The Lakers are facing a conundrum because their grand plan to create cap space to sign two superstars is likely to require the team to denounce rights to several key players who’ve been major contributors to the team’s resurgence.
The Lakers’ young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma has certainly been the catalyst behind the team’s recent elite play but you can’t ignore the inspired contributions from key players on expiring contracts like Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, Brook Lopez, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. While adding two superstars would make the Lakers better, the best option might be to sign one superstar and use smart cap moves to keep everybody.
This is where front office vision and savvy cap management come into play. If the Lakers believe their current roster would be a top 4 team in the West, then they should seriously consider signing Paul George and using the rest of their cap space to sign several second tier stars to fill specific roster needs. Once they’ve used up their cap space, the Lakers could then use Bird rights to re-sign Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas and their MLE to sign Brook Lopez.
The beauty of this strategy is it will let the Lakers add Paul George and several championship caliber free agents to fill roster holes while allowing the team to keep the key veterans that have helped make them a winner. More importantly, it guarantees that the Lakers will be able to keep both Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom could become superstars, and eliminates the need to trade picks or players to move Deng’s contract.
Here’s how the ultimate ‘Paul George plus keep everybody’ plan might work.
First, the Lakers would have to renounce their rights to free agents Brook Lopez, Caldwell-Pope, and Channing Frey to create $48 million in cap space. The Lakers would use that cap space to sign Paul George to a 4-year contract starting at $30 million, and two elite defensive players like Nerlens Noel and Trevor Ariza to 3-year contracts starting at $10 and $8 million respectively.
Using $48 million to sign Paul George, Nerlens Noel, and Trevor Ariza would mean the Lakers were at the salary cap and wouldn’t have enough cap space to sign a second superstar this or next summer. However, by not renouncing Julius Randle’s and Isaiah Thomas’ contracts, the Lakers would then be able to go over the cap and award Julius Randle a new 4-year contract starting at $18 million and Isaiah Thomas a new 3-year contract starting at $16 million.
Finally, having exceeded the cap to re-sign Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas, the Lakers would then be able to turn around and re-sign Brook Lopez to a 3-year contract starting at $8 million using their MLE. This would give the Lakers a very deep and talented roster with a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and Brook Lopez and a bench of Isaiah Thomas, Josh Hart, Trevor Ariza, Kyle Kuzma, and Nerlens Noel.
While they would no longer have cap space to sign a second max contract player, the Lakers would have a unparalleled portfolio of talented players on rookie or favorable contracts plus their full array of draft picks to guarantee them a place at the table if an MVP quality superstar like Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis became available. Chances are good the superstars the Lakers most covet are more likely to become available via trade than free agency.
There’s no question Plan A for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka is to sign LeBron James and Paul George, which they could possibly do and still keep Julius Randle. That could definitely be a championship caliber roster.
But if LeBron isn’t available, the Lakers’ Plan B should be to use their cap space to sign Paul George and a couple second tier stars, their Bird rights to re-sign Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas, and their MLE to re-sign Brook Lopez. That would eliminate any need for the Lakers to give up assets to move Luol Deng’s bad contract and also guarantee the Lakers would be able to keep both Randle and Thomas regardless of what other teams offered.
While chasing two superstars in free agency is a great idea, the smarter move in the long term for the Lakers may be just to pursue one superstar and utilize smart cap management to keep all their young stars and veteran players.
That’s the art of keeping the right players!