The Lakers are one of several teams that project to have a lot of cap space this summer. If they do not make any new salary commitments before the upcoming February trade deadline, the team projects to have four players (LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Damian Jones, and Max Christie) under contract heading into this summer and, if they renounce all the rights to the players whose contracts expire, the team would have roughly $34 million to spend in free agency.
One of the many variables the Lakers should be considering as the trade deadline approaches, then, isn’t just whether they are willing to trade one or more of their future tradable draft picks. They should be balancing that against the idea of whether the player (or players) they acquire will be with the team beyond this season — and, thus, how that might impact the team’s spending power in free agency this summer.
These are not decisions made lightly. Nor should they be.
As has been reported on extensively and outright stated on the record by Rob Pelinka, the team only has one chance to deal the picks they’re able to trade and getting the deal right is of the utmost importance. Further, once you commit money beyond this season, it cannot be unspent. If you commit future money to a player, it better be because you see them as a part of a team you think can win at a high level. Otherwise, you’re simply putting yourself in a position to have to make a future deal to get off that money, lessening leverage and reducing the chances of long term success.
Just because the Lakers should be judicious and show some caution when considering how to manage the prospect of taking on future money (or even trading for someone who is a free agent who the team might need to pay this summer), that should not mean viewing it as a challenge or as something to shy away from. In fact, there’s much opportunity in embracing deals that take on future money, and I’d argue looking at a potential trade as a mostly short-term solution serves as an impediment and creates a false framework that can undermine the ability to build as strong a team as possible.
Let’s dig into this idea further as it is important. Too often it feels as though the 2027 and 2029 draft picks are treated as important to the future because of the impact they can have on roster-building in those drafts, while simultaneously being viewed through the prism of how the only help this season’s team. This creates a false dichotomy that undermines dealmaking by implying the picks only have value to the future in how they’re used in the draft (or a future trade) and not in how they can be used for present roster building and the way that current roster carries over into future years.
Said another way, it feels as though the trading of picks is almost always looked at as helping this year’s team only. And, when you consider the current status of this team (12th in the West — though only a few games out of 6th), it compounds the questions about whether a deal is “worth it,” and builds in a circumspection that only flows in one direction.
Meanwhile, there’s often little discussion about how improving the team now can help propel the team beyond this season, how any player acquired now can also be used in future deals, or how much continuity matters when assessing the long-term championship potential of the team.
That last point is especially important. While continuity does not guarantee contention, it does breed familiarity which, in a read-and-react sport, does help create advantage over teams that do not have as much togetherness. The Lakers have consistently turned their roster over and, when combined with their bad injury luck, has created environments in which the need to learn almost entirely new rosters and adjust on the fly has put them in positions where they experience growing pains where not always necessary.
As noted earlier, the Lakers currently have four players under contract beyond this season. That is the lowest number of future commitments in the league. The next lowest team has six (the Suns), and there’s only five teams total that have fewer than nine. Trading some of the players with expiring contracts this season in favor of players who stand a chance to be on the team beyond this year.
(Sidebar: I understand the Lakers can always bring back some of this year’s players next season even if they’re on expiring deals. And in some cases I hope they do. But there are also players who are not likely to return because they’re not long term fits or whose contract situations make it more likely they’ll leave (a la Malik Monk last summer). Trading these players should absolutely be on the table and, even more, should be actively explored.)
It should also be noted that the Lakers will not be the only team with cap space and on a team with two-max players already on the books the money they do have will only go so far with so many roster spots to fill. There’s a strong case to be made that operating as an above-the-cap team that either has more players under contract or the Bird rights of players they’ve traded for — while also having one of the mid-level exceptions (MLE) available (either full or taxpayer version), and various rights non and/or early-Bird rights on some of their own free agents can equate to more “spending power” than what they’d have this summer.
Remember, when only accounting for Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, Lonnie Walker, and Kendrick Nunn, the Lakers have roughly $72 million in expiring contracts, but having all that money come off their books (along with their other free agents) will only translate to about $34 million in cap space. Taking on future money in trades from any/all of those players could easily outpace the power of those dollars in free agency without even accounting for how one of the MLE’s or non/early-Bird rights factor into spending.
In the end, I’m not arguing the Lakers should make a deal just to make a deal, or that they should take on future money just because they can. Trades do not happen in a vacuum, and after dealing with the consequences of a trade that has not worked out as well as hoped these past two seasons, carefully considering all options and examining both the up and downside of any potential deal while measuring it against free agency is paramount.
That said, what I do hope is that those very real upsides are placed into the proper perspective and not cast aside so easily. Because not only is this team — a group that has stabilized and showed its competitiveness with and without both its stars available — worth investing in for the present, but it also is for the future. And in this landscape, both can happen at the same time.