While it’s not a subject Lakers fans want to contemplate, there’s potentially a strong chance the 2020 NBA season may end up getting canceled if the United States cannot quickly control the expanding coronovirus pandemic.
In a season already thrown in turmoil by the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, the last thing the Lakers want to happen would be the NBA deciding to turn the current season suspension into a championship killing cancellation. Despite clawing their way to the top of the league’s power rankings, the Lakers’ opportunity to prove they’re the best team in the league and tie the Celtics with their seventeen NBA championship may be out of their control.
So while we wait to see what happens with the Lakers’ 2020 season, let’s peer into the future and look at the opportunities and obstacles that will confront the Lakers as they try to build a championship contender for 2021. That’s something VP of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office staff will be looking at closely, especially since a cancellation of the season could throw the team’s salary cap situation into complete chaos.
Two major factors will influence the makeup of the Lakers roster for 2021. The first is the potential 10% to 15% projected decrease in the NBA salary cap for next season because of lost revenue should this season be cancelled. The second is the ripple effect the lower salary cap would have on free agency, especially from players who have to decide whether to exercise or decline player options on contracts to become free agents next summer.
The Lakers’ respected beat writer and noted capologist Eric Pincus estimated the cancellation of the 2020 NBA season due to the coronavirus pandemic could result in a huge drop of $10 to $15 million in the salary cap for 2021. That could mean that the salary cap for next season could end up being $100 to $105 million instead of the projected $115 million the Lakers and NBA teams have assumed in making their financial plans for next season.
The lower salary cap has even greater implications for the 2022 season when the Lakers allegedly plan to pursue superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo should he opt not to sign a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers were counting on projected large increases in the salary cap over the next two years giving them enough cap space to sign a third superstar to complement James and Davis and ultimately replace James when he retires.
A large drop in the salary cap could not only make it harder for the Lakers to create the cap space for a third superstar but also motivate Antetokounmpo to opt to stay with the Bucks who can offer him more money and security. Realistically, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will likely cause NBA players as well as the general public to reevaluate their priorities and place a grater value on security going forward than they did before these events.
The coronavirus pandemic will also likely exacerbate what was projected to be a tough next summer for free agents with only a few teams projected to have cap space, making it not a good time for players to become free agents. For the Lakers, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee are likely to decline player options on the second years of their contracts and stay with the Lakers rather than risking free agency.
The decrease in the salary cap probably also guarantees Anthony Davis will remain, likely signing a two year deal with the Lakers with a second year option so he could qualify for a supermax extension the summer of 2022. The limited free agent opportunities next summer also likely results in DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard deciding to stay and signing new contracts with the Lakers close to what they were earning this season.
So where does that leave the Lakers’ roster for 2021 should the coronavirus pandemic result in the NBA cancelling this season and the favored Lakers losing a golden opportunity to win their seventeenth NBA championship? There’s no doubt the 2021 Lakers will look a lot like the 2020 Lakers. As a team, they will be highly motivated to take care of unfinished business and win the NBA championship the coronavirus pandemic stole from them.
The 2021 Lakers will have five returning players under contract in LeBron James, Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Talen Horton-Tucker. They also have five players likely to decline player options or sign new deals in Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo, plus two players likely to sign new contracts in DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howard, bringing the roster total to twelve players.
Since Cousins was waived this season, that leaves four players unaccounted for from the current roster: Quinn Cook who has a team option, and Jared Dudley, Markieff Morris, and Dion Waiters, who would become free agents. Additionally, the Lakers would have two players on two-way contracts in Kostas Antetokounmpo and Devontae Cacok, both of whom have played almost all their time this year in the G-League with the South Bay Lakers.
While Morris and Waiters could be candidates for one of the remaining three roster spots, the Lakers will be aggressively looking next summer to fill their need for a second playmaker, third scorer, and elite wing defender. While they won’t have open cap space, the Lakers will have their $9 million full MLE and their first round pick, plus Kyle Kuzma and seven players with tradeable expiring contracts worth $40 million to upgrade their roster.
That should give the Lakers the ammunition they need to acquire the second playmaker, third scorer, and wing defender to complement LeBron and AD and fill their roster holes and make them a formidable favorite. With no cap space and limited prospects in the free agent market, the Lakers are more likely to look to the trade market to fill the holes in their roster, with a package built around Kyle Kuzma and their first round pick as bait.
While a Kuzma and first round package wouldn’t be enough to bring back a true superstar, it might be enough with to interest a team like the Chicago Bulls to trade combo guard Zach LaVine, who would be a great fit for LA. Another prominent target the Lakers could pursue would be Nets’ combo guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who like LaVine could fill the team’s need for a second playmaker and third scorer and be a great fit with LeBron and AD.
Imagine a Lakers’ starting lineup with Avery Bradley, Zach LaVine or Spencer Dinwiddie, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins with a deep and talented bench with some combination of Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dion Waiters, Markieff Morris, Javale McGee, Dwight Howard, and Talen Horton-Tucker. That would be a deeper and more talented roster than the 2020 Lakers.
Hopefully, the United States government will be able to get the coronavirus pendemic under control and the NBA and the players will be able to work out a plan to complete the 2020 season with or without fans at the games. That would be wonderful news for the Lakers and the country as it would confirm the devastation expected by the coronavirus pandemic had been miraculously avoided and the Lakers chances to win a championship saved.
Whether that happens or not, the Lakers should be in great position to roll out an even stronger team next season with a healthy DeMarcus Cousins and a deeper, more diverse and talented roster than the current season.
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