It is kind of crazy to think of the Los Angeles Lakers as a free-agent destination at this moment in time. The front office has been painted as an uncomfortable and incompetent workplace with competing agendas. The whole ordeal has become so chaotic that Adam Silver was dragged in, and the NBA commissioner felt compelled to give a public vote of confidence to owner Jeanie Buss.
And yet, the Lakers enter the offseason with a substantial amount of cap space, a horde of young players, all of their first-round picks, and a new, excited head coach who has said all the right things since being hired. In addition to the star-studded free agent class set to hit the market, Anthony Davis still (seemingly) wants to be traded to Los Angeles, meaning the Lakers could be in position to escape this disastrous summer in a better place than they started.
Assuming LeBron James completes some recruiting magic, and David Griffin comes to the conclusion that he can’t convince Davis to stay in New Orleans, there exists the fantastical possibility that the team emerges with not one, but two more superstars to pair next to James next season. Let’s consider the logistics of how that could happen.
Because the Lakers project to be under the cap, meaning they’ll be using their cap space and not any exceptions to sign free agents, they don’t technically need to send matching salary to New Orleans in order to acquire Davis. Theoretically, they could offer Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and the no. 4 pick in the upcoming draft (note: I don’t actually believe this is a trade package the Pelicans would accept — it’s merely a placeholder for the purposes of having this discussion) and take back the 26-year-old star.
The fourth pick is arguably — depending on how much Griffin likes Ball or Kuzma, or even Brandon Ingram, etc. — the team’s best asset, especially if New Orleans gets to decide who to take with that selection. Unless the two teams are in talks before the draft, and L.A. chooses the player on the Pelicans’ wish list, this draft pick loses some of its value after June 24. Therefore, the purpose of making a trade for Davis before the draft would be to entice New Orleans with a shinier toy: the opportunity to have two of the top-five picks in the 2019 draft.
However, if the Lakers make a trade before the draft, that by definition would have to come before free agency. That means that the team would lose some of its cap space that it has earmarked for a max-contract superstar.
As it stands, Los Angeles can get to about $32.5 million of cap room this summer if they renounce all of their veteran free agents, let go of Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones, and retain Alex Caruso. Depending on your preference, keeping Caruso or Jones essentially amounts to the same roster charge.
A player with 7-to-9 years of experience in the NBA, i.e. Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, or Kawhi Leonard, is eligible for a maximum contract that starts at 30 percent of the cap. That cap projects to be $109 million next year, so a max deal for this level of player would start at $32.7 million in 2019-20.
Currently, the Lakers are just shy of hitting the $32.7 mark, unless they choose to add another $500,000 by also dumping Caruso, but that difference amounts to about $1 million over the life of a four-year contract. Hopefully, if a star chooses to sign in Los Angeles, they’d be willing to sacrifice $1 million out of $140 million to enable the Lakers to retain one of their young depth pieces. If not, L.A. can make the space very easily and offer a full max.
Taking a tiny discount wouldn’t be unprecedented. Recall that when James joined the Miami Heat alongside Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in 2010, the trio all took a small haircut so that the team could sign more bench players. They’re probably very grateful that they ended up with Shane Battier and Mike Miller.
However, if the Lakers acquire Davis before free agency officially starts, they will assuredly be sending out less salary than Davis makes. For reference, that’s about $25.4 million before his 15% trade kicker, which he will have to waive to get to Los Angeles. That means that their tenuous grasp on a max salary slot will slip away and they will have to convince free agents to take a more significant discount in order to play next to James and Davis.
Maybe the potential of a big three is enough to settle for less money. More than likely, though, such a move would force the Lakers into a different aisle at the grocery store, shopping for Danny Greens instead of Kawhi Leonards.
If Los Angeles can instead sign a free agent with their existing cap space, they could make then trade with the Pelicans after July 1 (or whenever that deal is signed). That would require aggregating most of their young players to send to New Orleans, but it wouldn’t really matter at that point if the Lakers had a trio of superstars to show for it.
The free-agent plan also is preferable, because if the Pelicans decide not to move Davis to Los Angeles, then the Lakers’ secondary pieces are their existing young players: Brandon Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, and Josh Hart. If they make the trade for Davis and don’t get another star, then they’re forced to overpay veteran role players and have a bare cupboard of assets for when James eventually retires or moves on. Signing a free agent also uses the cap space that was created by the D’Angelo Russell trade, so that asset doesn’t go to waste.
Let’s be clear: the Lakers don’t really have a choice in the matter. If Davis becomes available, they have to go for him. If the aforementioned free agents subsequently don’t come to Los Angeles because they want more money, there’s still a decent team to be made with guys like Danny Green, JaMychal Green, and Bojan Bogdanovic.
The point is that there is an avenue for the Lakers to strike gold and get two superstars this offseason, provided they schedule their transactions correctly. The likelihood is low that any one of these individual outcomes will happen, and even lower that they’ll happen collectively, but the path exists.
After everything that has transpired within this organization since the last game of the regular season, the team doesn’t have anything left to sell but hope. Fortunately, from a purely mechanical perspective, there is still reason to dream.