One alternative the Lakers should seriously consider instead of pursuing two superstars this summer is waiting until the summer 2019 to sign the second superstar. There are good reasons why this might be the Lakers’ best option.
To start with, only pursuing one superstar this year would let the Lakers take advantage of opportunities to add valuable talent to their current young core. It would also give their budding young stars more time to grow and develop in roles they would not be able to experience if the Lakers had two superstars. Finally, it would allow the Lakers to continue to establish the winning culture and chemistry and positive environment that has become the team’s identity.
Extending the window for the second superstar until the summer of 2019 could also result in the Lakers having a bigger and better class of candidates, including Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Kyrie Irving, all of whom may decline extensions and opt for free agency and more money next summer. That’s a selection of superstars whose age and style of play are much better fits for the Lakers than LeBron James and a recovering DeMarcus Cousins.
Committing to just one superstar this season almost by definition eliminates LeBron James as an option as he is not going to realistically consider joining the Lakers unless there is another superstar like Paul George coming along. While LeBron is the best player on the planet, there are serious questions whether he would ultimately be a good fit on the Lakers because of his age and mileage and how he might hinder the development of their young stars.
While the Lakers could consider signing DeMarcus Cousin, the best superstar option for them is unquestionably Paul George, who’s a perfect fit on both sides of the ball for Luke Walton’s selfless offense and switching defense. Signing PG this summer and delaying the second superstar to next summer means the Lakers wouldn’t have to renounce Randle and Thomas and would be free to try and trade for a second first round pick in next week’s NBA Draft.
Deciding to sign Paul George this summer and waiting until next summer to sign a second superstar is about the Lakers favoring flexibility and not getting boxed in financially and operationally by tying their future to LeBron James. The decision reduces unneeded pressure on the Lakers to make roster moves that ultimately aren’t in their best interest at this time. Here are the three key areas where the decision could have immediate short and long term impact:
1. Mastering the Draft
It appears that the Lakers have serious interest in three prospects in next week’s NBA Draft. These draft prospects are 7 1" center Mitchell Robinson, 6' 7" shooting guard Kevin Huerter, and 6' 4" shooting guard Zhaire Smith. Right now, most mock drafts project Huerter and Smith to be gone in the teens and Robinson as the only one of the three with a chance to be there at #25, when the Lakers will make their only pick in the first round of the draft.
But the Lakers commitment to just signing Paul George this summer suddenly opens up an opportunity for the Lakers to trade with the Denver Nuggets for the #14 pick in the draft, which could be used for either Huerter or Smith. The price the Nuggets reportedly want for the #14 pick is someone to assume the $13.7 million expiring contract of Kenneth Faried, which would then be set aside as part of the $32.4 million in cap space they’ll need next summer.
The Nuggets may want a good young player like Josh Hart or the Lakers’ #25 pick in addition to taking on Faried’s contract for the#14 pick. Whether the Lakers would be willing to do either would depend on how much they want Huerter or Smith. Realistically, I don’t think the Lakers are looking for a pick swap as much as another pick and I seriously doubt they would include Hart. What the Lakers could do is sweeten the deal is include $5.1 million in cash.
Kevin Huerter is a 6' 7" shooting guard with the potential to be the Lakers’ version of Klay Thompson, an elite long range shooter for whom teams have to game plan. Zhaire Smith is a 6' 4" shooting guard with a 6' 10" wingspan and 41.5' vertical who can shoot from deep and can defend 4 positions. Being able to pull off a trade for a second first round pick to draft either one of these at #14 along with a shot at Mitchell Robinson at #25 would be a huge coup.
What signing just one superstar has given the Lakers is the opportunity to try to duplicate the monster success of last year’s draft, where they drafted Lonzo Ball #2, Kyle Kuzma #27, Josh Hart #30, and Thomas Bryant #42. That’s basically everybody on the Lakers’ vaunted young core but Brandon Ingram. One of the Lakers’ strengths is its scouting corps and a shot to score one last big draft is one of the major reasons to just sign one superstar this summer.
2. Optimizing Free Agency
Signing Paul George as their only superstar this summer gives the Lakers the cap space and opportunity to retain two valuable free agents of their own, namely team MVP Julius Randle and former MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas. Julius Randle will be a RFA with a cap hold of $12.4 million while Isaiah Thomas will be a UFA with a cap hold of $11.9 million. Since the Lakers have Bird Rights for both players, they can exceed the cap if desired to keep them.
