Lonzo Ball is coming home, or at least that’s what Lakers fans are hoping now that it seems like him leaving New Orleans this summer is a realistic possibility. While it’s not as simple as that, it’s not impossible either.
Ball will be a restricted free agent, which means the Pelicans have the power to match any offer sheet that he signs, but according to a report from Shams Charania of The Athletic on Tuesday, they’re not expected to match a “significant” offer sheet for him. As things stand, the Lakers can’t make Ball that type of offer, but they can theoretically get there.
The Lakers currently have $110.2 million on their books for the 2021-22 season, which only accounts for the guaranteed salaries of five players — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma — and Luol Deng’s cap hold. If Montrezl Harrell opts into the the $9.7 million player option in his contract, that number will jump to just over $120 million, which is $8 million more than the projected salary cap for the 2021-22 season.
Then, there are the Lakers’ free agent cap holds — the number that remains on the Lakers’ books for a free agent until they either sign a deal or have their rights renounced. The biggest cap hold the Lakers have on the books is for Dennis Schröder ($24 million), followed by Alex Caruso’s ($5.2 million) and then the No. 22 pick, who will have a cap hold of $4.9 million until he’s signed. That’s more than Wesley Matthews’ $4.3 million cap hold.
Now that we’ve established all of that, we can get to what you’ve all been waiting for: how the Lakers can bring Ball back to Los Angeles.
The first and easiest step would be to renounce Schröder’s cap hold, letting him walk as an unrestricted free agent. Renouncing the cap holds of Jared Dudley, Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris will also be necessary, but it’s reasonable to assume they’d re-sign for the veteran’s minimum, so that’s less of an issue.
Then the Lakers would have to find takers for Caldwell-Pope, Gasol and Kuzma. Doing so would open up $18.8 million in cap space and allow them to keep the cap holds of Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker and the No. 22 pick. Once the No. 22 pick is signed, he’ll only count for $2.04 million against the cap, according to Basketball GM’s rookie scale projections, so, in actuality, they’d have over $20 million in cap space — that should be enough to sign Ball.
The alternative to the Lakers signing Ball as a free agent would be for them to facilitate a sign-and-trade, but they would hard cap themselves in that scenario and that would limit their ability to re-sign Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker. Why? Because if Ball signed a contract worth $20 million in the first year, the Lakers would be just $6 million in under the luxury tax threshold. Not only is that not enough to give Caruso and Horton-Tucker new contracts, but it’s hardly enough to fill out the roster with veteran’s minimum contracts.
That’s not to say the Lakers won’t consider a sign-and-trade for Ball, but finding a way to sign him outright would give them more financial flexibility in the short-term and allow them to plan for the future with Horton-Tucker and the No. 22 pick. A sign-and-trade accomplishes neither of those things.
Now, whether or not any of this is worth it for Ball depends on how you view him as a No. 3 option next to James and Davis, but if we’re to believe that the Lakers are indeed interested in a reunion with Ball, then these are the options they have. When free agency begins on Aug. 3, we’ll see if they pursue them.