Lakers Thinking Bigger Picture With Off-Season Approach
As currently constructed, the only contracts that are guaranteed to count against the Lakers’ salary in the 2015-2016 season belong to Bryant ($25 million), Young ($5.1 million) and Julius Randle ($3.1 million). This gives them the financial flexibility to spend in a free agent market next summer that could include unrestricted free agents like Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic and DeAndre Jordan. LaMarcus Aldridge has stated that he wants to re-sign with the Portland Trail Blazers next summer, although you never know what can happen in the span of a year. Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic could be among the restricted free agents next July.
The 2016 free agent class could possibly include unrestricted options such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah, among others. An important thing to note: the effects of Bryant’s two-year, $48.5 million contract extension would no longer be felt, as it would be off the team’s payroll, potentially giving the Lakers an immense amount of flexibility in July of 2016.
Laker fans may be disappointed with the result of the team’s free agency plan, but Kupchak and company are taking the best course of action.
Outside of James and Anthony, the 2014 free agent class lacked star power. The Lakers live by a principle: get the star players first, then build the supporting cast around them — not vice versa. It’s a formula that has made them the most storied franchise in NBA history, so it’s hard to imagine them abandoning the strategy anytime soon.
The worst possible scenario in the NBA is to be a middle-of-the-pack team that is financially handcuffed by multiyear contracts. In such a case, being a fringe playoff team would mean you don’t have a realistic chance at winning a championship while not getting a great draft pick in the process, thus limiting your opportunities to add quality talent to the roster. If the Lakers managed to sign both Stephenson and Thomas in free agency for example, it would have devoured most of the team’s salary cap space (roughly $22 million) while still needing to fill out half of the roster.
Does a projected starting five of Thomas, Stephenson, Bryant, Randle and a center signed for cheap plus a potential absence of any depth whatsoever compete for a championship? In a Western Conference that is loaded with supremely talented teams, odds are the team would be a second round playoff exit at best, and that’s being generous enough to count on major contributions from the rookie Randle while assuming all the pieces are cohesive and Bryant is back to the level he performed at in the 2012-2013 season.
Simply put, the Lakers elected to save their money for deeper and more talented free agent classes in 2015 and 2016, while gaining a few assets in the process. This also gives them an added option in terms of the trade element. Los Angeles has a long history of acquiring superstars through trades. In order to land quality talent in a trade, you need assets and expiring contracts, although I personally consider them to be one in the same. The Lakers now have some at their disposal.
Let’s revisit the 2008 trade that brought Gasol to Los Angeles. The Lakers gave up an expiring contract in Kwame Brown and Aaron McKie’s minimum throw-in salary, a young and promising prospect at the time in Javaris Crittenton along with then-overweight and young Marc Gasol as well as first round picks in 2008 and 2010. To sum it all up, they gave the Memphis Grizzlies expiring contracts, two prospects and draft picks.
Those are the things that the Lakers have collected this offseason so far. Lin and Hill both have movable contracts that can come off the books after this season. Randle and second round pick Jordan Clarkson, who was extremely impressive in Summer League play, are two promising and intriguing prospects. Also, with the Rockets losing Lin, Parsons and Omer Asik in a cost cutting trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, they lose three key players from their roster and only filled the void with Ariza. This means that it certainly isn’t out of the question to expect Houston to drop a couple spots this season, perhaps even to a 7 or 8 seed in the playoffs. For each spot the Rockets may drop in playoff seeding (assuming they still get into the postseason), their 2015 draft pick becomes more valuable to the Lakers.
Teams that are looking to trade disgruntled superstars, like the Minnesota Timberwolves for example, generally want expiring contracts so that they can have financial flexibility to help rebuild the roster, along with draft picks or promising prospects who are naturally salary-cap friendly. Now, I’m not saying the Lakers will look to trade for Kevin Love by any means, but they do have some trade chips available to them now to explore some avenues.
Then again, they could hold onto those expiring contracts for this season and just make another run at free agency like I mentioned previously.
Barring any major transactions between now and the trade deadline, expectations for the 2014-2015 Lakers should not be very high. On the bright side, if the Lakers have a second consecutive tumultuous year, they would have a chance to keep their own top-five protected pick in the 2015 draft. If the pick falls anywhere lower than fifth, it goes over to the Phoenix Suns as part of the 2012 trade that brought Steve Nash to Los Angeles. So if all goes well for L.A., or terrible depending on how you look at it, they could end up with two picks in the first round of next year’s draft along with enough spending money to pursue a bevy of talented free agents.
It may not be the most appealing option to a fan base that expects results right away due to prior history, but it is considerably better than overpaying free agents in this class that would severely hinder the team’s ability to bolster the roster in the coming years while not having enough talent to compete for championships.
The key for Laker fans is to be patient with this process. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, rebuilding takes a little more precision and can be more time consuming. It took the Lakers three years to rebuild once they traded away O’Neal in 2004. They did so by gathering expiring contracts and then waiting for the right opportunity to make a move. That’s exactly what they are doing now.
The next step in the journey will be to hire a head coach in the upcoming weeks.
It’s important to remember that there is a reason why Kupchak recently received another contract extension as general manager of the organization. He has an outstanding track record and the Buss family has faith in him to figure things out. It’s time the fan base does the same and gives him a realistic time frame to work with.
The team has endured through one bad season and it may take at least one more. Even if that proves to be true, Los Angeles will have opportunities to right the ship in the next one to two years. The results may not come right away, but not far down the road awaits options that could pay far greater dividends than purging in this year’s free agency.
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