The clock eventually will hit 3 p.m. PT Friday and all the back-channel conversations, the prediction models and speculation will converge into action.
Teams will change. Players will move. Money will be spent. Dream rosters will get built. Hope will sprout.
It’s hard to know exactly how matters will play out. Separating rumor from fact this time of year is almost as difficult as building a championship team. And things can change in a blink (i.e. James Harden). But we have an informed idea as to how it could end up looking for the Lakers as they try to build on their appearance in the Western Conference finals.
Here are the big questions:
Will the Lakers use the full midlevel exception? This idea started to pick up steam over the last week or so as the team examined options following the draft. When the Lakers couldn’t find a deal they liked with Malik Beasley and/or Mo Bamba’s contracts on draft night, they were operating as a team with access to the full non-taxpayer midlevel exception. That plan solidified Thursday when the team waived Bamba before his $10.3 million contract became guaranteed and declined the team option on Beasley for next season. Those moves sent the clearest signal that the Lakers probably will use the MLE and put themselves under a hard cap at $172 million.
That $12.4 million exception could get the Lakers a seat at the table with some impact free agents — Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, Denver’s Bruce Brown and Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo are all possibilities for teams with the midlevel exception.
The other option for the Lakers would be to carve that $12.4 million into pieces and target a large group of players that could include Dennis Schroder, Georges Niang, Jevon Carter, Eric Gordon, Taurean Prince, Joe Ingles, Yuta Watanabe, Trey Lyles and Seth Curry.
Schroder, the lone pending Lakers free agent on this list, is expected to have strong interest after being one of the NBA’s biggest bargains last season. A reunion with Billy Donovan in Chicago is one possibility that would keep him from coming back to the Lakers.
But to answer the question, yes, it seems as if that midlevel will be used.
Is there a team that will test the Lakers on Austin Reaves or Rui Hachimura? You don’t have to be that cynical to see why the Lakers have been so effusive in their praise for Reaves and Hachimura. On one hand, Reaves became the Lakers third-best player in a run that extended into his first postseason and Hachimura flourished in the spotlight in the playoffs. On the other hand, by telling everyone they’re planning to match whatever offer is presented for one of the restricted free agents, the Lakers might’ve suppressed the markets on both.
The big mystery is with Reaves, who will play for Team USA this summer and has probably fully graduated from underdog story to NBA starter. He’s certainly worth more than the $52 million or so the Lakers can offer over four years (a three-year deal with a player option seems as if it could be the end game here). But because of the rules of restricted free agency, for Reaves to get more a different team has to offer it.
Houston has long been rumored to have interest in Reaves and, now with Harden headed for a trade, maybe the Rockets put the Lakers to the test. A more often cited destination is San Antonio as the Spurs start to build their team around No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama.
Those teams, in addition to their evaluation of Reaves, have to weigh the cons of signing him to an offer sheet they know the Lakers will match, which has been the messaging so far. It’s very up in the air whether that kind of an offer will materialize despite Reaves’ play in his second NBA season.
What are the arguments for keeping D’Angelo Russell? Russell’s free agency is certainly more bizarre than that of Reaves’ or Hachimura’s, with the 27-year-old guard coming off his second stint with the Lakers that resulted in two things. One, he helped lead a team to the Western Conference finals. Two, he did little to answer some of the biggest questions about him.
His durability down the stretch, especially as Schroder played through multiple ankle injuries, was a concern in the locker room. Although he had plenty of highs during the Lakers’ playoff run, his lows were loud — ending with him moving to the bench in Game 4 against Denver.
But what exactly are the alternatives? For both parties?
“Looking at the [point guard] class,” one Eastern Conference executive texted, “it’s quite s—.”
There probably isn’t a team with aspirations as high as the Lakers that has a need for Russell, and there’s probably not a point guard on the market for the Lakers that shoots and creates plays as well. And if the market is as soft on Russell as it appears as of Thursday afternoon, maybe the Lakers get themselves a good deal.
It’s not the most romantic love story of all time, but practicality has it’s place in society too.
The Lakers crushed it on the minimum market last year. Can they do it again? It’s going to be tough. The Phoenix Suns will make sure of that.
As they locked themselves into limited flexibility after trading for Bradley Beal, they’re going to be filling their roster with plenty of players on minimums. The Suns offer quite the recruiting pitch too — play for a contender for one season, get a lot of opportunity and live somewhere warm.
As for the Lakers, Tristan Thompson, Wenyen Gabriel and Troy Brown all could be contenders to return. The team could look to former LeBron James teammate Kevin Love. (Wow, is this really the first mention of James? No one thinks he’s retiring, FYI.)
Cam Reddish, whom the Lakers kicked around last year before the trade deadline, probably will be a target too. Of course, maybe the Lakers get lucky and someone from the upper list sees their market dry up and L.A. gets a bargain as it did with Schroder a year ago.
But replicating success with the NBA’s cheapest free-agent contracts is pretty tough.
So, what about the West? The Lakers have done a good job presenting a plan that’s not too reactionary to their competitors in the West.
Having just suffered through a season-plus with an unbalanced roster thanks to three massive contracts, the Lakers haven’t been blindly star-chasing to keep up with the Suns, to catch the Nuggets or to even hold pace with the possible future home of James Harden, the Clippers.
The team and vice president of basketball operations/general manager Rob Pelinka seem united on this front, despite the siren song whenever an ill-fitting all-NBA type of player hits the market. So far, they’ve resisted — both because of the past and because of self-awareness when it comes to how little they can offer.
Pelinka has said the Lakers are targeting players who can succeed in coach Darvin Ham’s system, meaning you can expect them to key on defenders and shooters (ideally both) when reviewing last season’s roster, which was full of players who succeeded in Ham’s system.
The Lakers haven’t made any major headlines this summer, but those don’t matter much. The commitment to improvement, even if modest, seem to be their guiding force.
Staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.