The Lakers have made it clear their grand plan is to preserve cap space to sign two max contract superstars this summer. But a sudden opportunity to draft a game-changing 20-year old center may have the Lakers rethinking that plan.
Mitchell Robinson has suddenly become the Internet darling of Lakers’ fans seeking the franchise’s next great center. A 20-year old high school phenom, Robinson was the top rated center in the country and a sure fire lottery pick before deciding to forego college and train for the NBA by himself. Finally, after a year in obscurity, Robinson has suddenly worked himself back into the draft picture, projecting to be drafted somewhere between #15 and #30.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have frequently pointed out that cap space can be used for more than just signing free agents, that sometimes having the cap space to absorb a contract is the key to pulling off a blockbuster trade. That’s exactly the situation in which the Lakers fortuitously find themselves. They have the opportunity to move up in the draft and acquire their center of the future but it might cost them the cap space needed to sign two superstars.
While the Lakers hoped they could steal Robinson with the #25 pick in the draft, those hopes faded after he held impressive workouts last week in L.A., where he showcased his offensive talents for more than a dozen NBA teams. While many of the major mock drafts still have the Lakers taking Robinson at #25, he continues to rise and others now have him going higher, including to the Bucks at #17, Hawks at #19, Timberwolves at 20, and Bulls at #22.
Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets are willing to trade the #14 pick in the draft to a team willing to absorb Kenneth Faried’s $13.7 million expiring contract to save $50 million in luxury taxes from the Nikola Jokic’s looming extension. In other words, the Lakers have an opportunity to sign their center of the future and the cost would be just absorbing a $13.7 million expiring contract. Frankly, that’s an opportunity the Lakers simply cannot afford to turn down.
The risk in absorbing Faried’s $13.7M contract is it could prevent the Lakers from having the cap space to sign LeBron James and Paul George. However, the Lakers could reduce the cap hit to $4.6 million by immediately waiving and stretching the last year of Faried’s contract. By renouncing their rights to Randle, Thomas, Lopez, Bryant, and the #25 pick, the Lakers could get within $1.5 million of the $65.6 million needed to sign both to max deals.
The Lakers could possibly get James and/or George to accept $1.5 million less or the Lakers could look to use their #25 pick, 2020 first round pick, and $3.1 million in cash to lure another team to take on Deng’s bad contract. Either way, they should still have a good chance of signing LeBron and PG and you could argue that the addition of an elite center prospect like Mitchell Robinson would make the Lakers even more attractive to elite free agents.
Bottom line, the Lakers would likely still be able to sign LeBron James and Paul George as free agents this summer but trading up to acquire Mitchell Robinson at #14 would require them to renounce and lose Julius Randle.
Frankly, I think the Lakers would be better off just signing Paul George and using the $35.4 million in cap space saved by not signing LeBron to keep Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, Brook Lopez, Thomas Bryant, and #25 pick.
LeBron James at 33-years old not only is a poor fit on a young Lakers team but his signing would strip the team of potential championship quality depth. Julius Randle was not only the Lakers’ starting power forward and MVP but also their elite small ball center. Isaiah Thomas, now healthy and pain free could be the Sixth Man of the Year next season. And Brook Lopez would be the ideal place holder and mentor until Mitchell Robinson was ready to start.
Thomas Bryant may not have the defensive potential of Mitchell Robinson but he’s already shown he has upside as a center who can stretch the floor. Finally, the Lakers have had great success picking late in the first round of the draft as shown by last year’s phenomenal picks of Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. With similar luck this year, the Lakers could hit another late first round home run by drafting a great shooter like Kevin Huerter or Donte DiVincenzo.
Trading up for Robinson would also give the Lakers a dynamic young core with a budding star at all five positions with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Mitchell Robinson possessing star potential, plus an elite bench anchored by Isaiah Thomas, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma. We saw in this years’ playoffs just how valuable quality depth is when you get into the playoffs. NBA teams need more than just superstars to win championships.
Continuing to add elite young talent to the roster would also give the Lakers the option of trading some of their talented young core for a second veteran superstar to go with Paul George like Kawhi Leonard or Karl Anthony-Towns, which is another reason why the Lakers should continue to build their roster. Key trades for players like Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala were critical to the Warriors’ development of a championship caliber offense and defense.
While the Lakers can likely still sign both LeBron James and Paul George if they absorb, waive, and stretch Faried’s $13.7 million expiring contract, the better option is to just sign Paul George and keep their impressive depth.
With the NBA Draft less than three weeks away, the Lakers need to make a decision on how much impact adding an elite center prospect like Mitchell Robinson could do for their young core and attractiveness to free agents. While they likely could still sign LeBron James and Paul George, there’s a slight risk they might not be able to clear enough cap space. Further, losing Randle would leave them without a quality center when they go small.
There’s a new generation of modern centers who are going to transform the position in the NBA, including several in this summer’s draft. The opportunity to trade up and add another potential superstar to the Lakers’ young core at a position of critical need and potential is too appealing to resist. The Lakers should trade up to guarantee they can draft Mitchell Robinson. This could be their only chance to acquire their center of the future for an expiring contract.
While there’s a slight risk of not having cap space to sign LeBron and Paul George and it will hurt to lose Julius Randle, trading up to acquire an elite rookie center like Mitchell Randle would be a genius move by the Lakers.