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5 best players the Lakers must sign in 2021 NBA free agency

lakers free agency dwight howard danny green talen horton tucker patty mills alex caruso

When NBA free agency opens up, the Los Angeles Lakers will have big decisions to make, and not a lot of time or money to make them. The Lakers have to accelerate their timeline, with LeBron James entering his age-38 season and coming off a concerning, injury-plagued 2020-21 season.

The Lakers got the ball rolling during the 2021 NBA Draft last Thursday, acquiring Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards for — as it stands — Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and their 2021 first-round pick. The trade cannot be finalized until Friday and could still be expanded to include other teams, but Westbrook will be the Lakers’ starting point guard in 2021-22.

(For a more comprehensive primer on where the Purple-and-Gold stand heading into this all-important week, check out my preview of Lakers’ free agency.)

Los Angeles is nearly in the luxury tax zone with only four players signed for 2021-22 (the Big Three and Marc Gasol), and cannot field a team if they trigger the hard cap. Therefore, they cannot acquire a player via sign-and-trade nor hand out the full midlevel exception ($~9.5 million).

Instead, Rob Pelinka will have to fill out a championship-caliber roster by exceeding the cap to re-sign players (via Bird rights) and using his non-taxpayer mid-level ($5.9 million, which can be divvied up) and veteran minimum deals ($2.5 million for players with 10+ years of service, sliding scale down from there).

With the moratorium hours away from being lifted — and the tampering surely running rampant — let’s run down five free agents whom the Lakers can, and should, sign.

1) and 2) Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker

Let’s start here. The primary source of anxiety in Los Angeles Country today will emanate from how the franchise approaches these two homegrown free agents — both of whom will have “multiple suitors,” per ESPN’s Zach Lowe.

The Lakers will prioritize the 20-year old Horton-Tucker, whom they opted to keep instead of landing Kyle Lowry in March. Los Angeles can offer THT (a restricted free agent) $10.4 million in 2021-22, then increase his salary from there. However, he may receive hefty back-loaded offers from rival teams, which will, at least, increase the damage for the Buss family trust.

The Caruso situation is more nerve-racking. The 27-year old will meet with several teams on Monday (including the Wizards) and will be offered the full mid-level, per The Athletic. According to Marc Stein, re-signing Caruso will be “very difficult” for the Lakers.

This is simple: it comes down to luxury tax. It’s not my money, but the non-hard-capped Lakers letting Caruso go over a few million bucks will not be received well by the fanbase, especially if that money is used to keep Andre Drummond. The Lakers are capped out, so letting Caruso walk doesn’t free up spending money unless it’s used to retain talent.

Caruso has developed into one of the best defensive guards in the NBA, is a favorite of LeBron James and Frank Vogel, and is coming off the best three-point shooting season of his career. (They should resign Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris, and Ben McLemore, too.)

3) Patty Mills

Various reports have tied the Mills to the Lakers. He’d represent a solid use of the $5.9 million.

In addition to shooting and star-power, the Lakers wanted to add more capable lead ball-handlers to their backcourt. Mills isn’t a star unless he’s playing for the Australian national team, but he checks the other two boxes. He’s shot 38.8% percent from distance in his career, and he’s done it on the biggest of stages.

Mills could be a perfect sparkplug and spacer in staggered Westbrook-led second units. In crunch-time, he’s money.

His (former) San Antonio Spurs teammate, Rudy Gay, has been linked to the Lakers, as well. Both he and Carmelo Anthony would be sensible additions on the minimum.

4) Danny Green

Green may be out of the Lakers’ price range, as he can probably fetch the full or near-full MLE. Because he’s won with the Lakers, though, I’m going to leave open a sliver of possibility that he plays for a discount. (They cannot sign Green and Mills unless one took the minimum or they split the $5.9 million).

Recouping Green would make the expected loss of Dennis Schroder sting a bit less. In retrospect, the Lakers probably regret dealing Green and a first-rounder for Schroder, though the move was logical at the time.

Other available wings who may take the minimum or a portion of the taxpayer MLE: J.J. Redick, Wayne Ellington, Victor Oladipo, Kent Bazemore, Bryn Forbes.

5) Dwight Howard

Per Stein and Turner, Howard returning for a third stint with the Lakers is widely expected, perhaps as soon as free agency opens.

The Lakers could use another stretch-5, but can possibly get by on that front with Gasol, Anthony Davis — depending on how often he slides to center — and Morris in small-ball lineups. Still, they’ll need rim-running and protection. (Re-) enter Dwight Howard.

Howard would be enthusiastic about returning to the Lakers — he wanted to last season — on the minimum. Considering his familiarity in the locker room and his willingness to play limited minutes, this seems like a win-win. (Maybe best to play him in non-Westbrook lineups with LeBron orchestrating.)

Let the games begin.