Leading up to last year's draft, the Los Angeles Lakers shipped D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets to escape from Timofey Mozgov's albatross contract. At the time, general manager Rob Pelinka explained why the Lakers sold so low on Russell, who they selected with the second overall pick only two years priors.
The Lakers, he explained, are going big-game hunting this off-season.
“We were able to get amazing salary-cap relief and space so that in July of 2018 we have the ability to add hopefully two max-salary players to our franchise,” he told reporters. “And that really fit in to our long-term plan.”
In the ensuing months, Pelinka and team president Magic Johnson have hedged on that plan. According to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski, the “Lakers aren't abandoning a summer pursuit of stars, but rather they are recalibrating their focus on a 2019 class” that may feature Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler, among other notable names.
“We have cap space for probably two guys, max, but that's not to say we'll use both of them,” Johnson told Mike Bresnahan of Spectrum SportsNet in mid-December (via Drew Garrison of Silver Screen & Roll). “We want to, if we can, but we have a Plan A, then we have a Plan B. Say we only get one of those guys, then we'll make a decision on not to use the cap space—we can do that—and save it for the next class that's coming the next year.”
That didn't stop the Lakers from continuing to shed salary in the meantime.
At the trade deadline, they shipped Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the expiring contracts of Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye along with a first-round pick. With a bit more finagling, they'll be able to sign two free agents to max contracts this summer, if so desired.
Can they land a big fish (or two) who will help restore them to their past heights? How will that affect the rest of their roster? Let's explore the biggest questions they must confront in the coming weeks.
5. Can they lure Paul George and/or LeBron James?
The Lakers' interest in both LeBron James and Paul George is one of the worst-kept secrets in the NBA.
Last August, the league fined the Lakers $500,000 for contact between Pelinka and George's agent, which “constituted a prohibited expression of interest in the player while he was under contract.” The fine came months after Johnson jokingly addressed his interest in George during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which earned a warning from the NBA.
The Lakers haven't openly flirted with James as aggressively as they did with George, but their decision to give Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a one-year, $17.8 million contract last July likely wasn't coincidental. KCP is represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group, the same agent who reps LeBron. Having Caldwell-Pope in L.A. gave Paul a behind-the-scenes look at the Lakers organization ahead of July 1, which he could then relay back to James.
Whether the Lakers can land either player remains an open question, though.
Both ahead of last year's trade deadline and following the end of the regular season, USA Today‘s Sam Amick deemed George as “hell-bent” on eventually joining the Lakers. However, those reports came before the Indiana Pacers traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder in June.
Though the Utah Jazz knocked them out in the first round of the playoffs, George told reporters that the Thunder “check the boxes where I needed those boxes to be checked from what a player wants and needs out of a front office, out of a medical group, out of teammates, out of [a] coaching staff.” He acknowledged that he “would love” to play at home in Los Angeles, but he said that allure alone wouldn't be enough to draw him to the Lakers.
During a recent appearance on the Yahoo Sports NBA: Chris Mannix podcast, Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania said (via Anthony Irwin of Silver Screen & Roll): “I think there's a lot of positivity around it, and I think even around Paul George, there's a sense he feels like he's in a good place in Oklahoma City.” Charania added, however, that James is “probably the biggest domino that's going to drop,” noting, “George can very well decide to stay in Oklahoma City and not wait for what LeBron James is going to do, but that's gonna be a conversation that's probably going to need to be had privately among both parties.”
As for James, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported in March that the Lakers were one of only four teams on his list of potential free-agent landing spots at the time. However, Shelburne and Wojnarowski dubbed them as a “long shot” to land James as of December.
“James is believed to have a reluctance toward signing with the Lakers without an established star immediately joining him,” they added in February.
Until James and George make their respective free-agent decisions, the Lakers may be stuck at a standstill.
Unfortunately, they'll have other options to weigh at the same time.
4. Should they try to trade for Kawhi Leonard?
If the Lakers can't land both James and George, don't be surprised if they turn their attention to Kawhi Leonard.
In January, Wojnarowski and ESPN's Michael C. Wright reported “months of discord centering on elements of treatment, rehabilitation and timetables for return from a right quadriceps injury have had a chilling impact” on Leonard's relationship with the San Antonio Spurs. A few months later, Shelburne and Wright detailed how “disagreement about the exact nature” of Leonard's quadriceps injury led to the tension arising on both sides.
In a January appearance on ESPN's First Take, Jalen Rose added fuel to the fire surrounding the doubt about Leonard's long-term future in San Antonio.
— First Take (@FirstTake) January 23, 2018
The Spurs likely won't consider trading Leonard until after July 1, when they can offer him a five-year, $219 million supermax contract. But if they decide not to offer said contract or he turns it down, the Lakers may be ready to pounce.
“I think they go in hard for Leonard once the season is over and once the dust settles in San Antonio,” one front office executive told Sean Deveney of Sporting News in April. “[Leonard] wants to go to L.A.. There probably won't be public demands on that, but he has leverage. He is going to be a free agent [in 2019]. He's an L.A. guy and he can just let teams know he won't re-sign next year with anyone but the Lakers.”
Would some combination of L.A.'s young prospects—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart—along with future first-round picks be enough to convince the Spurs to trade Leonard? That likely depends on how his upcoming meeting with head coach Gregg Popovich goes.
“He's going to be their target any way you look at it, this summer or next summer,” another general manager told Deveney. “There's not many other ways to explain what's been going on with that situation other than him trying to get out of San Antonio.”
