If there was one central theme in the exit interviews that the Los Angeles Lakers conducted on Friday, it was that practically everyone wants to run it back, and understandably so. Before injuries started plaguing the Lakers, they looked like a team primed to make another deep playoff run.
But is running it back in the best the Lakers can do this offseason? Let’s break it down.
Is it possible?
Technically? Yes. Realistically? No.
The Lakers will go into the 2021-22 season with just six players on guaranteed contracts: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marc Gasol and Luol Deng, whose contract was waived and stretched in 2018. Combined, they’ll make $110.2 million next season, which is just $1.8 million less than projected salary cap for the 2021-22 season.
The Lakers can go over the cap to sign players that they have Bird Rights on, but that small group of players doesn’t include Andre Drummond or Montrezl Harrell, two players that are expected to get decently-sized offers in free agency. So, unless they’re willing to take discounts to come back — something I’d argue is highly unlikely because of how the center rotation was managed at the tail end of the season — they’ll probably be on different teams next season.
Who can they bring back?
The short answer is: everyone else, but for clarity’s sake, let’s start with the two biggest names: Alex Caruso and Dennis Schröder.
Caruso and Schröder are the only two players that the Lakers will have Full Bird Rights on next summer, which means that they can delve as far into the luxury tax as they’d like to re-sign them so long as they retain their cap holds. That’s significant when you consider they’re the expected to have the biggest markets of their internal free agents.
The Lakers won’t have Full Bird Rights on Talen Horton-Tucker — another one of their players that’s expected to be a hot commodity — but they’ll have his Early Bird Rights, which will allow them to pay him up to 105% of the average salary from last season. Additionally, Horton-Tucker will be a restricted free agent, which means the Lakers can match any offer that a team makes to him in free agency and those offers will be limited due to the Glibert Arenas Provision.
The only player that the Lakers won’t have some Bird Rights on outside of Drummond and Harrell is Wesley Matthews, but he’s probably a veteran’s minimum candidate at this stage of his career and he’s expressed an interest in returning. The same is true of Markieff Morris and Jared Dudley, but the Lakers will have Early Bird Rights on them.
Does it make sense to bring them back?
Yes, but for flexibility more than anything else.
For example, the Lakers could theoretically let Schröder walk this summer, but they wouldn’t have the ability to sign anyone better than him because they won’t have cap space or the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. So, even if they don’t view Schröder as an ideal fit next to James and Davis, his contract is an asset to them. The same can be said of Caruso and Horton-Tucker.
That’s not to say that none of the Lakers’ internal free agents won’t help them next season — in fact, I’d argue that a majority of them will be some of the best available free agents for their respective price ranges — but fit isn’t the only thing that should be considered when making these decisions. The NBA, above all else, is a business, and keeping their internal free agents would be good business for the Lakers.
That being said, it doesn’t hurt anyone’s case that the Lakers’ starting lineup of Schröder, Caldwell-Pope, James, Davis and Gasol posted a net rating of +13.2 in the 281 minutes they played together in the regular season.
What about the players already under contract?
This is where the conversation gets interesting to me.
When James and Davis were healthy, the Lakers were good — like, one of the top-three teams in the NBA good. But when they were sidelined and role players were asked to step up, no one did, mostly because no one could.
It’s not atypical of teams to struggle without their superstars, but the Lakers were an extreme case of that in the playoffs, and outside of re-signing Schröder and hoping he looks better in his second season with the team, there’s really no way that they can sign a surefire starter?
So, the question becomes: do the Lakers trade Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma trade someone with a higher floor? It’s complicated.
On one hand, the best versions of Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma are exactly the type of players you want on a team with James and Davis: they’re active on the defensive end and can make open 3-point shots. On the other hand, their combined salaries are the Lakers’ only chance of making a splashy move in the offseason.
In theory, the Lakers could wait until free agency is over to see where the holes are in their roster, but if we’re going with the assumption that their plan is to keep their core rotation intact, then we already have an idea of what the team is going to look like. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the idea of listening to offers for Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma all the more tempting.
If the Lakers run it back, they’ll probably be fine — maybe even great — but they won’t be any more prepared for another nightmare scenario, and after the season they had, that should be one of their top priorities in the offseason.
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