The headliner is in: While free agency will make the NBA move and shake, for the Lakers, there’s no bigger deal ahead than the one they swung just before Thursday’s draft. Russell Westbrook arriving via trade from the Washington Wizards will be the move that defines their season.
And yet it might just be the moves in the margins that truly push the Lakers over the top, extracting the maximum amount of value for the least amount of money when the free agency frenzy begins Monday at 3 p.m. PT.
There are a number of tough decisions for the Lakers ahead, as well as tight recruitment battles that bring urgency to roster decisions that might not seem so important but will define the depth of a very light roster going forward. With the Lakers now at just four guaranteed contracts for next season, it’s up to the team to add the shooting, defense and experience they’ll need around Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis from a limited number of resources against the salary cap.
Here are the key free agents the Lakers need to re-sign or deal, and the salary tools they’ll have available at their disposal in building out next year’s team:
Dennis Schröder (15.4 ppg, 5.8 apg) – After a lot of talk from both the Lakers and the 27-year-old of how he hoped to be with the organization for a long time, it now looks like a one-year marriage. But the challenge for the Lakers will be getting value for Schröder’s exit, after giving up Danny Green and a first-round pick a year ago.
The easiest thing for Schröder would be to find a team with cap space and sign with them. Bleacher Report reported that the New York Knicks have interest in Schröder, sporting an obvious hole at point guard. Many believe the first point guards to fall in free agency will be Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Lonzo Ball. Spencer Dinwiddie is likely in the mix, being rumored to arrange a sign-and-trade to Washington.
The Lakers’ best case is if teams with cap space seize upon other players and Schröder is iced out of that market. At that point, he and a team without cap space would likely have to come to the Lakers to arrange a sign-and-trade, at which point the Lakers could receive players or draft assets: They’re in need of both. But it’s the less likely scenario for now.
Alex Caruso (6.4 ppg, 2.8 apg) – One of the Lakers’ sturdiest defenders and reliable bench players, Caruso is facing perhaps his best chance of cashing in during a market that will value his 3-point shooting (40.1%) and versatility on defense. The Wall Street Journal called the 27-year-old “The LeBron of Playing With LeBron” which underscores how well he has played next to James during his tenure (plus-17.1 net rating in 387 minutes last season).
The last time around, the Lakers were the highest bidder, giving him a two-year, $5 million contract, but now Caruso has proven that he’s a quality rotation player on a contender. While his counting statistics don’t demonstrate his true value, multiple media outlets have reported that he should be a sought-after free agent. The Lakers have done wonders for his career after he was an undrafted free agent, and the promise of title contention should help. But it will be more competitive (and more expensive) to pin down Caruso this time, especially if a team is willing to bid into eight figures.
Talen Horton-Tucker (9.0 ppg, 2.8 apg) – From the moment the Lakers balked on a deal for Kyle Lowry because of Horton-Tucker, it put great expectations and pressure upon the 20-year-old’s shoulders. The Lakers can’t afford to lose him for nothing, and in an ideal world, he becomes ingrained in the rotation enough to matter during the postseason. Still just 20, he has incredible talent at scoring off the dribble, but unfortunately for him, so do a bunch of his superstar teammates. Horton-Tucker necessarily needs to become a better 3-point shooter and defender.
Still, his development is one of the few organic pathways the Lakers have to getting better internally on what will be a very old roster. The Lakers will be hard-pressed to match if offers above $10 million roll in. It’s possible those would include some from rival executives who might be out to extract their pound of flesh by offering contracts just to make the Lakers pay more. But it’s a clear priority for the Lakers to keep retain a talented young player who made them eschew a big trade last season.
The mid-level exception – The Lakers’ biggest salary tool to bring in a free agent is the taxpayer mid-level exception, which is worth up to $5.9 million. That will be shy of the kind of wings who will be high-impact by shooting 3-pointers or playing good defense like Will Barton or bringing back Danny Green. But it might be enough to lure players such as Andre Iguodala, Trevor Ariza, Rudy Gay or Patty Mills. They’re all older, but at that dollar figure, it’s hard to get players in their primes. Looking younger, the Lakers might try to go after more flawed players: Would Otto Porter Jr., injured throughout his career, be worth a gamble? Could the Lakers pry Alec Burks away from the Knicks? Is Reggie Bullock interested in returning after a less-than-happy 2018-19 campaign?
It’s worth mentioning that Bleacher Report has linked the Lakers to DeMar DeRozan, an L.A. native and four-time All-Star who is about to turn 32. But after averaging 21.6 points, 6.8 assists and earning $27.7 million last season, it would be a precipitous drop-off on a chance for one of his last big contracts. A hometown return might be enticing for DeRozan, but he would have to take a big pay cut in his prime years.
This is also a spot to talk about Andre Drummond, who the Lakers acquired last season on the buyout market but never found the right fit. While Drummond and the Lakers hinted at a long-term future, the most the team can offer him is this mid-level exception figure, which they’ll likely try to spend on a shooting wing. That likely means that Drummond is done in L.A. – his market is likely higher than the team can afford.
Minimum salaries – This is both the least sexy and possibly most important part of the Lakers’ offseason: Can they find contributors among the players making some of the lowest salaries in the league? To win a championship, the answer has to be “yes.” The Lakers probably have strong incentive to bring back some of the contributors for last year’s team, such as Markieff Morris and Wesley Matthews. While neither had an ideal season, offering a year of stability and title contention while hoping a normal season helps restore some balance might be a reasonable bet.
The Lakers have already been linked to high-profile veterans, including Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony (one of James’ best friends). A person with knowledge of the team’s offseason targets acknowledged center Dwight Howard might be in the mix to return. Should the Lakers get in the mix for Avery Bradley, who signed two years ago for the mid-level, it would probably have to be at a minimum salary this time around.
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