LA Lakers Take a Big Step Toward Building a Superteam

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterFebruary 9, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) tries to get past Indiana Pacers' Paul George (13) in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won 113-104. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers will have a seat at the table this summer in the pursuit of LeBron James and Paul George.

On Thursday, executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka made the necessary moves to open enough cap room this summer to build a superteam.

The price was Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., traded before Thursday's deadline to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In return, the Lakers received 2016-17 All-Star Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye—coach Luke Walton's former Arizona teammate—along with the Cavaliers' 2018 first-round pick (top-three protected).

Dating back to the summer, the Lakers were internally confident they would be able to move Clarkson's contract ($25.9 million over the next two seasons) when the time was right and get a first-round pick in return.

That faith was well-placed, even at the cost of Nance, expendable with the emergence of rookie Kyle Kuzma.

What Thomas and Frye bring to the floor this season may give the Lakers (23-31) an outside chance at a playoff run, but they'll need to overtake three teams—likely the New Orleans Pelicans (28-25), Los Angeles Clippers (27-25) and Utah Jazz (26-28)—to do so.

LOS ANGELES, CA -NOVEMBER 15: Jordan Clarkson #6 and Larry Nance Jr. #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers high five each other after the game against the Brooklyn Nets on November 15, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

That may be too much to ask, but that's not why the Lakers made the deal. Thomas and Frye have expiring contracts, and the Lakers now have only five players with guaranteed salaries for next season (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Luol Deng and Kuzma).

Assuming the Cavaliers finish with the 24th overall pick in the draft (the pick they'd have if the season ended today), and with the NBA's current projection of a $101 million salary cap for 2017-18, the Lakers would reach $59.8 million in cap space this July simply by letting their free agents and non-guaranteed players walk (Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Julius Randle, Corey Brewer, Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant, Thomas and Frye).

That's enough to give max contracts to two players with seven to nine years of NBA experience like DeMarcus Cousins and George, who can both earn up to $30.3 million for next season. With Cousins recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, James (with George) is the real target. The Cavaliers star is eligible to be paid up to $35.3 million with the Lakers in 2018-19.

To get both James and George, the franchise would have to get out of the Deng's unsightly contract ($36.8 million over the next two years).

One option is to use the stretch provision to stretch out his remaining salary over the next five seasons at $7.4 million a year. That would hurt the team's flexibility in the future but also help the Lakers get to about $69.6 million in space, enough to sign James and George while keeping both Zubac and Bryant with an additional $4.4 million to spare.

If Pelinka and Johnson want to get creative, they can offer Deng a partially guaranteed three-year extension, giving him a little extra cash to stretch out his salary over 11 years. If they knocked down the Deng obligation to $3.9 million annually, the Lakers could attempt to keep Randle, Caldwell-Pope or Lopez with a starting salary of $9.1 million.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 19:  Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers before the game against the LA Clippers during the game on October 19, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Lopez would give the Lakers a true center to play with Ball, George, Ingram and James, with Kuzma and Hart off the bench. Randle, as a small-ball option, would probably want to gauge the free-agent market before committing to that salary, which could get in the way of the Lakers' timing.

Caldwell-Pope is represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, James' agent and longtime confidant. He may not be an ideal roster fit, but he could be part of the cost of luring James.

If Los Angeles is able to package the Cavaliers' first-rounder with Deng in a trade to a team that has cap room, the Lakers would be able to keep Randle—a restricted free agent (with a $12.4 million cap hold until signed)—along with Bryant and Zubac.

Or the team could let Randle leave and instead re-sign Caldwell-Pope, Lopez or another free agent altogether.

The Lakers can also move one of their own first-rounders (starting with the 2019 draft) instead of the Cavaliers' pick if the Cleveland pick isn't enough to entice a team to take on Deng's salary in a trade.

Once the Lakers' cap space is spent, the team will gain a room exception at roughly $4.4 million. Would that be enough to keep Lopez or Caldwell-Pope? Maybe not, but not many teams will have cap room this summer. The chance to play with James and George might appeal to the veterans hungry to be a part of a winning franchise.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 2: Brandon Ingram #14 and Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates after the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on February 2, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Would James or George be willing to take a little bit less from the Lakers to help flesh out the rest of the roster? Are they willing to come at all?

There are too many questions to answer, but the Lakers gave themselves the flexibility needed this summer.

Neither Johnson nor Pelinka knows how this will go, even if they believe strongly they'll succeed.

Both have suggested recently that if they don't get the two max players they desire, they can wait until July 2019, but then the Lakers will need to mind their salary to make sure they have the cap room the following summer.

If they fail, they dumped quality young players like D'Angelo Russell, Nance and Clarkson with little to show for it.

In the meantime, the franchise took a big step forward in their trade with the Cavaliers.

Now, when July hits, they need to close the deal.

    

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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