How Lakers can sign two max superstars, alter course of franchise

By Danny Leroux | Sporting News

$65.7 million.

That is how much it would take to sign two max players, one with 7-9 years of NBA experience and one with 10-plus years of experience, in the summer of 2018. Put a different way, the Lakers or any other team could only have $35.4 million in committed salary and cap holds on their books at the current $101 million estimate for the 2018-19 season.

The good news for Lakers fans is that they do not have many big-ticket items left on their ledger after the upcoming season. Timofey Mozgov’s gigantic contract is in Brooklyn while veteran additions Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are both on expiring contracts. In fact, the team only has four players with guaranteed salaries above $2.3 million for 2018-19: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Those final two names present the significant hurdle to overcome. Even if the Lakers decided to let Lopez, Caldwell-Pope and Corey Brewer walk, they would still have only one max slot available for a new signing. Furthermore, acquiring a max player via sign-and-trade would be next to impossible unless a few unusual factors happen to line up quickly.

The assumption has to be that general manager Rob Pelinka and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson need to clear enough space to sign their new additions outright, like the Warriors had to with Kevin Durant in 2016, the Celtics with Gordon Hayward last offseason and the Heat with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010.

The best way to think about this challenge is to focus on their current roster, especially since the Lakers do not currently possess a 2018 first-round pick. At the moment, they have three cap numbers above $10 million on their books for 2018-19: Deng ($18 million), Clarkson ($12.5 million) and pending restricted free agent Julius Randle ($12.4 million).

Randle is the easiest to clear because the front office could simply renounce his restricted rights, thus making him an unrestricted free agent like the Celtics did with Kelly Olynyk once Hayward committed to join them in early July. However, Randle is also the most desirable talent of that trio moving forward, and retaining him would make them a deeper team.

Randle could quickly agree to a lower 2018-19 salary than that $12.4 million hold, which would then replace that number when signed, but that seems improbable in the first few days of free agency next summer. What’s more, shedding Randle’s cap hold would not be enough to get the team to two max slots anyway, since that would open up $46.3 million — less than two maximum salaries at the lowest tier. Since Clarkson’s salary is almost exactly the same as Randle’s hold, the same logic applies there.

That leads to Deng’s larger salary as the next potential target. Putting aside the fact that it would be hard to move his remaining two years and $36.8 million without attaching valuable assets, Deng alone would not be enough either. Clearing his salary puts the Lakers at around $51.9 million in space. That is sufficient for two of the cheapest tier of max players, but not enough for their lofty ambitions.

Without a logical fit to clear another $7 million outside of Randle and Clarkson, the Lakers will need to offload at least two of their three biggest commitments in order to have more than $60 million in space. The dream scenario would be to shed Deng and Clarkson while retaining Randle since that would leave the best team of any option. Unfortunately for them, finding takers for either one of Deng and Clarkson should prove challenging, much less both.

The front office is limited by the Stepien Rule at the moment, a league rule which prevents any team from being without first-round picks in consecutive seasons. Since the Lakers are sending out their 2018 first-rounder, they currently cannot trade a pick before 2020.

However, that restriction ends on draft night, allowing them to attach the 2019 selection then or later should a cap-clearing move still be necessary. Of course, that would require waiting until before or during free agency, and potential trade partners would price in substantial improvement from them between now and then, lowering the value of future picks.

The more intriguing path would be to offload both Clarkson and Randle, which would open up about $60 million in space. That would be just about enough for two players in the middle tier (7-9 years of experience), and likely come at a much smaller cost in terms of additional assets. After all, they could renounce Randle, and Clarkson’s contract (two years, $26 million) pays the 25-year-old like a high-end bench player, possibly his long-term role on a good team.

Furthermore, any small sweeteners would narrowly increase their available space as well. If LeBron James does not want to join the Lakers next summer, this could be the best way for them to add two max players.

If the Lakers need to clear more than $60 million, Pelinka and Johnson would likely turn to the Deng/Randle combination unless Clarkson proves desirable. The problem there, as with the Randle/Clarkson scenario above, is that Los Angeles would be losing Randle for nothing if they wait until after the 2017-18 season.

The only avenue for the Lakers at that point would be a sign-and-trade, but teams under the cap could and would wait to sign Randle outright, and teams over the cap would need to include salary. As such, like the Celtics with Olynyk, a disappointing goodbye to a useful young big man without compensation may be their unpalatable but still superior option.

That reality could lead the Lakers to a more proactive solution. If they see that Clarkson would be hard to move in June or July, the front office could try to trade Randle at the February deadline. Doing so would allow the Lakers to extract some value, which could come in the form of a pick or their trade partner taking on a contract, ideally Clarkson’s or Deng’s. The acquiring team would have Randle and whomever else they acquired for the stretch run and playoffs, plus restricted rights on Randle.

That combination could prove desirable for teams competing for the postseason without much flexibility moving forward. There are no obvious fits for that niche at the moment, but some franchise should be there by the deadline. Additionally, Los Angeles would not be benefiting significantly from having Randle on roster for those final two months of the regular season beyond the aforementioned restricted rights since they are out of the playoff picture.

Getting all the way to $65.7 million requires unloading both Deng and one of Clarkson or Randle along with a few smaller moves involving their non-guaranteed contracts, unless they preferred shipping either Ball or Ingram in a larger deal, which seems incredibly unlikely.

Assuming it is the first path, the Lakers would be left with a surprisingly deep team:

lakers-salary-cap-breakdown4-011718.jpg

There is one other significant cap-clearing option on the table: the stretch provision. That would allow the Lakers to take the remaining money for Deng, Clarkson or both and spread it over five seasons rather than two. That would reduce Deng’s 2018-19 charge from $18 million to $7.4 million and Clarkson’s from $12.5 million to $5.2 million. Spreading that money out makes the Lakers a much more expensive team down the line, but could function as a last-ditch effort to make the cap math work if James or some other high-profile free agent says yes in early July.

Another possibility along this line would be moving Deng or Clarkson for an inferior player making less money, so that team (like the Hawks with Miles Plumlee, should they prefer Deng) upgrades at a small cost per season while the Lakers stretch a smaller amount of money.

Another fascinating wrinkle is the potential loophole that could significantly help the Lakers. They cannot keep Brook Lopez’s huge cap hold on the books if they are signing elite free agents, but they could renounce his rights and then re-sign him for either his minimum or the Room Mid-Level exception. After a one-year discount, the Lakers would retain Lopez’s full Bird rights and could agree to a much more lucrative contract starting in 2019-20 with their cap space long gone.

There is one other significant cap-clearing option on the table: the stretch provision. That would allow the Lakers to take the remaining money for Deng, Clarkson or both and spread it over five seasons rather than two. That would reduce Deng’s 2018-19 charge from $18 million to $7.4 million and Clarkson’s from $12.5 million to $5.2 million. Spreading that money out makes the Lakers a much more expensive team down the line, but could function as a last-ditch effort to make the cap math work if James or some other high-profile free agent says yes in early July.

Another possibility along this line would be moving Deng or Clarkson for an inferior player making less money, so that team (like the Hawks with Miles Plumlee, should they prefer Deng) upgrades at a small cost per season while the Lakers stretch a smaller amount of money.

Another fascinating wrinkle is the potential loophole that could significantly help the Lakers. They cannot keep Brook Lopez’s huge cap hold on the books if they are signing elite free agents, but they could renounce his rights and then re-sign him for either his minimum or the Room Mid-Level exception. After a one-year discount, the Lakers would retain Lopez’s full Bird rights and could agree to a much more lucrative contract starting in 2019-20 with their cap space long gone.

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