At the end of last summer, the Los Angeles Lakers were one of the winners of the offseason. That’s how things go when you sign LeBron James. Sure, the rest of the summer didn’t exactly go as planned, but Los Angeles smartly stuck to one-year contracts and essentially rolled their cap space over a year.
What a difference a little less than a year makes.
Despite the addition of James, the Lakers missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season. The lack of viable center options was a problem from day one. Several players suffered through injuries, which meant the team rarely had the entire roster available at the same time. There was also the well-publicized pursuit of Anthony Davis via trade, which managed to alienate a large portion of the roster.
It was clear Luke Walton’s days as coach were numbered, and the two sides parted ways shortly after the season concluded. Brandon Ingram was shut down with what was ultimately determined to be a scary blood clot issue. James was visibly banged up and limped to the finish line. Then, as the season as coming to a close, Magic Johnson resigned and walked away from the team.
Now it’s time for a reset for the Lakers. They’ve begun the process by hiring Frank Vogel to replace Walton on as head coach. Vogel is a better coach than he showed at his last stop with the Orlando Magic where he had an ill-fitting roster. He should bring some stability to the team and this roster actually fits what Vogel likes to run offensively and defensively.
The front office remains a work in progress, but for now Rob Pelinka remains as General Manager. If nothing else, having just one voice should help move things forward in a consistent manner. If it doesn’t work, that’s something Los Angeles will address a year from now.
The players who are still under contract consist of James and their young building blocks. The challenge is all of those young building blocks were the primary trade package the Lakers offered to New Orleans for Davis. Pelinka’s first order of business is to either move those players, or commit to them. Then it’s up to Vogel to bring everyone together to put a winning product on the floor.
That’s a lot of work to do, but in the near term things look encouraging for the Lakers as the offseason approaches. They got some lottery luck and jumped from the 11th spot in the draft all the way up to the fourth pick. That pick should allow them to add another young rotation player, or at least a nice additional asset in trade talks.
As mentioned above, Los Angeles rolled their cap space over a year after failing to add a second star along with James last summer. That means the Lakers have a lot of free agents, but there are only a few of them who could be back next season. Oddly enough, the primary free agent the Lakers would like to retain is Alex Caruso, who has been a find as a Two-Way player the last two seasons. Beyond Caruso, Reggie Bullock could be back to provide some wing depth.
As for the rest of the free agents, they’ll probably be elsewhere next season. Unless the Lakers make a major consolidation trade, it is likely Pelinka will look for veterans who fit better around James, the young core, and of course whoever else the Lakers add this summer.
It’s that "whoever else" that remains the big question. James is reportedly already actively recruiting pending free agents. As he enters year 17, James isn’t going to want to miss the playoffs again. That means bringing in a second star to help. The Lakers have already been linked to most of the top free agents from Kyrie Irving to Jimmy Butler to Kawhi Leonard. Given the presence of James and the fact the Lakers remain one of the NBA’s signature franchises, it is likely Los Angeles will at least get meetings with their top targets.
While adding that second star is important, the position they add that player at is just as important. If it’s Irving, that makes Ball an expendable trade piece. If it’s a wing, then Ingram could be moved. And the possibility exists that Pelinka reengages the Pelicans on a Davis trade. In that situation, it’s James, Davis, Free Agent X, and then filling out the roster using the Room Exception and minimum contracts. That may sound like a tall task, but veterans would be happy to jump on board. The Lakers could offer the combination of contention and playing time, the two things that all veterans are looking for.
It’s a big summer for Los Angeles. That goes without saying. They’ve got to get this right. James isn’t going to be content going through another year like last year. The young players either need to be committed to or moved on from. It sounds a lot simpler than it actually will be, but one thing is certain: It won’t be a quiet summer for the Lakers.
Guaranteed Contracts (7): Lonzo Ball, Isaac Bonga, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Moritz Wagner
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (1): Jemerrio Jones
Potential Free Agents (9): Reggie Bullock (UFA), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (UFA), Alex Caruso (RFA – Two-Way), Tyson Chandler (UFA), JaVale McGee (UFA), Mike Muscala (UFA), Rajon Rondo (UFA), Lance Stephenson (UFA), Johnathan Williams (RFA – Two-Way)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($5,000,000): Luol Deng
First Round Draft Pick(s): #4
Maximum Cap Space: $38.7 million
Projected Cap Space: $32.5 million