The Los Angeles Lakers are nearly through yet another disappointing season, and now have 61 wins combined over the past three years — just slightly ahead of the Golden Warriors’ win-count for the current campaign.
The Lakers’ primary hope for a quick turnaround is luring a pair of top free agents this summer — with the biggest prize of all being Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant.
The challenge for the Lakers will be convincing Durant to leave a contending team to join a squad heading for a third straight lottery appearance.
That’s a hurdle the Lakers may not be able to overcome.
Two Max Slots
The NBA’s national television deal will push the salary cap to at least $90 million next season, up from the current year’s $70 million. The spike in league income could enable over 20 teams to have at least one max slot for a free agent like Durant.
To the Lakers’ favor, they are on the short list of four or five teams with room for two mid-tier, maximum-salaried players.
Durant is in the second max tier for veterans with seven to nine years of experience. His starting salary will jump from the $20 million he’s earning from the Thunder this season, to approximately $26 million.
The Lakers would be in position to pay Durant, and still have at least $30 million to spend.
The top available players could include LeBron James (player option), Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan (player option), Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond (restricted), Bradley Beal (restricted), Nicolas Batum, Mike Conley, Harrison Barnes (restricted) and Ryan Anderson, among others.
James will presumably return to the Cleveland Cavaliers (although nothing in the NBA is a true lock). Restricted free agents are difficult to acquire, given their current teams have the right of first refusal.
Contracts for lower-tier max players like Whiteside, Barnes, Beal and Drummond can start as high as roughly $21 million. James is in the highest range, starting at near $30 million, but most prime free agents are in the same middle bracket as Durant.
While the city of Los Angeles and the Lakers’ voluminous, international fanbase are assets, the franchise has not been successful in landing high-level free agents in recent years like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe, Carmelo Anthony and James.
Ultimately the timing just wasn’t right, with Kobe Bryant at the tail end of his career and the Lakers’ youth movement still in its infancy.
The Lakers do have an emerging core of players, featuring guards D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, and forwards Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown, but they are all just beginning to establish themselves in the NBA.
The team may also have the chance to add another high-level, young prospect in June’s 2016 NBA Draft, with LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram as the early consensus top two picks.
The first challenge for the Lakers will be to get through May’s draft lottery to keep their selection. They currently have 55.8 percent odds at a top-three pick, as the second-worst overall team in the league. If the lottery balls drop the Lakers to fourth or below, their selection will be conveyed to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the ill-fated Steve Nash trade.
It’s presumptive to assume Durant would jump ship for the Lakers, even if they signed an All-Star center like Horford, to join Simmons, Russell, Randle and Clarkson, etc.
Durant will be 28 years old before next season, and may be too impatient to bank on the Lakers’ core maturing ahead of schedule.
Trade the Kids?
If the Lakers are truly driven to land Durant, they may be better served to package some of their young players, and possibly the 2016 pick (after the draft), for a high-level veteran.
Guessing the trade market is far trickier than looking at a list of known free agents.
Targets like DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento Kings), Jimmy Butler (Chicago Bulls), Jeff Teague (Atlanta Hawks) or Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks) in June could make the Lakers more appealing to free agents in July.
For example, if the Lakers were able to move veterans Lou Williams and Nick Young, along with Randle and their 2016 first-round pick to Sacramento for Cousins, the Lakers would still have almost $60 million in spending power to build around Cousins, Russell, Nance, Brown and Clarkson (a restricted free agent with a $2.7 million cap hold).
Durant would give the Lakers more serious consideration, provided the team already had an All-Star like Cousins in the fold — although guessing in March what he chooses in July is foolhardy.
As recently detailed by Basketball Insiders’ Tommy Beer, Durant has incentive to sign a two-year contract this season, with an opt out in the second year (often called a one-plus-one).
The NBA’s salary cap is expected to make yet another jump in 2017, exactly when Durant reaches 10 years of NBA experience.
If Durant signs a long-term deal this summer, he’ll earn in the $27-28 million range in 2017-18. Opting out of a one-plus one, Durant would be eligible to sign a deal starting at roughly $36 million.
Durant may like the idea of locking in a secure multi-year contract, but the economics suggest a one-plus-one is the way to go.
Doing so in Oklahoma City would give the Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka/Durant core one last run before all three hit free agency in 2017.
Durant could also choose to take a one-plus-one with another team, but that franchise would need about $36 million in cap space, limiting spending power, even with a second-straight salary cap spike.
What specifically drives Durant’s decision remains to be seen. He may prefer to lock in long-term money.
Additionally, the NBA and the NBA Players Union can both opt out the current Collective Bargaining Agreement before the 2017-18 season. Any projections beyond next season assumes a new deal is reached with similar terms, which may not be the case.
Does Byron Scott Help Land Durant?
Scott has coached the Lakers to obscurity through his tenure with the Lakers. He hasn’t had a viable roster with a massive spate of injuries through his first year, and this season’s group is largely inexperienced — while Bryant is clearly a diminished player as he goes through his NBA farewell tour.
How much Scott has helped or hindered in the development of Russell, Clarkson and Randle may prove immaterial, if the right coach helps recruit top talent. Former Thunder coach Scott Brooks has an established relationship with Durant. The Lakers need to consider Brooks as a possible draw. Scott has one more season on his contract, but the Lakers were willing to get out of their deals with Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown early.
If Brooks is the path to Durant, then the team needs to move on from Scott, despite his long relationship with the team-owning Buss family.
Wait Until 2017?
Durant is the closest available player in star power to the retiring Bryant. No other free agent is close, unless James decides to abandon Cleveland for a second time.
If Durant choses to stay with Oklahoma City on a one-plus-one, the Lakers may spend conservatively enough to maintain roughly $36 million in space for the summer of 2017.
At that point, the list of stars grows to include the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, along with Westbrook and possibly Durant.
Instead, in the absence of Durant, the Lakers may choose to pursue players like DeRozan and Whiteside.
Competition will be tough this summer. The Lakers hold some advantages but they may not be enough for the franchise to make a great leap forward.
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