Lakers face tough decisions during shortened offseason – Press Enterprise
With the ink still drying on key details of the next NBA season, the offseason will thrust forward with uncommon urgency as teams scramble to ready themselves for the Dec. 1 start of training camp.
For the Lakers, the seven-week break is as short as any team – and yet their stakes as defending champions might be the highest. What do the shortened schedule and new terms mean for them?
While General Manager Rob Pelinka was largely vindicated by the 2020 title run, threading a needle of quick and expensive decisions while maintaining maximum flexibility to keep adding to a championship roster could be even tougher than his calling last summer. While the Lakers’ two key pieces – LeBron James and Anthony Davis – are expected to remain in place, winning around the margins will be a frenetic and delicate exercise as Pelinka and his front office decide who to bring back and where to tinker.
The Lakers are widely expected to retain Davis with a max salary contract worth 30 percent of the salary cap: That translates to $32.7 million next season. Combined with the salaries for James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker, that means more than $95 million of the $109.1 million cap number will be accounted for once Davis’ deal is done.
The Lakers must make tough decisions – or withstand tough decisions by their own free agents and players with contract options for next seasons – in how to use that remaining salary space starting Nov. 20. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9.3 ppg, 38.5 percent 3-point shooting) is widely expected to opt out of his deal ($8.5 million) to test the market after a strong postseason showing. The Lakers can exceed their cap space to re-sign him (“Bird Rights”) but his salary, conservatively into eight figures, will inch them closer to the luxury tax and limited flexibility in building a new team.
Besides Davis and Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers have three other players who can opt in for an additional season. JaVale McGee ($4.2 million) and Avery Bradley ($5 million) are more likely to opt in rather than test free agency and risk securing less money. It’s been reported that Rajon Rondo ($2.67 million) is likely to opt out. While Rondo, 34, found a snug fit on a winning team in the 2020 postseason, the veteran point guard could have options to pursue more money if he chooses.
Key players during the Lakers’ title run are unrestricted free agents, including Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris. Howard is also 34 but proved physically that he can still compete, while Morris’ range as a shooter and versatility as a small-ball center proved critical in several playoff series. It seems likely that both will make more than the veteran’s minimum contracts the Lakers gave them last year.
Even if the Lakers simply try to bring back their core pieces, those costs could add up, inching them close to the luxury tax threshold ($132.6 million). Every dollar spent above the tax ceiling is multiplied, and whether the Lakers are in the tax or not determines the midlevel exception they receive, which they can also use to sign players (the non-taxpayer MLE is more than $9 million; the taxpayer MLE is nearly $6 million).
While it’s been a while since the Lakers were in luxury tax range, it’s not a surprising place for a contender to wind up to keep a championship team together (See “Warriors, Golden State). One of the silver linings of spending big this offseason is the NBA has agreed to lower the tax penalty at the same rate as the loss of revenue this season, meaning the hit for going into the luxury tax will be lessened for those looking to spend this offseason. But since the salary cap also hasn’t risen at the same rate as previous seasons, it could be easier for teams to retain their free agents, putting the Lakers out of the running for the best outside talent available.
Seldom-used role players – Jared Dudley and Dion Waiters – will also hit the market, although the Lakers will likely face less competition if they want to bring back anyone from that group. Quinn Cook has a non-guaranteed deal ($3 million) that the team seems likely to shed after he played just 24 playoff minutes.
Another critical decision looms slightly after free agency when the Lakers will have the opportunity to offer a contract extension to Kyle Kuzma, who would otherwise become a restricted free agent in 2021. Before last season, he seemed poised to emerge as perhaps the third-best player on the team, but an uneven regular season and a muted playoff role skewed the sense of his value to the Lakers’ future.
While he has had big games as a scorer off the bench and his defense in the postseason was improved, it will be tricky for the Lakers to determine how much value the 25-year-old has to a potential dynasty led by Davis, who plays his position. And the negotiations are further complicated by whatever the Lakers’ intentions are for the 2021 offseason, when they get out from under several existing contracts and can potentially hunt for more big-name free agents.
The Lakers have a chance to add talent in the Nov. 18 draft, though a relatively weak class will limit the value of a late first-round pick (No. 28 overall) for a win-now contender. That said, the Lakers have a history of bringing in useful talent in that range in the draft (Kuzma, Josh Hart, Mo Wagner, Thomas Bryant) and might rely on a proven scouting department to find either someone who is a ready role player or a trade piece who can be packaged for a veteran.
Typically, the Lakers would have the luxury of weeks to make all these decisions and balance the cap. This time, they’ll have days – a tricky equation even for a front office coming down from championship euphoria.