly acquired players time to get acclimated to their new team.
These days, trades in the NBA don't very often come down to simple player for player value; it's much more complicated than that. Now teams must also consider the contracts of the assets they are trading compared to what they are getting, whether or not their team needs are being met, and just what the opportunity cost is of making a particular deal.
For example, the Lakers need talent across the board. The Denver Nuggets have the 7th pick in the draft and two solid players in Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried that they are hoping to deal. A trade sending Faried, Lawson, and the 7th pick to the Lakers in exchange for the 2nd overall pick isn't out of the question based purely on talent. Faried is a young power player who many feel hasn't been allowed to fully blossom in Denver, while Lawson's speed and scoring abilities from the point would be a welcome addition alongside Jordan Clarkson. Losing the 2nd pick hurts, but the 7th overall selection would allow the Lakers to take a gamble on a young international talent like Mario Hezonja or Kristaps Porzingis (just don't tell Ben Rosales).
However, trades aren't constructed based solely on talent; there are contracts and opportunity costs to consider as well. Completing the trade described above would wipe out all of the Lakers' available cap space, which would mean that in addition to giving up the 2nd overall pick, they would also be sacrificing the opportunity to chase impact free agents. Is it worth one of Towns/Okafor/Russell AND a free agent like say LaMarcus Aldridge to add Lawson, Faried, and Porzingis to the roster? Probably not.
It's also possible that the Lakers part with an asset to move up in the draft, or that they absorb the contract of an unwanted player in exchange for draft picks, as they did with Jeremy Lin last summer. They could even find themselves in a role reversal, paying a team with a draft pick to take on the contract of Nick Young and freeing up more cap space in the process.
Would it be worth paying another team with the 27th and 34th pick to take Young's contract? What if that meant freeing up enough cap space to land two lower-tier "max" free agents, like Greg Monroe and Tobias Harris? Is it worth it then or are the Lakers better served hanging on to their picks and chasing one major free agent?
Those are the kinds of difficult decisions Mitch is going to need to make this summer. Every choice offers an opportunity cost that goes along with it, and he is going to need to correctly value his assets and then make decisions to determine the correct path going forward. Nearly every decision is linked to the ones that came before it, and also sets up the ones that come after it, and not all roads lead back to the promised land.
All that being said, the great thing about this summer is that the Lakers do have options. Tons of them. While it might make Mitch Kupchak's job incredibly daunting, having the flexibility to swing the franchise any number of ways is a good problem to have. If he appears more stressed than usual this summer though, we know why.
Choose wisely, Mitch.
One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA