Regardless of where the Lakers’ run through the NBA playoffs ends, it’s impossible not to see that Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura have both set themselves up for massive paydays in restricted free agency this summer.
The Lakers have Bird Rights on both players — meaning they can go over the cap to re-sign them — and also have the ability to match any offer another team throws at either player by virtue of them both being restricted free agents. The team leaked that it planned to keep Hachimura immediately after trading for him, and no less than Jeanie Buss herself is said to be determined to keep Reaves in Los Angeles after the team’s scouting department stole him in undrafted free agency.
When you add into all those prior reports that both players have now been arguably the third and fourth best players on (at least) a Western Conference Finals team, all signs are pointing towards both Reaves and Hachimura being in purple and gold for years to come. No less an authority than ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski stated as much on the latest episode of “The Woj Pod” with ESPN Lakers beat reporter Dave McMenamin.
After Woj stated that both Hachimura and Reaves wouldn’t get past the sixth or seventh pick, respectively, if their 2019 and 2021 NBA Draft classes were re-selected, both he and McMenamin said they don’t see any scenario where the Lakers don’t keep both (via “The Woj Pod,” emphasis mine):
McMenamin: “And that’s why, no matter what happens from here on out for the rest of the Lakers’ postseason run, they’ve identified these two players in particular, you have to imagine Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves will be part of their future going forward.”
Woj: “Both restricted free agents, I don’t see any scenario where the Lakers would not match on both. They have to... They’ve proved themselves to be win-now players with LeBron and Anthony Davis on their timeline (and) these are both starting-level players... Again, they will match on those two. They just cannot let them leave.”
Update — 5/22: In his latest Substack Column, NBA insider Marc Stein also wrote that the Lakers are expected to match any offer Reaves receives in restricted free agency:
League sources continue to say that L.A. is determined to retain Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura in free agency.
There is frankly no scenario, based on what I know, that Reaves won’t be a Laker next season. Even if a team or two out there does decide to put a higher offer on the table than the maximum four-year, $51 million deal that the Lakers can offer, all indications are that the Lakers will match whatever they must to keep the restricted free agent, who has emerged as L.A.’s top shot-creator not named LeBron James.
Original story from Saturday, 5/20 continues below.
Again, none of this is particularly shocking. Reaves has said he wants to be a Laker for the next 5-10 years, and even if he himself can’t believe how much money — up to $98 million! — he’s rumored to be getting offered, it’s difficult to envision the Lakers not matching any contract thrown his way. Not only because of how great he’s been, but because (by virtue of their highly compensated top-two stars) even if they let Reaves and basically all their other free agents go, they still can’t quite get enough cap space to make even one free agent a full max offer and then fill out the rest of the roster with a merry band of minimum contracts.
In short, they just have no avenue to replace Reaves with a similar-caliber talent and fill out the roster with guys who can actually play if they lose him.
The same is true for Hachimura, who has similarly made no secret of how much he’s appreciated his experience in Los Angeles (and has been cashing in on endorsement deals since being acquired). His free agent market is less crystal clear and reported on than Reaves’ is, but it’s no longer outlandish to suggest he’s going to get around the $18.8 million annually that his cap hold currently is after his transcendent playoff performance.
The future is a bit murkier for another Lakers free agent. D’Angelo Russell has, charitably, had an up-and-down postseason. He is averaging 18.2 points per game on nearly 40% shooting from three in Lakers wins thus far, but just 9.8 on 21.7% in losses, respectively. When he has it going, the Lakers are basically unbeatable, but in games where opponents take him out of things or he’s just having an off night, he is mostly actively detrimental due to his defensive deficiencies.
Numbers like that — and how relentlessly the Nuggets are hunting him on defense in the conference finals — are likely why the team is considering bringing him off the bench, but are also worried about “hurt feelings” on his part with such a move heading into free agency.
With all that context factored in, it’s no shock that on the same episode of “The Woj Pod,” Woj says the team is holding off on extension talks until after the season (again, emphasis mine):
Woj: “D’Angelo Russell is a little different. Threading that is going to be interesting, I know they’ve talked preliminarily on an extension, I think they’ll deal with it after the season, and it really shows you with the way this Lakers roster will be built, it’s really hard to bring in the third big player anymore. With the new collective bargaining agreement, you’re in a much better place breaking (your salary) up with some very good players, and they learned that with the Westbrook trade. And with a new CBA and how punitive it is to be in the upper spending area, you can’t do anything with your roster at that point, the Lakers are in pretty good shape going into this summer.”
ESPN’s Dave McMenamin joins The Woj Pod to discuss the genius of Nikola Jokic, the burden on Anthony Davis and LeBron James for Games 3 and 4, staying power of Rob Pelinka’s reshaped roster, Darvin Ham, much more— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 20, 2023
The Lakers are, indeed, in good shape cap-wise, but it’s less clear if Russell’s free-agent market is.
From the moment the trade for him was made, there has been noise that both sides have “mutual” interest in keeping Russell in a Laker uniform long-term. However, whatever Russell’s next contract is, it appears likely to come in well under the $38 million annually his cap hold currently is.
But for the same reasons as Reaves and Hachimura, if the Lakers lose Russell for nothing, they don’t just have that much money to go out and sign just as expensive of a player because of how close to the cap they are. So both sides have some leverage; the Lakers in that Russell is unlikely to get more from another suitor in an NBA where so many teams already have starting point guards, and Russell in that the Lakers can’t necessarily just afford to lose him for nothing. For that reason, his free-agent saga will be fascinating to watch.
We will dig more into the cap permutations and projections of what keeping various combinations of these players and more could look like after the Lakers’ playoff run, but long story short, it appears a near certainty that regardless of where this ride ends, Reaves and Rui will be back, while Russell’s status is less clear. So for now, the main takeaway from all this is that even if the Lakers only keep the former two, they are almost assuredly out on any possibility of signing players like Kyrie Irving or Draymond Green as free agents. Whether Russell returns with them or not, the Lakers running things back and tweaking on the margins appears much more likely than a massive overhaul featuring a third “star.”
Let us know what you think about that and more in the comments below.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.