When the 2020 offseason opened, the Los Angeles Lakers had a clearly defined list of priorities. The defending champs would re-sign Anthony Davis to a max contract at the length of his choosing. The Lakers also wanted to re-tool their depth around Davis and LeBron James. Lastly, LA wanted to keep as much cap flexibility as possible for future offseasons.
Davis? Check. He agreed to a five-year max contract on Thursday that will pay him nearly $190 million.
Re-tool depth? Check. The Lakers added the top two vote-getters for 2020 Sixth Man of the Year by signing Montrezl Harrell and trading for Dennis Schroder. Los Angeles also added wily veterans Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews in free agency.
Future cap flexibility? Eh … not so much. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The day before Davis agreed to his five-year max deal, reports came out that James had agreed to a two-year extension with the Lakers. James gave up his player option for the 2021-22 season in exchange for over $85 million through 2022-23. That year coincidentally matches up with when James will turn 38, which is James’ final season before running into the “Over-38” contract language in the CBA.
Now, the Lakers know they have both James and Davis locked up for the next three years. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was a key contributor to the 2020 title run, is also under contract through 2022-23. Caldwell-Pope’s final season is fairly lightly guaranteed though, giving LA an out if his play falls off.
Long-term, the Lakers didn’t really sacrifice much flexibility. At least not in a way they didn’t already see coming. Davis was always getting a max deal, and it was unlikely James would settle for anything less until forced to. Those were parameters general manager Rob Pelinka was working under after acquiring Davis during the 2019 offseason.
The Lakers will be well over the cap next summer
In the near-term, especially during 2021’s bonanza of a free-agent class, the Lakers took themselves out of the market. At least via the cap space route.
Barring major in-season trades this year, which are unlikely because LA is sitting just below the hard cap, the Lakers will be well over the cap next summer. The Lakers have over $97 million committed to James, Davis, Caldwell-Pope and Gasol. And, because they lost their appeal to have it removed from the books, Los Angeles is still on the hook for $5 million in dead money for Luol Deng. For those four players, plus Deng, LA is just $15 million under the projected $112 million cap.
It’s safe to assume Harrell will at least consider picking up his $9.7 million player option for 2021-22. And LA would probably like to re-sign Schroder, after trading Danny Green and their 2020 first-round pick for him. Either one of those moves takes the Lakers over the cap.
Then, you have Kyle Kuzma, who is up for a contract extension before this season starts, or he’ll become a restricted free agent in the summer. Talen Horton-Tucker is also due to reach restricted free agency.
Finally, a host of role players will be free agents after this season. Players like Alex Caruso, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley and the newly-signed Matthews will all be back on the market.
Add it all up, and the Lakers won’t be players in free agency. At least not in the traditional sense via cap space.
But this is how the Lakers could add a third star
How could the defending champs bring a third star to LA to suit up with James and Davis? It may have to be via sign and trade. After going dormant for a few years, sign and trades have come back in a big way over the last two free agency periods. For the Lakers, who will be over the cap, this is one path to adding a third star.
Pelinka could send out a package of Caldwell-Pope, Gasol and any number of players who could be signed and traded like Schroder, Kuzma or Caruso. That’s enough to get the Lakers in the $35-40 million dollar range it would take to acquire a star free agent.
There is also the ability to make a straight trade for a superstar that’s already under contract. If someone like James Harden or Bradley Beal decided he wanted to play in Los Angles, the Lakers could put together a package of the above players and the few remaining first-round picks they have left, to get in the mix.
Then there is the least exciting, but most likely path of continuing forward as they did this offseason. The Lakers already have James and Davis. That’s a place the other 29 teams wish they could start from. They added quality depth around them in the last month by making use of every available exception they had. That’s a viable strategy to run back in the summer.
LA won’t have the Bi-Annual Exception next year, after using it to sign Wesley Matthews this year (the BAE can only be used every other season), but they’ll have the Taxpayer Mid-level Exception. That’s a handy tool to add a player for about $5.9 million in first-year salary. And they can re-sign their own free agents as well, like they did this offseason with Morris and Dudley. Kuzma would be the main player to keep an eye on here.
Kyle Kuzma will be key in building a future roster
In many ways, Kuzma is probably the Lakers’ biggest swing piece in terms of building out future rosters. He’s got solid trade value, because of his ability to score and space the floor at the four. The challenge is that his current salary is fairly small at $3.5 million for 2020-21. That doesn’t go very far in salary-matching in trades.
As a free agent in 2021, the Lakers could use Kuzma as a key sign and trade piece. He’ll be eligible for a contract all the way up to the max, but seems more likely to settle in somewhere around $20 million or so. If LA needs him for depth, they’ll re-sign Kuzma and keep him. If not, he could be signed and traded to bring a star to Hollywood or to add two to three players to flesh out the rotation, with $20 million going a long way in salary-matching.
The Lakers sacrificed some potential flexibility in 2021 free agency, but it was sort of “fake” flexibility anyway. Davis was never going anywhere, nor was James. LA knew those two would be on the books for at least $75 million anyway. It was always going to be tough to find a third star with that sort of money on the cap sheet.
Now, LA knows they have Davis and James for at least three more seasons. They may not bring in that third star in this coming year, but they’re moving forward with two pretty good ones locked up. That’s more than worth sacrificing some pie-in-the-sky plans that probably would never have come to fruition.
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