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What do the current cap projections mean for the Lakers?

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The Lakers might have less flexibility than they originally intended.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Four Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The NBA and the Players Association officially agreed on a modified collective bargaining agreement Monday, and in doing so, set the cap number for the upcoming 2020-21 season. That means we officially know how much money the Lakers have to work with during this truncated offseason.

The salary cap for 2020-21 will reportedly be $109.14 million and the luxury tax line will be set at $132.627. Each of those figures is the same as the 2019-20 numbers.

Currently, with LeBron James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Quinn Cook under contract, the Lakers have about $62.4 million committed in salary for six players. Let’s assume Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee also opt in. That puts the team at $71.6 million.

Next up is Anthony Davis, who will presumably re-sign with the Lakers on a maximum contract. The length of that deal doesn’t affect his number for this upcoming season — he will be paid $32.7 million, which is the 30 percent max. Now, the Lakers have $104.4 million allocated to nine players.

Before we get to the team’s other free agents, the Lakers also have a first round pick this year who is scheduled to make about $2.0 million. Then, remember that the Lakers owe $5 million to Luol Deng after stretching his contract two years ago. The organization has applied for relief from that payment on the grounds that Deng suffered a career-ending injury during his time with the Lakers, but for now, let’s assume Deng is still on the books (he would get paid either way, the application will just determine whether or not he affects the Lakers’ cap). The Lakers now have about $111.3 million on their cap sheet.

At this point, you may have realized that the Lakers have already exceeded the cap just to pay these nine players and to continue to atone for their 2016 sins. The good news is that bird rights allow teams to go over the cap to re-sign their own players, which brings us to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Caldwell-Pope reportedly will opt out of the $8.5 million he was set to earn this year, so it stands to reason he wants more than that. How much more is the critical question for the Lakers. Brian Windhorst told our Jas Kang that if he were Rich Paul, he would ask for more money than Danny Green. Upwards of $15 million seems like a non-starter for KCP, despite his contributions to the Lakers last season, but there’s really no telling how those negotiations will go. Paul has a history of getting James’ Klutch teammates paid arguably above market value, so the Lakers may have to sweat this one out.

For the purposes of moving on in this exercise, let’s say the Lakers give Caldwell-Pope $12 million this year. That puts the team salary at $123.3 million for 11 players. Add in two one-year minimum contracts, and we’re at $126.6 million.

Here’s where the cap exceptions come into play. The Lakers have their biannual exception (BAE), valued at $3.6 million, and the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE), valued at $9.3 million. But if you add those two exceptions to the current bill, the Lakers are now at $139.4 million, which means they’ve exceeded the tax. They can’t use the full non-taxpayer mid-level if they go into the tax. If we take out the BAE, we’re back at $135.8 million, still above the tax. Even if the Lakers dumped Cook, who is only guaranteed $1 million of his $3 million contract, it wouldn’t be enough.

Basically, unless the Lakers convince KCP to stay at his current number or they get Deng’s contract off the books, the full MLE is not in play. They would have the taxpayer mid-level available, however, valued at $5.7 million and they could still use the BAE. It’s important to note that they cannot combine those two exceptions to pay one player — they have to be used separately.

With those tools at their disposal, the free agent market clarifies a bit for the Lakers. Someone like Danilo Gallinari, who suggested he would stomach a pay cut in exchange for a winning situation, probably won’t be coming for less than $9 million. Serge Ibaka has been making upwards of $20 million each of the past three seasons and would have to really want another ring to submit to that decrease in salary.

At the taxpayer MLE, the Lakers will have to go bargain hunting. That could manifest itself in a player like Tristan Thompson, Nerlens Noel, Aron Baynes, D.J. Augustin or Moe Harkless. Paul Millsap and Justin Holiday are likely out of reach at that number, but Millsap has been in the league a long time and is publicly tired of playing against James. Holiday is also a local product, for whatever that’s worth. It’s arguable that the Lakers would be better off eschewing free agency altogether and splitting that MLE between Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and Markieff Morris to bring two of the three back.

The Lakers have a really good team already under contract. Internal improvement from Davis, Kuzma, Caruso, and Horton-Tucker should also be expected. They don’t necessarily need to add a big fish to keep themselves in title contention. That’s a good thing, because the way the cap is set up for next season, the Lakers don’t have too many avenues to upgrade their roster.

Maybe now that the Lakers have established themselves as champions, more ring-chasers will be on the way, but it’s probably best to have modest expectations of free agency given the tools the team has at its disposal. There’s always trade season!

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