There isn’t much the Lakers can’t do this offseason, but with that realization brings the pressure to get something done, especially when considering the history of success the club has. Magic Johnson essentially said as much on Tuesday, committing to walking away from the Lakers if he can’t bring in superstar talent in the next two years. He’ll have plenty of ammunition with which to work, but building a superstar team from essentially nothing can be extremely difficult, as the team is finding out this week—no star wants to be the first to commit, given that he could be left high and dry on a team by himself, but securing multiple high-level players requires a lot of maneuvering and, well, probably some tampering, if we’re being honest with ourselves.
One way around signing the first superstar and hoping others follow is to trade for that player, as the Lakers have been trying to do ever since Kawhi Leonard’s camp made it known that he wants out of San Antonio and that Los Angeles is his preferred destination. While the Spurs were initially reticent to even talk to the Lakers about a deal, talks have increased in volume in recent days. As of this writing, it seems as though the Lakers are in the driver’s seat to acquire Leonard, as other teams around the league can’t know that he’ll commit to them long-term in 2019 free agency. Teams like Boston and Philadelphia can certainly put together a better package than the Lakers can, but given that Leonard has leaked that he wants to play for the Purple and Gold, no team is jumping at the chance to send young prospects and picks for one year of a guy who played just nine games last year with a mysterious leg injury. Los Angeles, on the other hand, can take the long view, in which trading most of their team and future draft picks for what could be six years with Leonard makes a lot more sense.
The exact construction of a Leonard deal for the Lakers is up for intense debate between the two sides. Since Los Angeles has more than enough cap space when the new league year rolls over, there are no restrictions in terms of salary they have to send out or snags when it comes to Leonard’s 15 percent trade bonus. They can absorb him into their ample cap space and may still even have room for another max guy on top of that, though getting to LeBron James’ full $35.4 million salary could depend on what comes in and out in the Leonard deal and any other moves they have to make. Of the Lakers’ young players, only Lonzo Ball has seemingly been taken off the table, though it seems that decision was more on San Antonio’s side than Los Angeles’. From there, any combination of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Mo Wagner, and future picks—the Lakers have all their own firsts moving forward—will be the negotiating points for a Leonard deal.
While seemingly endless, the Lakers’ cap space does have a bottom and they’ll need to ensure that they don’t overextend themselves in a Leonard deal to get below the $35.4 million in space needed to sign James. Iterations of a Leonard trade have included former Laker Pau Gasol, which would lessen what Los Angeles would have to send out to get the deal done but would also bring $16.8 million in salary onto their books. A roster with Ball, Kuzma, Leonard, Gasol, and Luol Deng leaves the Lakers with just $28.1 million in cap space; even if Leonard leaves his 15 percent bonus on the table, that only creates another $3 million in room for James. Another move would be necessary; stretching Deng buys them about another $10.6 million in space, enough to sign James, though they’d be extremely limited in filling out the rest of their roster at that point.
Whatever happens, it seems clear that James will not be the first domino to fall and with Paul George looking increasingly likely to go back to Oklahoma City, the Lakers either need to get a deal done for Leonard (which will draw James to Los Angeles) or look at rolling their space over to 2019, when Leonard will be a free agent, along with superstar names like Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, and Jimmy Butler. Los Angeles would still have to field a team in the interim, likely filled with the same kind of one-year contracts that were on their books this past season. There will be plenty of talented players looking for a one-year deal to hit free agency again in 2019, when more teams should be flush with cap space. In particular, watch for the Lakers to follow a similar path as they did with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last season; Caldwell-Pope had his qualifying offer withdrawn by the Pistons and was having trouble finding a home at the kind of long-term salary he desired, so the Lakers swooped in and overpaid him for one year, which put him back on the market immediately and gave Los Angeles the 2018 flexibility they needed. The same could be true if they pivot to 2019, as there will be restricted free agents who see their market fall apart and qualifying offers rescinded. Players like Marcus Smart, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, and Jusuf Nurkic may find themselves squeezed by the lack of money in this year’s market and if their incumbent teams are reticent to commit to them or have other plans, the Lakers could pounce to a build another team full of misfit toys nobody else wanted, as they did last year. On the unrestricted market, names like Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, Rudy Gay, and any of their current free agents would be strong one-year additions to bridge the gap to 2019 and are players who may be seeking more than the market will pay them this summer.
Julius Randle looms large over any plan that requires waiting for 2019, since he’s a restricted free agent this summer and is undoubtedly looking to get paid on more than a one-year deal. While the Lakers won’t be keen to match an offer sheet of any kind (offer sheets have to be a minimum of two years, so matching any offer sheet from another team would put Randle on their books next year), if the value is right, they can always look to move him next summer, perhaps as part of a bigger trade for another star under contract. It’s possible that Randle will have trouble finding a home in this market and either take his qualifying offer or come back to the Lakers on a larger one-year deal, perhaps with a team option on Year 2 if the salary is large enough, given that Aaron Gordon is ahead of him in the restricted power forward rankings and there’s just so little money to go around this year.
The Lakers’ combination of cap space and historical prestige is absolutely tantalizing and they’re actively working toward bringing a superteam to compete in the Western Conference. Whether it’s this year or next, the public consensus is that Magic will get his guys, it’s just a matter of how it happens.