As the NBA trade deadline looms, the Lakers’ front office and fans find themselves in a quandary whether the team should trade or hang onto the talented young players who have been at the heart of their resurgence.
At stake is Magic Johnson’s grand plan to sign two superstars this summer, a plan that would allegedly require the Lakers to trade Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr. for expiring contracts or draft picks to free up the $60 to $65 million in cap space needed to sign two superstar free agents. Serendipitously, by stretching their plan over two or three years, the Lakers could keep their talented young core and still sign two superstar free agents.
One game changer, of course, is how important Randle, Clarkson, and Nance, Jr. have been to the team’s recent outstanding play. All three players have elevated their game beyond expectations and raised serious concerns that trading them might be a huge mistake. Their performance under difficult circumstances cannot be ignored. While it raised their market value, it also reminded the Lakers’ front office of their considerable upside as players.
The other game changer is DeMarcus Cousins’ injury, which has reduced the Lakers’ list of superstar free agent prospects this summer from three to two, with only LeBron James and Paul George remaining. By stretching their free agency grand plan out to the summer of 2019 or 2020, the Lakers would be able to add players like Klay Thompson and Anthony Davis and possibly even DeMarcus Cousins to their list of superstar free agent prospects to pursue.
The inspired play from Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr., the rapid growth from Brandon Ingram, and a killer draft class of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Thomas Bryant have accelerated the Lakers’ rebuild and forced them to revise their grand plan. Rob Pelinka has made it clear the Lakers will keep their options open and may end up using cap space for their own free agents or even saving a portion for the summer of 2019.
The Lakers’ revised grand plan starts with remaining patient and not trading any of their young stars during the season and betting on the team to finish strong and play like a playoff team the second half of the season. While it would take a miracle to actually make the playoffs, a strong finish playing playoff quality basketball with their young players growing and shining is all they need to attract Paul George to return home and sign with the Lakers.
With Paul George in the bank, the Laker would still have an option to sign LeBron James were he so inclined but the smart move would be to waive and stretch Luol Deng and then re-sign Julius Randle to a short term contract for $12.5 million, which would leave the Lakers with $18 million for a center and small forward to fill out a playoff caliber roster with a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle.
By limiting Randle’s contract and the contracts of the players the Lakers sign with the $18 million, the Lakers would be able to clear over $30 million in cap space the summer of 2019, which would get them almost all the way they need to sign the Warriors’ Klay Thompson as a free agent. Signing Thompson would likely force the Lakers to make some moves to free up cap space but they also would have better knowledge and maybe better options by then.
Should the Lakers not sign a second superstar free agent the summer of 2019, they could easily decide to kick the can down the road one more summer to the summer of 2020 by signing more short term contracts and allowing their core of young stars to grow and mature. Maybe they’ll find that Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram, or Kyle Kuzma develop into that second superstar. Maybe the Lakers trade several young stars for Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins.
It will take some artful cap management and continued player evaluation and reassessment but by stretching their grand plan out to two or three years, the Lakers gain valuable time to make sure they keep and trade the right players. With savvy cap management, they should be able to manage their contracts to create enough cap space to sign a max contract free agent each of the next three summers. That’s the smart way to build a championship caliber roster.