If the Los Angeles Lakers want to form a Big Three featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, general manager Rob Pelinka will have to get creative on the trade wires.
The Lakers only have five players guaranteed to be on the books for 2021-22, plus $5 million deferred for Luol Deng, the salary for the No. 22 overall pick ($2.4 million), and, should they choose to retain him, $1.9 million for Alfonzo McKinnie. All that adds up to $114 million — roughly $2 million over the projected cap.
Los Angeles can exceed the cap to bring back free agents Dennis Schroder (whom they traded a first-rounder for), Alex Caruso, and Talen Horton-Tucker via Bird rights, depending on Jeanie Buss's luxury tax elasticity.
Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option, which he may pick up after a subpar season. Markieff Morris, Wesley Matthews, and Jared Dudley are good bets to return for the minimum.
In other words: signing a needle-moving free agent — of which there are few available, anyway — is unrealistic. If Pelinka wants to upgrade the third banana spot, he'll have to talk another GM into a blockbuster, possibly via the ol' sign-and-trade.
If you take the Lakers at their word (I do), they believe they had a championship roster in 2020-21, and that better health could be enough to earn banner No. 18, if they largely ran it back. At exit interviews, Pelinka spoke passionately about keeping the “core” intact, specifically naming homegrown projects like Kuzma, THT, and Caruso to keep alongside LeBron and AD.
But every Lakers fan is currently jonesing for the next James Worthy while LeBron's title window is still open. James and Davis, who have input on personnel moves, might feel the same way. Simultaneously, the franchise will eventually need another foundational piece to buoy Davis when James moves on.
It will be exceedingly difficult for Pelinka to acquire a star, but you can never say never with Los Angeles, where agents are always trying to wriggle stars to. Historically, the Lakers make it happen.
That said, could any of the following stars be on the table for a move to the Lakers this summer?
The dream acquisition for numerous franchises. Dame, a fiercely loyal dude, may or may not be disgruntled with the Portland Trail Blazers after another first-round exit. He hasn't publicly demanded a trade, but he has been cryptic. If he informs Portland he wants a new team, could the Lakers swoop in and shake up the West?
Short answer: financially, yes. Realistically, meh.
Lillard is owed $39.3 million next season, the first of a four-year, $176 million deal. Mathematically, the Lakers could sign-and-trade Schroder (at $20-25 million) and THT ($8-10M) — if he doesn't sign an offer sheet with another team first — plus include Kuzma ($13M), their two tradeable first-round picks (2021, 2027), and a sprinkling of second-rounders and cash considerations.
If the Blazers do end up making Lillard available, they'll be able to find a more enticing package, perhaps from the New York Knicks or Philadelphia 76ers.
Lillard may be a pipe dream for the Lakers, but what about his backcourt mate? At $29 million, the Lakers could basically match his money with Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($12 million), and the 2021 first-rounder (which they can't trade until after the draft, per the Stepien Rule). If the Blazers are more interested in Schroder, a sign-and-trade is doable here, too.
If Lillard is out the door and/or McCollum lets the Blazers know he wouldn't mind a change of scenery, Neil Olshey should take Pelinka's call.
According to CBS Sports' Sam Quinn, the Lakers may already be eyeing McCollum. Surely, they're not the only ones.
I recently broke each of these scenarios down, so I won't rehash.
Last week, The Athletic reported that the Lakers were once again exploring the idea of trading for Lowry after their deadline hesitancy. His age (35) makes him attainable, though the Lakers would be prioritizing James' window over AD's.
Lakers fans want to block out the Simmons noise, but it's worth considering due to his representation, age, and a Bitcoin-esque crash in market value over the past week. What if LeBron and AD make a plea for the 24-year-old, three-time All-Star, and their fellow Klutch client?
Beal is always the first name mentioned when folks bat around stars that could be available.
Beal will make $34.5 million in 2021-22, the first of a two-year, $71.8 million extension. However, the second year is a player option, meaning the Lakers would need to shell out the bread to retain him, should he decline the option. If they were able to swing a trade for Beal, they should be happy to do so.
The Lakers could deal Schroder, Kuzma, KCP, and both first-rounders. The Wizards, who don't have cap room, could then flip KCP to a third team, and recoup a pick in the process. Speaking of D.C. … the next one is a doozy.
The Lakers wouldn't. They couldn't … right?
Westbrook's contract is notoriously massive — $44.2 million in 2021-22, $47 million(!) player option for 2022-23 —which may render him attainable for a package of underwhelming assets.
Again, the Lakers could S&T Schroder to make the finances work (the Wizards may like that idea, too). Or, they could feasibly package Harrell, Kuzma, and KCP plus picks.
LeBron and Russ are tight. Westbrook is a Long Beach native.
He can't shoot, but he would inject a high-energy, game-changing alpha — which the Lakers sorely lacked this season (Schroder is chippy, but 15.4 PPG didn't cut it). As with Simmons, the Lakers' two stars may confidently believe in talent more than obvious fit.
Just added a new interactive tool to the @The_BBall_Index Data & Tools package and I couldn't not look at this potential (unrealistic) lineup's talent percentiles…
We'd truly end up seeing how important spacing is to getting shots at the rim. pic.twitter.com/ruFm3dQH2o
— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) June 21, 2021
Without a major push from James and Davis, I don't see this happening. Westbrook's iffy playoff track record, shaky defense, and (somewhat) declining prime may scare the Lakers off. Also: Did I mention he can't shoot?
Butler, 31, is set to make $36 million in 2021-22 and $37.7 million in 2022-23. However, he wants a max extension, which could total four years and another $181 million. Even if the Lakers could trade for him (and his Bird rights), would they commit to that check?
Butler and the Miami Heat reportedly ended the season on a sour note, but he has been publicly enamored with the culture since taking his talents to South Beach. If business gets in the way, so be it, but I highly doubt Butler (nor Pat Riley) would prefer a change of scenery.
If Riley did boldly opt to recoup assets for Butler rather than extending him, he could field better offers than the Lakers. In theory, the Lakers could throw in Riley's preferred combination of picks, Kuzma, KCP, Schroder, Harrell, and THT for Butler, though I'm not sure either side would feel amazing about a Butler blockbuster centered on the Lakers' first-rounders and THT.
Just kidding. For now.