Fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, and Chicago Bulls, have ALL been waiting with bated breath for free agents LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and to a much lesser degree–Pau Gasol–to make their respective decisions about which NBA team to sign with this off-season. Making the claim that the decisions that these big-name free agents are about to make will potentially alter the course of NBA history for the next 10 to 15 years is not hyperbole. LeBron James back in Cleveland, with Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins? Chris Bosh teaming up with Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston? Carmelo Anthony returning to the Knicks and taking Pau Gasol with him? Those would be some pretty serious changes to the NBA landscape.
But here at LASportsHub, we care first and foremost about the Lakers! So with that being said, let’s just turn our attention to the Purple and Gold, and what the summer of 2014 has in store for the NBA’s premier franchise. The Lakers entered this off-season with a very straight-forward Plan A/Plan B–sign LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or BOTH, with the understanding that Pau would re-sign with the team in either scenario. At this point, there have been NO indications, whatsoever, that despite the apparently impressive sales pitch that Lakers General Manger Mitch Kupchak made to LeBron’s agent Rich Paul in Cleveland last week, that LeBron was seriously considering the Lakers as a landing spot. There are certainly a number of reasons why LeBron wouldn’t seriously consider the Lakers as an option, even if Carmelo was willing to accept a lower annual salary in order for the Lakers to sign both. If anything, it seems that LeBron’s agent agreeing to meet with Mitch Kupchak was simply a matter of due diligence and courtesy.
In other words, we can cross LeBron off the Lakers’ wish list. And, as I’m writing this article, all major media outlets (and LeBron James’ own website) have now confirmed that LeBron has in fact decided to return home to Cleveland and play for the Cavaliers again. [As a side note, I'm very happy about this on a personal level--I believe that there's something really special about one of the best professional athletes on the planet playing for his home-town team, but I digress, momentarily.]
So where does that leave the Lakers? Carmelo or bust? Not quite! But before I get to the Lakers’ Plan C, let me address the Lakers’ Plan A/Plan B with Carmelo as the centerpiece. Carmelo is undeniably one of the best players in the NBA. Among other achievements, he is the ONLY player other than Larry Bird to ever average 27 points and 8 rebounds in a season while shooting 40% or higher from beyond the arc. That’s pretty impressive. That being said, Carmelo was offered a four-year/$97 million contract from the Lakers, with his 2014-15 salary being $22.46 million–hello, Melo…good bye, cap space! Yes, the Lakers have always been about superstar players, but Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Carmelo Anthony for the next two seasons with ALL three players being at least 30 years old? Hard to see how that trio could win a championship–and that’s assuming that Kobe and Pau will stay healthy…which is far from a sure thing, at this point.
That brings us to Plan C. Now with LeBron having just made his decision to return to Cleveland this morning, expect Carmelo, Bosh, and Pau to make their decisions within the next 24 hours. If Carmelo does in fact decide to return to New York, or go to Chicago, the Lakers have to quickly execute Plan C. As it stands right now, the Lakers have four players under contract for 2014-15, and two draft picks (Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson) that will be signed in short order. The players under contract (with their respective salaries for next season) are: Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Steve Nash ($9.7 million), Robert Sacre ($900,000), and Kendall Marshall ($900,000). The salary cap for 2014-15 is expected to be $63.2 million. While that would appear to leave about $28 million in cap space, it’s not quite so simple. Until Pau is either re-signed, signs with another team, or the Lakers renounce their rights to him, he accounts for a $20 million cap hold. In other words, the Lakers have to resolve Pau’s free agency situation before anything else happens.
If Pau is signed to a relatively modest two-year/$15-18 million contract, then the Lakers would have close to $19 million in cap space minus cap holds for all of their other free agents, or if said players are renounced, for the minimum salary allowed (i.e. $507,000) for the minimum amount of players that must be signed to any NBA roster (i.e. 13). What can the Lakers do with $19 million? Well, for one, they can sign 25-year-old point guard, and restricted free agent, Isaiah Thomas (who has already publicly announced that he would LOVE to play for the Lakers), and 23-year-old fiery shooting guard Lance Stephenson. Thomas has already reportedly received a three-year/$24 million contract offer from the Detroit Pistons, and apparently, the Sacramento Kings are only willing to offer him about $6 million per year for four years. Stephenson, who is an unrestricted free agent, has reportedly received a five-year/$44 million contract offer from the Pacers to stay in Indiana. Stephenson is reportedly looking for a better deal.
That’s where the Lakers come in to the picture. Kobe Bryant already admitted a few days ago that the Lakers have a Plan B and that, “Plan B is a solid plan. You just have to play the waiting game a little bit and see how things shake out.” I can’t really speak for Kobe, but my guess is that his Plan B is my Plan C. I could be wrong, but let’s just go ahead and map out the Lakers’ Plan C roster for 2014-15 as the alternative to landing Carmelo Anthony. If the Lakers can sign Thomas for somewhere in the neighborhood of the three-year/$24 million offer made by the Pistons, and then sign Stephenson for somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and $50 million (which is $6 million more overall than the Pacers’ offer Stephenson has already apparently rejected). That would give the Lakers their back-court of the future for about $18 million in 2014-15. That fits within the $19 million in cap space the Lakers would have after re-signing Pau for 2 years and up to $18 million.
As that would only leave the Lakers with about $1 million in cap space, the team would most likely need to trade Nash’s $9.7 million salary OR waive him via the stretch provision, which would clear about $6.46 million in cap space. With that additional cap space, the Lakers could sign their draft picks, and a number of players at veteran’s minimum salaries. Players like Kent Bazemore, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, and Jordan Hill may or may not be able to re-sign for more than the veteran’s minimum depending on the total amount of the Thomas, Stephenson, and Pau contracts, combined. Again, ALL of those players currently figure in the Lakers’ cap space due to cap holds, and the Lakers may have to renounce some, or all, of those players in order to ensure that they can sign Pau, Thomas, and Stephenson.
Why would the Lakers want Thomas and Stephenson, you ask? In 2013-14, Thomas averaged (per game) 20.3 points, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, shot 45.3% from the field, 34.9% from beyond the arc, and 85% from the free throw line. The ONLY other point guards to average at least 20 points and 6 assists per game were Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving…that’s pretty good company. Last season, Stephenson averaged (per game) 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, shot 49.1% from the field, and 35.2% from beyond the arc. The ONLY other PLAYER in the NBA to average at least 13.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, per game, last season? Kevin Durant. Again, that’s pretty good company.
I know that both the Lakers, and their fans, are always clamoring for superstar players. With the Lakers’ history, who can blame them for always having that expectation? The reality is, however, that the Lakers need to get a lot younger, a lot more athletic, and they need to do it now! Having a young core of Isaiah Thomas, Lance Stephenson, and Julius Randle, with the leadership of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and perhaps under the coaching guidance of former Lakers great, Byron Scott, sounds a lot more promising than Kobe, Pau, Carmelo, and Randle. Ok, sure, the latter starting line-up doesn’t sound too bad for a year or two if all four players are healthy, but Kobe and Pau have MAJOR injury issues and Randle has a screw in his foot that could require surgery at any moment. No matter what I think, the Lakers’ Plan B or C (or D, God forbid) is about to be revealed starting in the next 24 hours or so, and I sure hope it resembles the Plan C I just laid out for them!