Signing James and George in free agency may be the Lakers' plan A, but keep an eye on Leonard as a possible target, too.
3. What should they do with Julius Randle?
Further complicating the Lakers' starry free-agent pursuits is Julius Randle, who will become a restricted free agent on July 1.
Toward the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Randle figured to be a casualty of the Lakers' ambitious plans. He spent the first two months of the season coming off the bench, and his per-game averages of 12.5 points and 6.3 rebounds hardly suggested he'd become a franchise cornerstone.
Upon moving into the starting lineup in late December, however, Randle took off. Over his final 49 games, the Kentucky product went off for 18.6 points on 56.0 percent shooting, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists in only 29.9 minutes, cementing himself as the Lakers' best player as of right now.
According to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times, the Lakers were “unsure of Randle's future in the organization” heading into the season, but “he impressed everyone in the organization” by reducing his body fat percentage and adjusting to his fluctuating role throughout the year.
That still may not be enough to keep Randle in L.A., however.
“We still have no indication of where Julius stands among the Lakers' priorities, or if he is a priority at all,” Randle's agent, Aaron Mintz, told Ganguli in mid-May. “We are looking forward to the marketplace in July, when we will get a clear picture of Julius' future.”
The Dallas Mavericks, who can create north of $20 million in cap space this summer, could be in the market to force the Lakers into a difficult decision. O'Connor reported that multiple leagues sources expect the Mavericks to pursue “a trio of big men” this summer, including Randle.
Ideally, the Lakers' top free-agent targets—namely James and George—will make their decisions by the time the July Moratorium ends on July 6 at noon ET. Otherwise, if Randle signs an offer sheet with another team, the Lakers would have only 48 hours to decide upon his future with the franchise.
2. How high is the ceiling for their young core?
Even if the Lakers don't land a superstar this summer via a trade or free agency, their homegrown young core should have fans feeling optimistic.
Ingram took an enormous step forward between his first and second seasons, nearly doubling his scoring average (16.1 points per game) while drastically increasing his shooting efficiency. Whereas his 29.4 percent clip from three-point range as a rookie raised concerns, his 39.0 percent mark this past season tamped down any fears about his long-term potential as a takeover scorer.
His histrionic father aside, Ball flashed signs of promise as a rookie, too. Though his 36.0 percent shooting leaves much to be desired, he's already a walking triple-double threat, and his defense is far better than advertised as well. If Ball continues to refine his “ugly as hell” shooting stroke (h/t Isaiah Thomas for that description), he could return as a vastly improved player in 2018-19.
Kuzma, who the Lakers selected with the No. 27 pick they received from Brooklyn in the Russell/Mozgov dump, already looks like one of the biggest steals from the 2017 draft. His superlative play is what made Nance Jr. expendable, as he tied Ingram and Randle for the team lead in scoring (16.1 points per game) despite starting only 37 of his 77 games as a rookie. His off-court chemistry with Ball can't be ignored, either.
Throw in Hart, who banged home a team-high 39.6 percent of his triples as a rookie, and the Lakers have one of the league's top young cores even without factoring in Randle. Outside of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, the Phoenix Suns are the only other team that could perhaps match the Lakers' collection of promising 25-and-under talent.
Will that group have the opportunity to continue developing alongside one another?
“While they like their young core and would prefer to keep those players growing together, they have told teams no player is untouchable in trades,” Ganguli reported in mid-May. The Lakers “are not actively shopping any of their players,” she wrote, but “they are willing to listen to offers and could move one of them…if an offer blows them away.”
Short of a superstar becoming available on the trade market, expect the Lakers to keep building around Ingram, Ball, Kuzma and Hart as the foundation of their next great team.
1. Who should they draft at No. 25?
While the Lakers don't possess their own first-rounder (No. 10) in this year's draft, they do have the Cavaliers' No. 25 pick courtesy of the Clarkson/Nance deal at the trade deadline.
Who they pick there largely depends on their other offseason machinations.
That No. 25 pick will carry a cap hold of roughly $1.75 million, so if the Lakers are angling to preserve as much cap space as possible for a run at two max free-agent signings, they could go the draft-and-stash route here. Elie Okobo and Dzanan Musa would be the most likely targets in that scenario, while Rodions Kurucs could be a dark-horse candidate.
If the Lakers want to use the pick to add a cheap contributor for next season, they should have no shortage of intriguing options from which to choose.
Maryland swingman Kevin Huerter has reportedly been surging up draft boards as of late, so he may not be available by the time L.A. is on the clock. If he is, though, adding a three-point sniper like him could be lethal between Ball and Ingram at the 2. Zhaire Smith would likewise be a steal at No. 25, but he's also expected to be long gone by that point.
If they're looking for someone in the three-and-D mold—which team isn't these days?—Josh Okogie from Georgia Tech could be the play here. He drilled 66 triples on a 38.2 percent clip during his two years in college, and his 7'0″ wingspan should give him the versatility to guard multiple positions despite standing only 6'4.5″ in shoes. Cincinnati swingman Jacob Evans or Tulane forward Melvin Frazier may also pique L.A.'s interest.
If the Lakers are looking to replace Caldwell-Pope with this selection, Creighton's Kyhri Thomas or Duke's Grayson Allen will merit a look. If they instead want to shore up their frontcourt, Mitchell Robinson figures to be their target.
Who they ultimately take in that spot will depend on how the draft board breaks, but they'll have the opportunity to add yet another key piece to their young core.