The Lakers are front and center of the NBA Draft and the start of free agency


As is often the case, the Los Angeles Lakers are at the center of the NBA offseason for a variety of reasons.

They officially hired broadcaster and podcaster JJ Redick as their next head coach on Monday, a highly scrutinized process that lasted nearly two months. LeBron James’ future hangs in the balance — at least momentarily — even though the Lakers’ operating assumption for months has been that he will return next season. D’Angelo Russell, who noted he has leverage over the Lakers after their playoff elimination in Denver, has the potential to swing LA’s offseason with his $18.7 million player option. As of Wednesday, Los Angeles has access to trade three first-round draft picks for the first time in years and immense pressure to find the right deal.

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Just as things appeared to calm momentarily before Wednesday’s NBA Draft, The Athletic reported on Tuesday that James and Anthony Davis want the Lakers to “go all-in for another elite player” — preferably as soon as this week. Hours later, the New York Knicks traded five first-round picks for Mikal Bridges in a blockbuster deal that signified the Knicks’ all-in approach. It also potentially reset the trade market — a negative for the Lakers, who have relatively limited assets in comparison to some of their competitors — after the Alex Caruso–Josh Giddey swap appeared to lower the price for high-level role players.

The Lakers enter this summer faced with countless questions: Will they make a trade that elevates them to true contender status? Is it a third star? More depth? How will James and Davis feel if LA stands pat? Will that affect James’ free-agency decision? What happens with Russell? Can the Lakers find their latest gem with the No. 17 pick? How, if at all, does Bronny James factor into all of this?

Without further ado, let’s lay out the Lakers’ offseason.

Current projected depth chart

The Lakers have eight players on guaranteed contracts for next season: Davis, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Gabe Vincent, Christian Wood, Jalen Hood-Schifino and Maxwell Lewis.

Here is their projected depth chart with the current group:

Point guard: Vincent, Hood-Schifino
Shooting guard: Reaves, Lewis
Small forward: Vanderbilt
Power forward: Hachimura
Center: Davis, Wood

There is, of course, flexibility with the positioning. Hachimura and Vanderbilt are relatively interchangeable. Davis and Wood can play together in two-big lineups. Reaves can shift down to be the primary ballhandler (and likely would be, anyway). Lewis can theoretically play either wing spot.

The Lakers then have four players with player options: James ($51.4 million), Russell ($18.7 million), Jaxson Hayes ($2.5 million) and Cam Reddish ($2.5 million). Each must decide on their future by Saturday.

Los Angeles also has three players officially entering free agency: Max Christie (restricted), Taurean Prince and Spencer Dinwiddie.

2024 NBA Draft

The Lakers currently have two picks in the 2024 NBA Draft on Wednesday and Thursday: No. 17 in the first round and No. 55 in the second round (via the LA Clippers). They are projected to draft Colorado forward Tristan da Silva at No. 17 and USC guard Bronny James at No. 55 in Sam Vecenie’s latest mock draft.

Given their notable draft track record, and history of draft-day trades, it’s certainly possible the Lakers move up or down in the first round, or trade for another second-round pick.

Wednesday also marks the first day the Lakers will have access to those three tradeable first-round picks in 2024, 2029 and 2031. They also can use pick swaps in 2026, 2028 and 2030.

Lakers’ salary cap

There are numerous ways the Lakers’ offseason can play out, but the most likely scenario is operating as an over-the-cap team that pushes past the luxury tax line ($171.3 million), the first apron (projected at a $178.7 million team salary) and just under the second apron (projected at $189.5 million), depending on the final figures, which will be determined on June 30.

The Lakers will almost certainly stay below the second apron, which effectively acts as a hard cap for most teams given the significant penalties that accompany it. Teams over the second apron, for example, cannot trade first-round picks seven years in the future, lose their midlevel exception, are limited to 100 percent salary-matching in trades and cannot combine multiple players in a deal, among several other restrictions.

Assuming James either re-signs ($49.9 million) or opts in ($51.4 million), the Lakers will have between approximately $153.6 million to $155.1 million in salary with nine players. That’s before factoring in the player options for Russell, Hayes and Reddish, Christie’s restricted free agency (most restricted free agents are retained by their incumbent team), the potential use of the Nos. 17 and 55 picks (or another pick), and the remaining free-agent cap holds for Prince ($5.4 million) and Dinwiddie ($1.9 million).

Here are various salary-cap scenarios for Los Angeles:

Lakers’ salary scenarios

PLAYERS

  

SALARY TOTAL

  

Current eight players

$103,717,825

Current eight + LeBron James

$155,133,763

Current eight + D’Angelo Russell

$122,410,132

Current eight + LeBron + DLo

$173,826,070

Current eight + all four player options

$178,753,962

Current eight + all four player options + No. 17 pick

$182,584,242

The Lakers will likely have one of their two exceptions to spend on a free agent: either the $5.2 million taxpayer midlevel exception or the $12.9 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception (which triggers a hard cap at the first apron). If James opts in or re-signs, and Russell opts in, the Lakers will only have the $5.2 million exception. If James opts in or re-signs, but Russell opts out and leaves, the Lakers will have access to the $12.9 million exception to replace his roster spot. (As always, there are several plausible scenarios, but those two are the most realistic.)

