As the Lakers continue to underwhelm, the criticism of the team has rightfully shifted from the youth to the veterans for L.A.’s struggles. In addition to being bad fits the moment they signed, the Lakers’ veterans are also part of a disappointing trend by the front office: Prioritizing one-year deals in free agency. This has been a key error in team-building that the franchise has suffered from going back at least five years, even before this current Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka management regime.
It’s understandable that the Lakers would want to maintain cap flexibility when constructing a roster. The Lakers, as one of the league’s marquee franchises, are afforded an extra look by major free agents just by virtue of their history and location, so having the cap space to sign stars isn’t just a pipe dream for Los Angeles — it is a realistic way to build a roster.
However, there are drawbacks to having a rotating cycle of free agents on a team, and the Lakers are reeling from those side effects of late.
Since 2013, back when Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss were still running the show, Los Angeles has consistently gone big-game hunting. As a result, when the front office struck out, the team opted to fill out its roster each summer with one-year deals, oftentimes for players on “make-good” contracts. Essentially, these were players who were coming off of injury or a bad season and just needed a place to showcase their skills in order to earn a larger contract the following summer.
That’s a perfectly fine strategy for a rebuilding team. Veterans help the younger players learn about the NBA, their presence forces the younger players to really earn their minutes, and if the team decides to “prioritize development” later in the season, then the vets can come to an agreement on a buyout.
The problem with churning through so many players like this is that the Lakers didn’t gain any value from those contracts. Players like Wayne Ellington, Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer, Kendall Marshall, or Brandon Bass only lasted one season in Los Angeles; when their deals were up, they left, with no benefit for the Lakers, who simply recycled their cap space for the next year. The L.A. front office didn’t manage to negotiate team options for any of these players, so even when the did well, the Lakers had no advantage to keep them.
To further compound the situation, Los Angeles hasn’t really been able to develop a cohesive team identity with so much turnover, meaning they were unable to adequately showcase their own free agents for potential trade value.
This isn’t to say that one-year contracts were the only reason that Los Angeles was mired in a hell storm for half of a decade, but they certainly didn’t help the Lakers build towards the future.
Once LeBron James came to town, one-year deals should have been off the table, because Los Angeles was no longer in a rebuilding situation. The fact that players are willing to sign for one-year deals generally means they don’t have better offers, so the quality of talent is lower. That’s not what a playoff team needs, particularly if a coach feels beholden to give all of his veterans minutes.
If the goal is to maintain cap space, there are other ways for a team to keep a flexible cap sheet. Instead of signing players who aren’t going to help on the court, the Lakers could use their open space to acquire dead salary from other teams, in exchange for collecting future picks. For example, by taking on the last year of Jose Calderon’s contract in 2016, Los Angeles picked up two second-round picks from Chicago, which essentially turned into Reggie Bullock.
There’s also the option of signing players to longer contracts at fair value, like what the Lakers did with Lou Williams in the summer of 2015. L.A. signed Williams for three years for a total of $21 million, and when they needed to move on from him, it was easy to do so. The Lakers even got a first-round pick in return for Williams that eventually became Josh Hart.
It isn’t hard to move players when teams need to create cap space, like when Boston moved Avery Bradley in the summer of 2017 to sign Gordon Hayward. The Celtics had to attach a second-round pick with Bradley, but they also got Marcus Morris, who has been a starter for them for the last two seasons.
Perhaps the Miami Heat fooled the rest of the league, or at least Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, into thinking that teams had to start from scratch when building through agency. But so long as front offices are handing out value contracts, they can always move on from deals if and when cap space needs to be created.
Williams was an infinitely more productive player for the Lakers than anyone they signed to a one-year deal, and it’s not only because he is literally better than all of them. It’s also because the security that comes from not having to play for a contract allows players to be more comfortable, which results in less tension in the locker room.
When every individual has to look out for himself because he doesn’t know if he’ll have a paycheck the next year, it creates friction on and off the court. Last year, there was definitely a sense in Los Angeles that certain players were placeholders, and their attitudes reflected it. This year, several of the veterans have had their own blow-ups with Walton; and part of the reason the Lakers reportedly traded one of their promising young players, Ivica Zubac, was because JaVale McGee was threatened by his presence.
The Lakers front office clearly wants to pair James with another superstar, but the way they’ve gone about that goal has created a lot of problems for the Lakers in the interim, including a subpar roster and internal strife, all while failing to capitalize on the cap space they had so meticulously hoarded. Should the team strike out in marquee free agency again this offseason, the way Magic and Pelinka build the rest of the roster will hopefully show us how much they’ve learned from this experience.