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10 things you should wonder about the Lakers offseason

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The Los Angeles Lakers 2020-21 season finished with more questions than answers, and more uncertainty than resolution — both in terms of what the future holds, and what the past and present could’ve looked like.

“The one thing that bothers me more than anything is we never really got an opportunity to see our full team at full strength,” LeBron James said after the Lakers’ Game 6 loss to the Phoenix Suns. “Either because of injury or COVID or something going on with our ballclub this year, we could never fully get into a rhythm. And never really kind of see the full potential of what we could be capable of.”

The Lakers’ extended summer break may be coming earlier than expected, but it’s also overdue, and welcome. Coming off the bubble, the 2020-21 Lakers simply broke down — or, arguably, never really got going.

“I think I always think about just from the moment we entered the ‘bubble’ to now today,” James said. “It’s been draining — mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining … Every team has to deal with it, obviously. But with us and Miami obviously going the long haul in the ‘bubble’ and then coming right back on short notice to this season, it’s been very draining.”

The instability in 2020-21 only makes the organization’s looming free agency decisions even trickier, and the performances and market value of their players harder to evaluate. We could see major overhaul or minor roster tweaks, splashy trades, and nifty cap aerobics.

In other words — in fact, those of Magic Johnson — Lakers GM Rob Pelinka has his work cut out for him.

We don’t have the answers yet. But as we project forward, here are 10 things you should be wondering about heading into the second-to-last season of LeBron’s contract with the Lakers.

1) What does the cap sheet look like?

The Lakers have five players under contract for 2021-22: LeBron ($41.2 million), Anthony Davis ($35.4 million), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($13 million), Kyle Kuzma ($13 million), and Marc Gasol ($2.7 million).

Those five salaries, along with Luol Deng’s stretched $5 million of dead cap space, account for $110.27 million for 2021-22 (not including cap holds). The NBA’s salary cap is projected to settle around $112.4 million, giving the Lakers about $2 million of wiggle room to fill out 60% of the roster, and make it a good one.

“I think that we feel like the roster we had this year was a championship-caliber roster,” Pelinka said after exit interviews. Frank Vogel and a slew of players echoed those sentiments.

The luxury tax line is projected to be $136.6 million. Jeanie Buss is willing to exceed it, but how much remains unclear.

“Jeanie and the ownership group has empowered the front office to do one thing and that’s to smartly build a roster to win championships,” Pelinka said. “That’s been the hallmark of this team since Dr. Buss acquired it and continues to be today. Clearly, all 30 NBA teams are defined by a salary cap, so we’ve got to be really smart with how we put all the different puzzle pieces together. But there is only one goal and it’s doing it smartly to have a championship-caliber team.”

2) So, who’s going to cost what?

One piece of collateral damage from the Lakers’ rocky second half was the obscuring of the market value for their impending free agents.

Andre Drummond is used to seeking $20 million per year (which the Lakers can’t afford), but he never got a chance to gel in L.A. and was a DNP-CD for Game 6. Yet, he and the Lakers have talked about a long-term partnership, and he may be willing to take a mid-level exception ($6 million or so) to better prove himself.

“When that time comes around to have those discussions, I’ll have those discussions,” Drummond said.

Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 player option for 2021-22, which many expected him to forego to seek a multi-year deal. However, after an up-and-down campaign with the Lakers, opting-in may look more appealing. (Trezz is a Rich Paul client.)

Dennis Schröder was the Lakers’ third-best player for the majority of the season, but he likely played himself out of the “top-tier” guard money ($25 million-ish AAV) he covets with his lackluster Round 1. His intentions are also hard to read, as he’s repeatedly expressed both a wish to remain in Los Angeles and also test unrestricted free agency. (They have his Bird Rights).

3) Who is “that core?”

“The goal is to try to keep that core group together,” Pelinka said. “With players like Talen Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma, the players that you draft or bring into your two-way system and groom and develop, there’s a level of pride in that in what the Lakers have been able to do with those players and to grow them. So, of course, our intentions would be to keep our core together and to have a championship team.”

Both Horton-Tucker, 21, and Caruso, 27, will have multiple suitors, as they did at the trade deadline. L.A. has Bird Rights on both and can match any offer for THT (a restricted free agent), who could field eye-opening, back-loaded offers by rival teams looking to, at the very least, further distress the Lakers’ cap sheet.

The Lakers can offer the mid-level exception ($5 million range) to Caruso, who has established a productive bond with LeBron James (+20 net rating). Retaining both would send the Lakers tens of millions into the tax.

Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris, and Jared Dudley all stated a firm preference to run it back, and would probably take the veteran’s minimum.

If Marc Gasol opts to join his brother in Barcelona or move on from professional basketball, that would free up a few million more, though the Lakers would rather have him anchor their second unit.

4) Who could be traded?

The only route for the Lakers to significantly add proven talent this summer is via trade. They simply don’t have space to add another sizable deal from free agency.

Here, too, Pelinka’s hands are somewhat tied. For logistical cap reasons, they are hamstrung in sign-and-trades, per The Athletic’s Hollinger, though a Schroder-for-Lowry sign-and-trade is still feasible (Kelly Oubre Jr. perhaps?)

