As things stand right now, the Lakers currently only have LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jarred Vanderbilt and Max Christie under contract for next year, with everyone else from D’Angelo Russell to Austin Reaves either slated to be a free agent, or in the case of Mo Bamba and Davon Reed, on a nonguaranteed contract.
All of that financial flexibility could allow the Lakers to theoretically free up approximately $32 million in cap space this summer to chase a big fish if they desired. But with the team now 8-3 since the NBA trade deadline reshuffled the roster to have (gasp!) multiple good NBA players around their two stars rather than designating nearly their entire payroll to three players and filling out the rest of the roster with minimums, the group — even without LeBron James on the floor — is certainly making an argument that retaining most of this mix is the right way to go.
One person who agrees? Russell himself, as the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent went out of his way in his walk-off interview with sideline reporter Mike Trudell after the team’s 122-112 victory over the Raptors on Friday to say how special he thinks this group could be if they had a full season together (via Spectrum SportsNet, emphasis mine):
Trudell: A lot of new pieces on this team and you guys are trying to figure each other out on the fly but it’s already been working. What does that tell you and how does that give you some level of confidence?
Russell: “Man if we get one training camp under our belt with this group, the sky’s the limit. With that being said, we don’t have a training camp under our belt, and the sky’s still the limit. Our guys are ready, our guys are hungry, and as an organization — *gets interrupted by Austin Reaves grabbing and shaking him in celebration* — these fans are going to get us through a lot of it with their energy. So we’re just ready to compete and ready to return the favor for the organization.”
Now, obviously, the Lakers won’t get that training camp together — at least not before the playoffs. And they still have to get in (at 33-34 overall, they are in sole possession of ninth place and in play-in range, and just one game back of the sixth seed in the tightly bunched Western Conference).
But if the Lakers can get into the postseason, whether through the play-in gauntlet or outright, it’s getting harder and harder not to believe that they could make some noise once there. With Vanderbilt and Davis locking down the defense and Russell, Reaves and Schröder anchoring ballhandling duties alongside the improved shooting on the rest of the roster — and the eventual return of the leading scorer in NBA history — this group just makes so much more sense in so many ways than the mismatched roster that the Lakers essentially punted 50-plus games on.
And given how well they’ve played without arguably their best player, it’s hard not to have visions of what seed they could have gotten with a whole season of this group instead of the one that started the year 2-10 after losing their first five games. Imagine the record they’d have right now if they not only had all that time to gel, but also got an entire camp to learn Ham’s system and find the best combinations of players to use?
Continuity... despite the Lakers’ actions over the last several years... it can have its benefits!
Now, maybe we won’t get to see that. We all know what happened to the last Lakers team to argue to stick together after falling short in the playoffs. Maybe the Lakers will instead decide to throw these good vibes in the trash and chase Kyrie Irving or Draymond Green instead. Russell also certainly has a financial motivation to argue to retain this mix, as it’s unclear what his free agent market will look like leaguewide and the Lakers can give him a big contract without cap space by virtue of owning his Bird Rights.
But those potential biases aside, frankly, it’s hard not to agree with his assessment anyway. If things keep rolling like this, no matter how far the Lakers go in the playoffs, it’s getting more and more difficult by the day not to argue to... run it back.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.