It’s been five days since the Lakers won their 17th NBA title, which means it’s already time to discuss how the team can win another one.
Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rob Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers’ brain trust figured out the perfect alchemy to construct a championship-winning roster this year, but that task will be more challenging heading into the 2020-21 campaign. No longer are many of the players on the Lakers distressed assets; now they’ve just proved on the league’s biggest stage that they can contribute to winning basketball, and they’ll expect to be paid commensurately.
With that in mind, let’s go through the state of the Lakers roster heading into the upcoming league year.
First things first: Who is under contract for next season?
LeBron James has two years left on the four-year max deal signed in the summer of 2018, though he can opt out after 2020-21. It’s truly a gift that he committed to a long-term deal with the Lakers when he signed, instead of the series of shorter contracts he agreed to in Cleveland. It takes some of the artificial, forced urgency out of the team-building process.
Kyle Kuzma has one year left on his rookie contract before he becomes a restricted free agent in 2021. He is eligible for an extension this offseason, but it’s hard to see he and the Lakers coming to terms on a deal right now while the team preserves space for 2021 free agency, unless Kuzma takes a significant discount. Otherwise, the Lakers can wait him out and match any offer next offseason if they choose.
Alex Caruso, Danny Green, and Quinn Cook each have one year left on the two-year contracts they signed in the summer of 2019. Caruso and Green’s contracts are fully guaranteed, while Cook only has $1 million guaranteed for the upcoming season.
So which Lakers are free agents?
Jared Dudley, Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, Dion Waiters, and J.R. Smith are not under contract with the Lakers for next season, though Dudley has insisted that he will find a way back onto the roster even if it means camping out in front of Rob Pelinka’s door.
The Lakers don’t have a way of retaining Smith beyond signing him to a minimum deal next year, since he was a replacement player for the restart. The team can re-sign the other four players at up to a 30% raise from their current contracts without cutting into any of their existing cap space.
Kostas Antetokounmpo is also a free agent, though it’s a fair guess that the Lakers will sign him to a two-way contract again.
But what about those player options?
Five Lakers have player options for next season, starting with Anthony Davis. Davis’ camp has already let it be known that he plans to opt out but he will be re-signing with the Lakers at his new max value. He could ask for a one-year deal to time his free agency with James, or a two-year deal to get back into free agency when he is eligible for a 10-year max, or a longer deal for more financial security. Whatever he wants, for however many years, the Lakers will give to him.
The Lakers also gave player options to Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope when they signed two-year deals last summer. Bradley and McGee will probably opt in and remain Lakers; Bradley hasn’t played since March and is unlikely to get more money elsewhere than the $5 million the Lakers have committed to him, and McGee would likely find a similarly dry market for his services as a non-shooting big who was played off the floor for much of the playoffs. Both players were capable starters for the majority of the regular season, and it stands to reason that they can maintain that performance for another year.
Rondo and Caldwell-Pope are both reportedly opting out of the second years of their deals. For Rondo there is little downside to this; he literally can’t get less on the market than the minimum deal he would have been opting in to. If he wants to stay with the Lakers, his best-case scenario is likely getting another year at the minimum in addition to this one due to this stellar playoff performance. If he wants more money annually, he’ll probably have to go elsewhere, but again, he’s proven that he could be worth a bigger payday.
Caldwell-Pope would be turning down $8.5 million next year by opting out, and would be seeking either a raise from the Lakers, or a longer deal. The Lakers have full Bird rights on him, meaning they can pay him up to the max. Obviously, the Lakers — and no other team — will pay KCP that much, but he could probably command a deal closer to the $18 million he made with the Lakers in 2017-18 than the $8 million he made last year.
However, as was mentioned earlier with Kuzma, the Lakers are interested in maintaining 2021 space for free agency, meaning it’s in their best interest to keep KCP’s number low for next season before potentially giving him a raise in 2021. That would create an opening for another team to outbid the Lakers this offseason for Caldwell-Pope’s services; there’s been persistent buzz that his hometown Hawks could be one of those suitors.
If there is a reason to worry about the Lakers moving forward, their ability to keep Caldwell-Pope is probably the biggest.
Can the Lakers sign any new players?
Assuming Davis comes back, the Lakers won’t have any cap space to sign free agents. They can bring in players on minimum contracts, and DeMarcus Cousins is likely to secure one of those minimums if he’s healthy. There will likely be several veterans around the NBA angling for minimum contracts on this team for the chance to play next to Davis and James and potentially compete for a championship.
The Lakers will also have two salary cap exceptions: The midlevel exception — which could be worth up to $9.3 million — and the bi-annual exception worth around $3.6 million. They should have the full midlevel exception available, provided they don’t give their own free agents too big of a raise, because using the MLE triggers the hard cap. That means the Lakers are barred from spending above that figure (roughly $139 million, per projections from Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, but this could change) even if they are willing to pay more.
The MLE can be spent on one contract or multiple deals, but given the Lakers’ roster construction, it’s probably best spent on one high-level role player.
That could be someone like Goran Dragic, who would slot in very nicely as a secondary playmaker to James if he’s willing to leave Miami. Joe Harris, who has shot at least 42% from 3-point range each of the last three seasons in Brooklyn, is an interesting name to consider, though the Nets can offer him more money than the Lakers. Danilo Gallinari, who has recently expressed interest in winning over money on his next deal, could also make sense. Jerami Grant (a new Klutch client!) would be an ideal fit, but he just turned down a player option worth $9.3 million and has likely priced himself out of L.A.’s range with his excellent postseason.
If the Lakers are still under the hard cap after using the MLE, they could then use the BAE. At $3.6 million, it’s hard to expect the team to do any better than a veteran on a make-good contract at that value. The name Jeff Green immediately comes to mind.
Are trades a realistic possibility?
Yes! The Lakers have tons of matching salary, whether they need a large amount in the form of Green’s $15.4 million or smaller amounts like Bradley’s $5.0 million and McGee’s $4.2 million. They have sweeteners, like Horton-Tucker, Kuzma, or their 2020 first-round pick. (I refuse to entertain Caruso in any of these conversations.) That could make it possible to trade for a disgruntled former All-Star such as Victor Oladipo. It might be enough to get into a conversation for Bradley Beal, but probably not.
Still, we can dream:
The Lakers are in a good spot heading into the offseason. They have created an environment that players clearly want to play in. They have Frank Vogel, a coach who believes in his guys and brings out the best in them. They have James, Davis and the lure of playing for a title to attract free agents. They are in position to keep the majority of their role players.
The front office will have to some work to do on the margins, and those moves matter during deep postseason runs. Fortunately, we’ve seen Pelinka get creative when it comes to filling out the final spots of the roster (who saw Morris coming in March?). Overall, this is a simpler task compared to what the Lakers went through last offseason, but still one the Lakers have to execute correctly if they hope to repeat the success of the 2019-20.