Free agency has essentially already started, with multiple signings nearly confirmed – Kemba Walker to Boston, Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn, and Klay Thompson back to Golden State. The first two will open D’Angelo Russell and Terry Rozier to unrestricted free agency, which will further ripple out across the point guard market. Every move is connected to every other move in the summertime, which brings us to the Los Angeles Lakers, whose first move to trade for Anthony Davis has put them firmly among the elite teams in the Western Conference, and they still may not be done yet with high-profile acquisitions.
The fact that free agency is moving very quickly at the beginning (or even before the official beginning) is good news for the Lakers. Their clock is ticking faster than everybody else’s due to the timing of the Davis deal, which is now a three-team trade with the Pelicans and Wizards and allows them to essentially empty their roster (other than LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma) in order to trade for Davis while remaining as an over-the-cap team. That’s a positive development for Los Angeles, since that opens up between $5 and $9 million in extra cap space for them to use on free agents and, crucially, gets them up to $32.02 million in usable cap space. That number isn’t quite enough to pay out a full max (based on a $109 million cap, which may not actually be the final number), but it’s close enough for the Lakers to feel good about their chances of convincing a third top-tier talent to join the club.
Kawhi Leonard is that top-tier talent and the focus of the Lakers’ free agency pursuits. If he chooses to join James and Davis in the purple and gold next season, Los Angeles would have no cap space leftover and the rest of their team will have to be filled with minimum contracts and the $4.8 million Room Exception. For most teams, that would mean finding a few players to fill out the end of the bench, but for the Lakers, it means filling out two spots in the starting lineup and nine of the ten spots on the bench, because Leonard would literally be the fourth player on their team for next season, joining James, Davis, and Kuzma. Their minimum contracts and Room Exception will stretch further than most teams’, considering they have plenty of playing time available, they’re going to be on national TV three times a week, and any signees will have the chance to play with three of the top seven or eight players in the world.
The Lakers’ biggest holes would be at the guard spots, but there’s really nobody outside of a pure power forward they couldn’t make work. With Leonard in the fold, they’d have two guys who can swing between both forward spots in Leonard and James, plus Kuzma off the bench as a power forward who can sometimes swing up to the center spot. Davis is a similar player, from a positional perspective. They could use another pure center or two, but the focus of the Room Exception would have to be on finding guards or smaller wings who can defend opposing point guards. The remainder of the team would be entirely filled in through minimum contracts.
No matter what, they’re going to have to hit on some of their non-star signings to fill out the depth on the team. In the case that Leonard chooses another destination and the Lakers have $32 million to spend, how they do so will give us an immense amount of insight into their front office and the sort of players they value. They had a similar situation last summer and failed miserably; the only positive from their signings in 2018 is that they were all one-year contracts and allowed them the flexibility to have money to spend this summer. They’re already linked to Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley and will try to set up a meeting with Russell now that he’s an unrestricted free agent.
Los Angeles will have to squeeze every last dime out of their available cap space, since they have a ton of roster spots to fill. From a depth perspective, it’s certainly better to spend $32 million across multiple players than it is to throw the entire thing at one player, which is likely why they have not really been connected to second-tier max free agents. If they’re spending the entire amount on a single star, it’s either going to Kawhi Leonard or it’s not happening. Another avenue the Lakers can explore to really extend their cap space as far as it can possibly go was brought up in a very smart piece from Eric Pincus on Bleacher Report this week, which surrounds the use of unlikely bonuses to pay guys without using the extra cap space regular base salary takes up. Pincus also lays out a handful of targets the Lakers could sign with that cap space and how they could structure those bonuses to spread the money out over more players. You should absolutely read what Eric wrote, if only because I wish had thought of it first. The same idea could be extended to a few other teams this summer, but nobody needs to stretch their cap space more than the Lakers.
Whether Leonard commits to the Lakers or not, the club should put their name in on nearly every free agent out there. They have so many holes on their roster, which is what happens when a team trades pretty much everyone for one superstar and has a bunch of expiring contracts coming off the books, but it also gives them immense roster flexibility to sign players who really fit around their new core, whether that’s a two-man core of James and Davis or they can add Leonard. If there’s a player hitting free agency this summer, odds are the Lakers are interested in some way, outside of the second-tier max guys who aren’t Leonard. Every mid-tier starting- or rotation-level player would help this team as they look to fill out the depth on their roster, which gives them endless options. Now, it’s just up to Rob Pelinka and his staff to make the right choices on which players to add and make those signings official on July 6. The clock is ticking faster for Los Angeles than anybody else in the league, but the nature of the moratorium does give them about a week to figure out exactly what they want to do and how much flexibility they have.