Lakers must plan for free agency fizzle

What should the Lakers do if LeBron decides to stay with Cavs, George with Thunder, and Cousins with Pelicans?

As the Lakers continue their efforts to trade Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr. to free up cap space to sign two superstars this summer, they also need to be prepared should their grand plan for free agency fizzle.

Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have made signing two superstars the Lakers’ grand plan because they knew it will take more than just one superstar to transform their talented young roster into a true contender. While they’re not going to convince a single superstar who wants to win now to sign, acquiring the cap space to sign two superstars changes that dynamic. The only question is whether two of the three superstars the Lakers covet will be available.

Right now, it’s looking unlikely that Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins will become available before the February 8th trade deadline. More ominously, it’s looking like the OKC Thunder’s experiment teaming Paul George in a Big Three with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and the New Orleans Pelicans’ experiment pairing centers DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are working, raising the chances that the two superstars might stay put.

While George’s and Cousins’ decisions will ultimately depend on how their teams perform in the post season, the Thunder and Pelicans will be able to offer a longer contract with bigger raises than the Lakers next summer. There is little doubt New Orleans will offer Cousins a max 5-year deal and you have to believe Oklahoma City would do the same for Paul George, even if they have to pay luxury taxes for a year until Anthony’s contract finally expires.

What happens with Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins will also impact the Lakers’ chances of signing LeBron James. George and Cousins re-signing with the Thunder and Pelicans, which is very possible considering they would get more money and a better chance of winning, would eliminate the top two candidates to join with LeBron to create a Lakers superteam. Despite the talk of LeBron wanting to come to Hollywood, he’s not going to come alone.

While we’re still half a season away from this summer, where the free agency landscape could still change dramatically, the Lakers need to be ready for their grand plan to fizzle and their top free agent targets to not be available. That presents Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka with some critical decisions. Should they trade Randle, Clarkson, and Nance, Jr. now or wait for summer. And what should they do if James, George, and Cousins don’t want to come?

With no assurances LeBron, PG, or Cousins will sign as free agents, the Lakers need to decide what to do with their young players and cap space. Do they kick the can and save their cap space for two superstars the summer of 2019, when the Warriors Klay Thompson becomes a free agent? Or do they use cap space for one superstar to sign valuable non-superstar free agents like KCP or Nerlens Noel to make a playoff run and then save the rest for summer 2019?

The most immediate issue is what to do with Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr. who’ve publicly been on the trade block for a while but have continued to play superbly, leading the Lakers to surprise wins over the Pacers and Knicks despite missing rookie point guard Lonzo Ball and starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It almost seems foolish to trade them to free up cap space until the Lakers know for sure who’ll be available.

Randle’s, Clarkson’s, and Nance’s continued strong play is great news for the Lakers regardless of whether they decide to trade them before the deadline or keep them and revisit the situation this summer. With little likelihood that the Thunder or Pelicans will look to trade PG or Cousins midseason, the Lakers would be smart to make only trades that improve the roster and help with their cap space or wait until next summer to trade their young talent.

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka’s recent announcement that the Lakers would not be making any trades unless it improves their “championship outlook” clearly indicates that the Lakers understand the critical nature of their decision and the perils and risks of trading young players who are a big part of why the team is winning just for cap space for next summer. The last thing the Lakers need is to trade their young talent for cap space that will lead to more losses.

Winning trades for Julius Randle that would not compromise the Lakers’ “championship outlook” include the Mavs’ Nerlens Noel, who could develop into the elite starting center and defensive anchor the Lakers need, the Celtics’ Marcus Smart, who could be the perfect defensive and team oriented point guard to backup Lonzo Ball, or the Pistons’ Avery Bradley, who could be a championship option for the Lakers as their future shooting guard.

With Noel’s trade value plummeting, the Lakers should be able also to acquire talented young shooting guard Seth Curry in addition to Noel in a trade for Julius Randle. That would give the Lakers a potential starting center and backup shooting guard with deadly 3-point strokes. Since both players have expiring contracts, the trade will give the Lakers a chance to test drive both players without compromising the team’s championship outlook.

Trading Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. to the Pistons for Avery Bradley is another smart deal that wouldn’t compromise the Lakers’ grand plan. The Lakers tried to trade Randle for Bradley before the Celtics traded him to the Pistons to clear cap space to sign Gordon Hayward and his elite defense, 3-point shooting, and veteran leadership would be a big upgrade over KCP. Bradley is an UFA and would be a great long-term solution at shooting guard.

Finally, swapping the #6 and #7 picks from the 2014 draft could fill key backup slots for the Lakers and Celtics. Randle would be a great fit on Celtics with their outside shooters and need for a strong defensive backup center, while Smart with his hustle and defensive chops would be a great backup for Lonzo Ball on the Lakers. The big plus for the Lakers in the deal is that Smart still has two years on his contract, unlike Randle who is due for an extension.

Jordan Clarkson is also becoming a player the Lakers could regret trading, especially since he can play either guard position and score inside or outside. Nevertheless, there are still some solid trades the Lakers could make with Clarkson that would help in short term and not compromise the grand plan. Trading Clarkson straight up to the Pistons for Avery Bradley would be a good move that would help win games without adding future cap space.

Another potential trade that meets our criteria of helping the team win now without adding long-term contracts would be to trade Randle, Clarkson, and Brewer to the Clippers for DeAndre Jordan, who has two years left on his contract but is probably a sure bet to opt out of the second year, which means trading for him would give the Lakers the cap space to sign two superstars and a half season to test drive Jordan and see how he fit with them long-term.

While Jordan’s free throw shooting is an issue, there’s no question he is one of the most dominating dunkers off pick-and-rolls and penetration while also being able to protect the rim and deter drives into the paint. His game appears to have regressed some over the last couple of years but DeAndre is still a force to be reckoned with at both ends of the court. While the Lakers would be hesitant to sign him as a free agent, test driving him could pay off.

The final trade I would consider is Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson to the Bulls for shooting guard Zach LaVine and power forward Nikola Mirotic. Clarkson would be a great fit as a scorer off the bench for the young Bulls while the Lakers would get two potential starters who can shoot the three. Since LaVine will be a RFA this summer like Randle while Mirotic’s contract has a team option on the second year, neither hurts the Lakers’ grand plan.

Bottom line, there are still several appealing trade opportunities for Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr. that can help the Lakers win more games and be a more attractive landing spot for free agents without compromising their grand plan to sign two elite free agents this summer.