The Lakers would have to waive and stretch Luol Deng in order to create the cap space to sign George, Randle, and Thomas but the $36.8 million due him the next two seasons could be reduced to $7.4 million per year for five years. That would also open up a roster spot for Kenneth Faried should the Lakers make a trade to absorb his contract for the #14 pick in next week’s draft. Faried might even be able to earn some playing time that Deng never could.
The one superstar decision means the Lakers would be free to negotiate a mutually acceptable contract with Julius Randle before free agency starts. Locking up Randle to a 4-year contract starting at $15 million per year would represent a home town discount over what Julius might have received on the open market. While there’s some concern over Randle’s fit as a modern power forward, there’s no question Julius is the heart and soul of this Lakers team.
The biggest win from deciding just to sign one superstar this summer could be the cap space to sign Isaiah Thomas on a 1-year $12 million deal that will preserve his Bird Rights and wild and crazy pipe dream the Lakers could end up with the Isaiah Thomas who, before the hip injury, was an MVP candidate. Thomas says he no longer has any pain from his hip and expects to be fully recovered by the start of next season. If so, the Lakers have hit the jackpot.
3. Setting the Stage
One the Lakers biggest advantages heading into this summer has been how perfectly positioned the Lakers have been to take advantage of opportunities. Signing just one superstar this summer gives the Lakers flexibility to perfectly position themselves to land a second or third superstar either by making a big deal at the trade deadline or by using cap space in next summer’s free agency. In fact, by waiting, the Laker would have the assets for two more superstars.
We won’t know until the season starts which free agents could be available at the trade deadline or next summer. Candidates could include Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler. There could also be surprise candidates as more and more NBA teams are hesitant to sign young players to maximum contract deals that could stifle flexibility and lock teams into situations where they had no way get better than tank.
Assuming the Lakers drafted three players and were successful in signing Paul George, Julius Randle, and Isaiah Thomas as free agents this summer, they would then have nine players on long term deals (Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Hart, #14 pick, #25 pick, #47 pick, George, and Randle) and six players on short term deals (Bryant, Faried, Thomas, and three vet minimum players). In addition, the Lakers would still have their full complement of draft picks.
That would put the Lakers in the catbird’s seat as next season’s trade deadline approaches. They would have a plethora of young talent, a full complement of draft picks, and those invaluable midrange $10–15 million contracts every team needs to be able to match salaries when trading for a superstar. Right now, the Lakers would not be able to make a trade for a superstar because the only contracts they have are cheap rookie deals or Deng’s untradeable deal.
Next summer, assuming the Lakers sign George, Randle, and Thomas to contracts starting at $30.3 million, 15.0 million, and $12.0 million, the Lakers’ nine long term deals would total $81.9 million, leaving only $26.1 million in open cap space with an average max contract being $32.4 million. That means the Lakers would only have to move $6.2 million in contracts to create the cap space to sign another max contract superstar summer 2019.
The continued dominance of the Golden State Warriors has motivated NBA general managers and superstars to try to build new superteams to compete. The news about Kawhi Leonard possibly trying to force a trade to the Lakers could be the first step towards the Lakers building that elusive superteam. There’s little doubt that Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are working hard to figure out how to trade for Kawhi and keep the cap space for LeBron and PG.
The opportunity to trade for Kawhi Leonard would clearly be a big step towards building a Lakers team that could compete for a championship but it’s not sure thing. The only way the Lakers could match salaries before July 1st would be for the Spurs to take on Deng’s contract, which won’t happen. That means the trade would have to occur after free agency starts on July 1 when the Lakers would be under the cap and salaries don’t need to match.
Unfortunately, the Kawhi trade would not change the basic problem that the Lakers can’t create the cap space to sign both LeBron James and Paul George without moving Luol Deng’s 2-year contract without taking any salary back. The problem is the Lakers don’t have enough draft picks both to trade for Kawhi and move Deng’s contract, not even considering the diminished value of their draft picks. That puts the Lakers back to signing just one superstar.
The Lakers would be smart to drive a very hard bargain and demand the Spurs take Deng’s contract or the Lakers will just wait for summer of 2019 and sign Kawhi as a free agent without giving up any assets in trade. Either the Spurs take the deal for, let’s say, Ingram, Hart, Deng, and a future first round pick and the Lakers have the cap space to sign LeBron and PG or the Lakers sign Paul George and continue growing the team organically.