The Los Angeles Lakers are at a precarious time in their rebuild. They have gotten great value from nearly all of their recent draft picks and are teeming with young talent, but lack any sure things as far as multiple-time All-Stars and MVP candidates go. Despite a number of impressive efforts against contenders, they are mired in a seven-game losing streak and are on pace for 25 wins, one worse than last year and good for second worst in the league. Their one-time top 10 defense has fallen apart and they just held the dreaded “clear the air” meeting.
This team is the ultimate glass-half-full litmus test — are they heading in the right direction but snake bitten by injuries, or is it time to start cashing in young talent for veterans to win now? Before you answer, add in sky high expectations from Laker fans and the complexity of team-building while avoiding the repeater tax under the new CBA.
If you’ve just had a mini-panic attack, you’re not alone.
Continuing the momentum from the Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell trade before the season, the direction from the front office has been unequivocal: clear cap space for two max slots, period. While not impossible, there are some potential issues here. One, that kind of space requires some major salary cap gymnastics and, two, assumes that the Lakers are definitely getting two free agent superstars that are still in their primes. In addition, one of the players the Lakers have very publicly made disposable, Julius Randle, has arguably been their best player this season.
Let’s start with the first issue: cap space. The Lakers would need over $60 million in cap space next summer, which is no easy task. Even with no first-rounder hitting the books (ouch), they would have to renounce all free agents, including Brook Lopez, Randle, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — which would get the committed salary to about $54 million against $101 million salary cap. The next step would be to dump Deng and Clarkson. If another team absorbed Clarkson ($12.5M in 2018) or sent back expiring contracts, the Lakers could then stretch Deng and reduce his salary to $7.4 million over five years. The combination of these moves would get the Lakers $70M in cap space, but with only 5 proven NBA players (Ball, Ingram, Nance, Kuzma, and Hart) on the roster.
As far as free agency goes, that’s no slam dunk either. While the potential free agent pool is still deep, Westbrook, Embiid, and Wiggins all signed extensions, leaving LeBron and Cousins as the best potential dance partners to Paul George in the purple and gold. Other top free agents all carry heavy injury history asterisks, including Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, and Jabari Parker. While it’s hard to see the other teams loaded with cap space (Dallas, Chicago) wooing free agents to contend for a title, it’s easy to envision OKC, Cleveland, and New Orleans having strong finishes and re-signing their stars. Past experience has shown that LeBron will make sure the team blinks first in any free agency situation — but is it smart for the Lakers to bet so heavily that everything will work out perfectly in their favor?
Being realistic, the Lakers will have to make some cost-clearing moves in any scenario – stretching Deng’s toxic contract feels like an inevitability and a $13 million sixth man like Clarkson is a luxury for a team that has only won 11 games this season. Nevertheless, the Lakers should practically have a pen already in both George and LeBron’s hands before dumping Randle.
While he still hasn’t added a reliable three-point shot, Randle has made some critical adjustments this season. Per 36 minutes, he is averaging 21.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, and a combined two steals/blocks, numbers that jump off the page. He has become much more efficient as well, registering a 60 percent true shooting percentage (making the critical leap from Derrick Rose land to Serge Ibaka territory). On defense, he has grown significantly, particularly as a small ball five, where he has made much better decisions and can also employ his speed and playmaking abilities against opposing centers.
By accepting a limited bench role while playing the best ball of his life, he has demonstrated a team-first maturity even in the face of Walton’s questionable rotations. If you squint a little bit, one can see him carving out a do-it-all, Draymond Green type role for a contender.
Is there a path forward with Randle? Yes, but not with two other max free agents. If LeBron’s psychic powers are broadcasting that he’ll stay in The Land, here’s a proposal: shoot for one max free agent (Paul George, for instance) and target Randle along with another quality starter with the rest of the space. Randle is unlikely to receive a max offer in this market, so locking him up for $15-20 million per year is a reasonable goal.
With the other slot, the Lakers should target a young shooting guard (could offer up to $15M/year) in a deep free agent class. In addition to looking at retaining KCP, there is a mix of available vets and young guns, with names like JJ Redick, Avery Bradley, Will Barton, Rodney Hood, and Zach LaVine on the market.
With those moves, the Lakers rotation could look something like this: Lonzo Ball, KCP, Ingram, George, and Randle starting, with Kuzma, Nance, Hart, and Zubac coming off the bench. By adding George but retaining Randle, the Lakers could upgrade their outside shooting with another legitimate weapon on offense. Defensively, they would be a formidable match-up with the flexibility to switch on everything and light up opposing teams in transition off turnovers.
That team may not be an instant title contender like they might have been if LBJ came along for the ride, but it could take a demonstrable step toward contention. Although the win-loss column hasn’t showed it yet, these Lakers are already getting better — Randle aside, Kuzma and Ball have both shown they belong as rookies and Ingram is a leap away from being a legitimate star in this league.
There’s something to be said for a patient, incremental team-building approach that gives the young talent a chance to grow. Nothing is sexier or more LA than making a paradigm shattering splash, but the Laker brass should keep in mind sometimes that approach yields a championship, and other times it ends up being a pu-pu platter of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
What is Julius Randle?
This poll is closed
Building block for LA