In the 31 years between 1980 and 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers played in the NBA Finals 16 times. Out of those 16 attempts, they captured the NBA Championship 10 times. That means in any given year for a little over 3 decades, that season had a 50% chance of ending with the Lakers winning the West and a 33% chance of a Lakers title. That’s a mind-blowing level of success and domination of a major sport. While the Celtics continue to hold a one championship edge over the Lakers, LA most certainly is THE team of the NBA.
Being a professional team based in Los Angeles obviously holds certain advantages, and the Lakers over the years have leveraged those to the max. They lured Wilt Chamberlain away from the Philadelphia Warriors, when he was fresh off of an NBA Championship in 1967. Wilt would lead them to a title in 1972, the franchise’s first since moving to LA.
3 years later, after Wilt and Jerry West had hung it up, the Lakers struck again. This time, it was finessing MVP and NBA Champion Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) from Milwaukee. A few short years later, Kareem would team up with an outstanding young PG from Lansing, MI and the rest was history.
In the 1990s, the Lakers then set their sights on a young, world-shattering force by the name of Shaquille O’Neal. And once again, they were successful. It took some mind-numbingly-stupid negotiating from the Magic for it all to come to fruition, but when the dust cleared, the only guy to lead his team past Michael Jordan in the playoffs in the 90s was in Laker purple and gold.
Now here we are in 2018, and the Lakers are once again in position to do what they do, but with possibly the biggest fish yet on the hook: LeBron James.
The Lakers are currently sitting with $62 million in cap space (if they renounce the rights to all free agents) which is almost enough for them to sign two max free agents. To sign LeBron to the max would require a first year starting salary of million $35.3 and it would be $30.3 million in first year salary for Paul George, the free agent most often linked with the Lakers.
The crudest and most simple way for the Lakers to clear the requisite cap space to sign both PG and LeBron to the maximum they can command (outside of re-signing with their own teams) would be to use the stretch provision on Luol Deng’s contract. This would enable them to spread Deng’s remaining $36.6 million over 5 years. This would drop Deng’s cap number from about $18 million this year (and next) to $7.3 million, which would give the Lakers $72 million in cap space, enough to squeeze LeBron and PG in, with a little bit left over to add a rotation player.
However, that would leave a very misshapen roster. LeBron, PG, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart is a very interesting core of players, but it is extraordinarily young, and greatly lacking in size, even by modern NBA standards.
It’s always better to be more creative …. *GM hat, please*
So the first step of this process is that in order to maximize the next 5 years, the team has to understand what is core to its future. Right now there are 4 key, core players to the Lakers nucleus: Hart, Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma. The reality is that as you add two players with the skill of LeBron and Paul George, usage for these other 4 guys will decrease. For players like Kuzma and Hart, as their usage decreases, their efficiency should increase, as they are more or less role players who get their offense created by others. For guys like Ingram and Ball it’s a little bit stickier. There certainly is precedence for making 4 different ball dominant players work, especially with willing passers like Ball and LeBron, and if the Lakers didn’t have the albatross of Deng on the books, it would be worthwhile to watch these guys all together. However Deng’s contract is just a huge albatross that limits the vision I have for the Lakers roster, and while it may take parting with one of the 4 core players to do so, I think it may be worth it.
Now the popular trade I see out there on the rumor mill is for the Lakers to move Ingram and Deng for Kawhi Leonard. And if that deal is truly available, the Lakers should take it and run. But I’m skeptical that the Spurs will actually pull the trigger on a deal like that, and certainly not between now and mid-July, so I’m going to process this as if that is not an option.
So first step of course is adding Paul George and signing him to the max … A 4 year deal worth approximately $129 million ($30 million first year salary with 5 % raises). This drops the Lakers cap situation to $32 million in space.
The next move would be inking C DeAndre Jordan to a 4-year $86 million dollar deal. This requires a $20 million first year salary with 5% raises. Now many may think that this is a below market deal for Jordan, but when you scan the market it really is not. Because the NBAPA decided not to smooth out the cap and jumped it massively (which coincidentally is why the Warriors were able to add Kevin Durant to a 73 win team), teams gave out large contracts and acted as if the cap would rise exponentially each year. They were wrong. The cap has been flat the last few years and because of that, very few teams are working with cap space this offseason. Honestly, the only teams that I can see as viable options for Jordan, other than the Lakers are his current team, the Clippers and the Mavericks, the team he last left jilted at the altar. Neither seems likely to me. Joining the Lakers with a deal that gives him a $20+ million dollar salary until he is 32, staying in the city of LA, and being able to compete for a title seems like a good move for his future and his legacy. Honestly, whether the Lakers get LeBron or not, Jordan to the other LA team just seems logical.
Third, with $10 million, the Lakers should sign Avery Bradley to a 3 year 31.5 million dollar deal, with an opt-out after year 2. Now, that deal is a lot less than I think he anticipated getting a year or two ago. But the market, as I mentioned earlier, is very flat. Very few teams have in excess of $10 million in cap space, and those that do are either in a different stage of team formation, or are focused on bigger fish than Bradley. I suspect he will get some mid level exception offers, but the MLE will come in at under $10 million most likely. This deal beats those offers, and once again offers the opportunity to play for a contender.
