The Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly not expected to offer a contract extension to power forward Julius Randle Tuesday, the last day they could do so before the NBA season. While potentially letting a former lottery pick walk for nothing might sound like a bad idea, the team’s decision makes sense on several fronts given where Randle is as a player and what the team’s plans are.
The largest factor in this is probably a math problem. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have hardly made it a secret they plan to chase big fish like LeBron James and Paul George during the 2018 free agency period, and extending Randle would complicate those schemes in a few ways.
For one, not extending Randle simply leaves the Lakers with more cap flexibility. Should the team still extend him the qualifying offer, they’ll enter free agency with Randle taking up a cap hold of $12.3 million.
He and his representatives would likely want significantly more than that annually on any extension, and every dollar more than that $12.3 million the Lakers pay Randle is a dollar less in cap space for the team.
The front office can still match any offer Randle receives if they make the qualifying offer to turn Randle into a restricted free agent, essentially ensuring they won’t lose him for nothing should they wish to keep him at the amount of money the rest of the league values him at.
Plus, if the team’s dreams of George and James work out, they could still go over the cap to re-sign Randle if they still wished to keep him, assuming they’re also able to unload the contracts of Jordan Clarkson and Luol Deng.
If the Lakers instead wished to either generate more cap space or decided Randle wasn’t a long-term fit for their plans, they could simply renounce his rights and make him an unrestricted free agent similarly to how the Detroit Pistons handled now-Los Angeles shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s free agency this summer.
In addition to the cap implications, there are also basketball and roster fit reasons why not committing to Randle just yet could be the right decision.
Randle looked like a better player during the team’s preseason games. It’s evident how much better shape he’s in entering a contract year, and it helped him on both ends of the floor.
Still, if the Lakers did sign James and George, it’s an open question how well a ball-dominant, non-shooting big man like Randle would fit on that roster. It’s possible his effectiveness would be massively mitigated by how much less he saw the ball playing alongside those two, and Randle is still a subpar enough defender and shooter that it would be understandable if the Lakers had real concerns of how well he’d fit in their superteam dreams.
Even if the Lakers’ free agency dreams are dashed and they don’t bring in any big names, the team also just may decide that they’re better off moving on without a promising-but-flawed player like Randle. The front office could deem that Kyle Kuzma is so good they don’t want anyone in front of him, or Larry Nance, Jr. could be deemed a better fit for Luke Walton’s ball-movement heavy style of play, or both.
Whatever the case may be, if the front office isn’t 100 percent sold on Randle, it would be easier to either let him walk for nothing or flip him at the trade deadline without an extension.
All of this isn’t to say Randle isn’t a good player, or that the Lakers shouldn’t keep him. He still offers rare dribbling and mobility for a player his size, and he very well may continue to improve by leaps and bounds this season and play himself into the Lakers’ future plans with or without James, George and whatever other free agents they can entice to put on the purple and gold this summer.
It just makes more sense not to commit to that until Randle proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt, and the team can always just match any offer in restricted free agency if he does so. The Lakers are also now protected and able to easily walk away if he doesn’t.