One under-discussed concern: The Lakers could very well face a roster crunch if all four players with player options opt in and they keep their No. 17 pick. At that point, they’d have 13 players under contract, without factoring in the No. 55 pick, any of their own free agents or any potential signings. In that scenario, the only way the Lakers could create roster spots would be by consolidating the roster through multi-player trades.

Roster needs

There are several clear holes based on the projected roster. But assuming James, Christie and Reddish are back — there is less certainty with Hayes and Russell — the Lakers will still need another two-way wing (or two), another ballhandler and another backup big to fill out the rotation. Hayes and Russell can technically fill two of those voids if they opt in.

As The Athletic previously reported, the Lakers are going to be aggressive looking to upgrade the roster via the trade market. However, vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka tempered expectations on Monday about the Lakers making a sizable trade given the trade market and the restraints of the first and second apron.

“If the perfect trade comes along, we can use picks to make it and win a championship, yeah, we’ll do it,” Pelinka said during Redick’s introductory press conference. “Is that trade going to be there? I don’t know. It’s harder in this system to find perfect trades.”

That messaging, while an accurate depiction of the current state of most trade affairs league-wide, is a departure from the optimism Pelinka displayed at the February trade deadline.

If the Lakers don’t make a trade, they will reasonably only have the No. 17 and 55 draft picks, the non-taxpayer midlevel exception or the taxpayer midlevel exception, and veteran’s minimum contracts to improve the roster.

Two-way wings

There is perhaps no position in the modern NBA more important — outside of superstars capable of leading a title team, obviously — than quality 3-and-D wings. At a minimum, it’s the most important role-player position. Players who can defend multiple positions and credibly space the floor are invaluable.

This has been the weakest part of the Lakers’ roster for several years. They have been lacking in two-way contributors on the perimeter since the 2020-21 season, when they last had Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Caruso.

Success in the modern NBA stems from having as many of those types of guys around one’s stars as possible. It’s why the Celtics, Mavericks, Thunder, Timberwolves and Knicks recently had successful regular seasons and advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers have size with the foundation of Davis, James, Hachimura, Vanderbilt and Wood. But outside of Davis, only Vanderbilt is a plus-defender on a nightly basis. The Lakers need more size that can adequately defend.

Ideally, they acquire a third frontcourt starter who is a combination of Hachimura’s offensive skill and strength with Vanderbilt’s defense, athleticism, length and energy. Few of those players exist, though, and those that do are quite difficult to attain. Regardless, they need someone who bridges the offense and defense better. More likely than not, they’ll have to address this need on the trade market, barring an incredible free-agency value.

Russell replacement?

In the scenario that Russell opts out and signs with another team, or is sign-and-traded, the Lakers will need to replace his 18.0 points and 6.3 assists. That could come in the form of more usage for the rest of the rotation, especially Reaves, who took a backseat to Russell in the offensive hierarchy last season, and Vincent, who is a year removed from being the starting point guard during the Miami Heat’s NBA Finals run. Redick also plans to use Davis more as a hub at the elbows and above the arc, which will redistribute some of the offensive responsibilities.

Nonetheless, the Lakers will need to nominally replace Russell with another point guard. They could sign one with an exception or a minimum contract, they could draft one or they could trade for one. But the Lakers will need to enter next season with more than just James, Reaves, Vincent and Hood-Schifino as their primary ballhandlers.

Backup big man

Similar to the wing position, the Lakers have lacked ancillary centers since the trio of Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond and Montrezl Harrell in 2020-21. Since then, the Lakers have had a revolving door of subpar journeymen and aging veterans. This summer, the Lakers should invest in the position more financially, either through the draft, free agency or a trade.

There’s a reasonable possibility that they enter next season with the same center trio of Davis, Wood and Hayes. That’s probably not good enough, though. Wood fizzled out after a decent start. He never carried the offensive load the Lakers envisioned; he didn’t prop up non-Davis lineups. He scored in double figures in only 15 of 56 games and scored 15-plus points in just three games. Hayes replaced him in the pecking order over the final few months of the season but was unable to find a role in the Denver series and is relatively limited defensively, despite his athletic 7-foot frame.

The Lakers could use someone better than both players — at a minimum, a better rim protector and more physical paint force. It would be a bonus if that player could play alongside Davis in productive two-big lineups — looks the Lakers have used sparingly over the past two seasons,

Point-of-attack defense

This is a more niche concern, as the potential combination of Vincent, Christie, Vanderbilt and Reaves could address the Lakers’ point-of-attack concerns. Vincent missed 71 games last season. Vanderbilt missed 53. Christie was marginalized for over half the season. Reaves began the season with dead legs after a deep playoff run and a summer with Team USA. The Lakers were limited, in part, because of factors largely outside of their control. Internal improvement is possible, if not likely.

But an athletic, quick, defensive-minded guard would do wonders from an optionality perspective. That’ll be tough to add given their limited resources, limited roster spots and greater needs elsewhere. (Bronny profiles as that player archetype, but it’s unreasonable to expect him to emerge as a rotation player next season.)

(Photo of D’Angelo Russell: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)



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