On Sunday, Klutch Sports Group announced that LeBron James would be joining the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year, $154 million contract. With that announcement, the Lakers became the big winners of 2018 free agency. However, it’s now just Tuesday and things have since dampened a bit for the Lakers.
Let’s be clear: coming to terms with LeBron James when he is still performing at historic levels, even without having to lure him in by first adding another star player, is a major coup for the Lakers. This is especially true considering that James agreed to a multi-year deal, which is something he was not willing to do with Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But when a player of James’ caliber joins a new team, there is a general understanding, even expectation that other quality players will flock to that player and try to put together a contender (often at a discounted rate).
That process has started to play itself out for the Lakers, but not as many people in and around the NBA expected. First, it is a bit surprising how quickly the Lakers agreed to terms with Lance Stephenson (one year, $4.5 million) and JaVale McGee (one year, veteran’s minimum) – two players who have talent but are more often in the news for making silly mistakes rather than highlight worthy plays. The Lakers also agreed to a one-year, $12 million contract with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is a quality player that can contribute on both ends of the court.
It was then reported that the Lakers had renounced Julius Randle, making him an unrestricted free agent. This was immediately followed by the announcement that Rajon Rondo agreed to a one-year, $9 million deal with the Lakers. Then, late-Monday, it was reported that the Golden State Warriors came to terms on a contract to replace McGee with DeMarcus Cousins – a move that sent shockwaves across the entire NBA.
While Rondo has demonstrated that he can still contribute, especially as a passer, his defense and shooting are still severe limitations in his game. As it stands, Lonzo Ball is arguably a more competent lead guard as he is bigger, a better defender (by far), a gifted passer and, while he is an inconsistent shooter, he normally draws more defensive pressure from distance than Rondo.
Additionally, with Kawhi Leonard potentially available in trade discussions during the upcoming season, it benefits the Lakers to showcase Ball as much as possible and increase his potential value in trade discussions. If Rondo outplays Ball in any significant manner, it may deflate Ball’s value on the market and make it more difficult to swing a deal for Leonard. While the Lakers could opt to pass on dealing for Leonard in order to sign him in 2019 as a free agent, there are increasing reports that Leonard may be open to signing with the Los Angeles Clippers as an alternative to joining LeBron and the Lakers. As we saw with Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder, there is value in making a deal for a star player before he hits the free agent market.
The saving grace is that Rondo’s contract is for one year, meaning it won’t compromise the Lakers’ cap space for next offseason. The same can be said about McGee, Caldwell-Pope and Stephenson’s respective contracts but it does seem as though the Lakers paid a premium on players that other teams weren’t bending over backward to sign.
At this point, it seems as though there was more upside to trying to keep Randle than making moves for players whose respective reputations don’t match up to their actual production. It was possible for the Lakers to retain Randle on a one-year deal with an inflated salary, exceeding the $9 million he will be making annually on his two year agreement with the New Orleans Pelicans. Randle certainly wanted a deal that went beyond a single season, which the Lakers wanted to avoid, but Randle brings more value to the Lakers than any of the players they signed, which is important to consider when you are trying to maximize the remaining years of James’ career.
Perhaps the Lakers weren’t locks to land quality free agents like Tyreke Evans or DeMarcus Cousins. However, it seems that they could have made more cost-effective and well-reasoned acquisitions. For example, Seth Curry agreed to terms on a two-year, $2.75 million contract with the Portland Trail Blazers. Curry’s improved playmaking and shooting make him a solid fit for a Lakers team that is in dire need of more shooters and spacing. Furthermore, Evans agreed to terms on a one year, $12 million contract with the Indiana Pacers. Evans is coming off a resurgent season in which he averaged 19.4 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds over 52 regular season games. Evans was hampered with injuries at the end of the season but he was also being held out of games as the Memphis Grizzlies fielded offers to acquire Evans mid-season. Evans offers the same sort of skill set as Stephenson but at a higher level and without the on-court antics.
It is very likely that Lakers’ front office discussed these deals with James and his representatives prior to finalizing them, which means he doesn’t have the same concerns that many people outside of the Lakers’ organization do. However, there should be concern that at age 33, James will compete against an absurdly deep Western Conference and a Warriors team that seems to be more stacked with talent than ever before. James may have chosen to sign with the Lakers for reasons outside of competing for a championship as early as this season, but maximizing the team’s ability to compete during the final years LeBron’s career should be the main priority. Considering the moves the Lakers made after coming to terms with LeBron, it’s not clear they have done that this offseason. It is especially concerning that the Lakers couldn’t convince Paul George to meet with them before deciding to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Again, we cannot underestimate how significant it is that LeBron James is now a Laker. However, it is a bit disappointing that the Lakers followed up this momentous occasion by adding players that don’t maximize LeBron’s chances of competing for a championship this upcoming season.
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