Finally, with the remaining 4.4 million (2 million left over from initial cap space + 2.4 million in roster spot cap holds freed up by signing 3 players) the Lakers can sign a veteran big man like Ed Davis or Alex Len to help flesh things out.
Soooo … you may be confused …. The Lakers just used all of their cap space to sign free agents and none of them were LeBron … Yes, that is because when managing the cap, you have to understand how to leverage your assets … And so instead of trying to sign LeBron outright, the better move would be to execute a sign-and trade for someone already on the roster. And so the next move would be to trade Luol Deng + Lonzo Ball to the Cavs for LeBron in a sign-and trade.
With Deng at a cap value of $18 million and Ball at a cap value of $7.45 million, the Lakers would be sending out $25.5 million in salary. As a result, LeBron’s maximum first year salary would need to be $31.85 million (trades can only be 125% of the salary you send out + 100k) so he would be leaving about $3.5 million on the table. But if it was only about money he would just re-sign in CLE anyway. LeBron could ink a 2 year 65 million dollar deal with his customary opt-out option after year 1 to maximize his flexibility and earning power.
While some LA fans, especially LaVar Ball, would balk at having to give up Lonzo for LeBron, it makes sense as structuring things this way allows the Lakers to make the other transactions discussed and acquire all of these other players (who all have specific reasons for being acquired). Besides that, Ball would be at best the 4th banana in LA, and as a guy that thrives as a playmaker with the ball in his hands, he would not be as productive as most fans expect anyway. To fit around the core of guys that LA would be assembling, you would need a 3 and D guy to occupy the traditional point guard slot, and that is not exactly Lonzo’s game (strong defender but he is an atrocious shooter at this level so far).
For Cleveland, although they would have to eat Deng’s salary, they would be getting a young building block back in Ball for an out-the door LeBron, and he would be able to thrive in a low pressure environment. As I detailed in the Spurs post, Cleveland won’t have cap flexibility until 2020 anyway, so Deng does not really limit them in that respect. Aside from all of that, I would LOVE to see the interactions between Lavar and Dan Gilbert !
(Now, there is a version of this where the Lakers can keep Ball … If they stretched Deng’s contract (($10.7 million)), did not sign Bradley or Davis (($14 million)), either convinced Jordan to take $5 million less or signed Derrick Favors for $15 million (($5 million)) and convinced PG to take $2 million less (($2 million)) you could then try and convince LeBron to come for just under $32 million .. But with a downgrade at C, carrying Deng’s deal for 5 more seasons, no Bradley , and having to convince LeBron AND PG to take pay shaves ?? … Not worth it to keep Lonzo)
Now about putting this roster together … Because if you could not surmise, the construction of this roster was built with defeating the juggernaut that is the Warriors in mind. Here is the 8-man rotation:
C – Jordan/ Davis
F – LeBron/ Kuzma
F – Ingram/ (Kuzma)
G – George/ Hart
G – Bradley/(Hart)
That should be a truly terrifying roster for the Warriors. Jordan at C nullifies the “Hamptons Lineup” because you cannot get away with Draymond Green trying to keep Jordan off the glass. In addition to that, Jordan’s presence as a rim protector allows the other defenders to be more aggressive and truly clamp down on the perimeter. Jordan will thrive playing off of LeBron as well as he has similar passing chops to Jordan’s old running mate CP3. If LeBron could make Tristan Thompson look good as a pick and roll lob finisher, imagine him with DJ.
Playing LeBron as a point PF allows him to defend Draymond on defense, a player he can help off of as opposed to wasting energy guarding the Warriors better scorers. Offensively, he has a great mix in Ingram and George, of guys that can create their own shot without LeBron but are also dead eye shooters who can create space for LeBron’s drives and knock down open jumpers when he gets them those shots. Bradley is also a solid shooter, who excels at moving without the ball off of screens and and would do well playing off of LeBron.
With Ingram and George matching up with Klay Thompson and Durant, they would certainly make those guys work on both ends. And Bradley is the PERFECT defender for a guy like Steph Curry. He has elite quickness, a 6″11 wingspan and a bulldog mentality to really harass Steph.
Off the bench, Kuzma and Hart are excellent role players who are young and can mix and match well with the starters. Hart is a lot like Bradley and can play both guard spots and the wing, with strong defense and excellent long-range shooting. Kuzma can be asmall ball five and can play alongside/rest both Ingram and LeBron. And Ed Davis is an excellent back-up C that is another tremendous low post presence defensively and on the glass, but can also move better than the typical back-up C. He may potentially get a bigger deal than what the Lakers are offering, and if so they could grab Len, who is better offensively, but not as good on the defensive end. That’s a strong 8 man rotation, and the Lakers could just fill in the loose ends with veterans chasing rings or low-cost young players looking for a chance ala the Warriors.
If the Lakers follow my guidelines … They will be 2019 NBA Champions. For the record, I think LA is going to be the final destination for LeBron, but they may not follow this exact blueprint. …. They should though lol … Let me know what you think !