They can only trade their first-rounders this year (no. 22 overall) and in 2027, per the Stepien Rule.

The best trade package the Lakers could put together would involve their draft picks, Kyle Kuzma, and/or KCP. Considering Kuzma’s abysmal playoffs and reports that he was shopped at the deadline, I wouldn’t rule the latter out.

5) What’s the biggest need?

The Lakers will need to solidify their starting point guard and center spots — LeBron was playing center by the finale — and they could use more (responsible) play-making from the backcourt.

But improving their three-point shooting, and thereby spacing has to be the top area of need. The Lakers were a bottom-five or 10 (by any metric) perimeter shooting group in 2020-21, and they weren’t much better the year before. In the playoffs, they made just 30.2% of their open triples.

“You can never have enough shooting,” Pelinka said. “So it’s something that is always at the top of our mind whether we’re building or constructing a roster. And I think it’s important, too – part of shooting is having special players that create the shooting space. And for us, that comes primarily from LeBron and Anthony…The success of our shooting is driven by those guys creating the space, and because of the things we faced with injuries, some of that space was altered.”

One option to watch for: Patty Mills.

5) The most important question: What do I think is going to happen?

FWIW (extremely little), I expect the Lakers to pony up the cash for Caruso and THT, offer Schroder slightly more than the $80-84 million he declined (if he gets bigger money, so be it), re-up Matthews and Morris, and then look to trade Kuzma and draft capital for a score-first wing who can shoot threes.

Kuzma is included in the “core” per Pelinka, and his energy, defensive improvement, and all-around, team-first contributions were appreciated more in-house than on Twitter. Yet, the Lakers need to pick up their below-average offense, while their defense should be elite no matter what, with AD and Vogel (an amazing transformation for Kuzma, from his rookie year to this paragraph).

7) Will there be coaching changes?

Frank Vogel isn’t going anywhere. He’s entering the third of a three-year deal, and is expected to get an extension at some point.

“Frank’s done an outstanding job as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers to come into an organization and in his first year, help us achieve the ultimate goal is really incredible, too, and something that we are so grateful and appreciative of,” Pelinka said. “And this year, he did everything he could to battle through some of the things that our team faced that we couldn’t control, and did the best he could in times of adversity to keep everyone together.

“Frank’s a guy that Kurt and I and the front office really enjoy working with that really does a great job with all our players, and we see him as a strong part of our future, for sure,” Pelinka added.

As for the assistants, Jason Kidd seemed to be a frontrunner for both the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics gigs, but he pulled himself out of consideration for the former. Vogel praised Kidd at exit interviews, though his history of domestic abuse could become an obstacle.

Pelinka also spoke glowingly of the rest of the staff, which is well-regarded up and down the line, though Kidd seems to be the only reported candidate for another NBA head job, at the moment.

8) What about the draft?

The Lakers own the no. 22 pick in the Draft. If they don’t use this piece as a trade chip, they could use this spot to add a shooter, as the Knicks did with Immanuel Quickley, or an athletic center.

We’ll cover the draft more in the coming weeks, but one name to consider: Oregon senior shooting guard Chris Duarte, who shot over 42% from three, provides backcourt playmaking and could be ready to contribute right away.

9) Other notable dates?

  • June 19-21: NBA G League Elite Camp
  • June 21-27: NBA Draft combine
  • July 16: Space Jam: A New Legacy drops
  • July 23 – August 8: Tokyo Olympics
  • July 29: NBA Draft
  • Aug. 1: Last day for decisions on player, team, and early termination options (Harrell). Deadline for teams to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents (THT).
  • Aug. 2: Last day for players eligible for veteran extensions to sign them (Schroder is eligible). Teams can begin negotiating with free agents.
  • Aug. 3 – 6: Moratorium. RFA’s can sign offer sheets.
  • Aug. 6: Moratorium period ends; teams can begin signing players and completing trades.
  • Aug. 8-17: Las Vegas Summer League

10) What are LeBron and AD’s summer plans?

All those words and dollars aside, the Lakers’ priority remains LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Yes, the Lakers need to improve the supporting cast and the minutes without LeBron on the court, but as this season proved, everything is moot without their superstars in peak condition.

“The No. 1 thing for us is getting AD healthy. That’s No. 1,” James said. “It doesn’t matter what changes we make, if we get big fella healthy and he’s back to what he was before the injury, get my ankle back right – which I 1,000 percent I already know I’ll be 100 percent once the season starts in October. And then go from there. That will put us in the best possible chance to be successful next year.”

This season was especially tough because of the short offseason and burdensome calendar, but health concerns won’t go away with one timely offseason. Charles Barkley’s clowning may be unfair, but Davis is clearly susceptible to re-injury, as his timeline of re-aggravations and exacerbations of ailments this season indicated. He’s missed 71 games over three seasons, and Big Shot Bob isn’t wrong to question his trainer.

James is the most durable player in NBA history not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he’ll be 37 for most of next season.

Both stars are foregoing the Olympics, and I expect them to take a month to drink Lobos and promote Space Jam before ramping up basketball activities. At some point, Davis and James will crush tape and play a pivotal role in roster upgrades, as Pelinka and both stars confirmed.

Then, it’s back to the grind.