Just a few days ago, I laid out my Plan C for the Los Angeles Lakers in an attempt to show how they could lose out on superstar free agents like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, yet still walk away with (potentially) a championship-caliber squad anchored by a young core to lead the team for seasons to come. My suggestions included re-signing Pau Gasol, and signing restricted 25-year-old free agent point guard Isaiah Thomas, as well as unrestricted 23-year-old free agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson. Unfortunately, after the Lakers lost out on LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony (as expected), Pau Gasol decided to sign with the Chicago Bulls, and the Lakers chose to trade for Jeremy Lin, and re-sign Nick Young (four years/$21.5 million) and Jordan Hill (two years/$18 million). After finally signing Julius Randle to his rookie contract (two years/$6 million, followed by team options for the third and fourth years), the Lakers had essentially used up all of the cap space that they had been allowing fans to dream about since Dwight Howard decided to sign with the Houston Rockets during the summer of 2013.
While Stephenson remains unsigned, Isaiah Thomas is headed to the Phoenix Suns in a sign-and-trade deal with the Sacramento Kings. As part of the deal, Thomas signed a new four-year/$27 million contract. My Plan C called for the Lakers to offer Thomas a contract in the neighborhood of three years and $24 million. While Thomas had identified the Lakers as one of his preferred destinations, and the Lakers apparently had mutual interest, they never made a serious move to sign Thomas after it was clear that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony weren’t coming to Los Angeles. Call me cynical, but it sure seems that the Lakers’ ‘plan’ was to pursue LeBron and Carmelo, and if they were unsuccessful in doing so, to not sign any free agents at all, other than for the veteran’s minimum. So far, that’s exactly what the Lakers have done.
Although it was widely circulated that the Lakers had made very impressive sales pitches to LeBron and Carmelo, respectively, it was just revealed today that they apparently also made a strong push to sign Chris Bosh. As commendable as those ‘efforts’ may be, I can’t ever remember the Lakers being applauded for swinging and missing when trying to land free agents on their wish list. That being said, the only marquee free agents that the Lakers have signed in the past 20 years are Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton–and Malone and Payton were well past their respective primes when they signed with the Lakers. In looking back at the Lakers’ last 10 championships (dating back to 1980), those respective teams were led by the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Shaq, Kobe, and Pau. The ONLY two players that joined the Lakers via free agent signing were Wilkes and Shaq. All of those other players were acquired via trade or via the draft. In other words, there’s a glimmer of hope despite the free agency ‘strikeout’.
Look–I understand that the Lakers have always been about superstar players, and they are anxiously searching for a superstar to whom Kobe can pass the torch of the Lakers’ legacy. But they can’t realistically expect to carry a sub-par roster year to year while hoping that the next summer is the one in which that superstar swoops in to save the franchise. Such a plan reeks of desperation.
If there’s anything that the Lakers have always excelled at, it’s thinking several steps ahead. Their current plan appears to have them several steps behind. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and part-owner Jim Buss were instrumental in engineering the Pau Gasol and (vetoed) Chris Paul trades, so the brain-trust is still in place, but the moves that have been made since the (vetoed) Chris Paul trade have left many fans and observers scratching their heads.
Why did the Lakers give up two first round draft picks to acquire a rapidly-aging Steve Nash? Why was Mike Brown fired just five games into the 2013-14 season, only to be replaced by Mike D’Antoni, who presented an ‘odd’ coaching fit (to say the least)? Why did the Lakers consider trading Pau Gasol so many times, only to ultimately let him walk away in free agency with no return of assets whatsoever? Why did the Lakers not re-sign Kent Bazemore–who showed so much promise at the end of last season, and only signed a two-year/$4 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks? Why did the Lakers sign Kobe to a two-year, $48.5 million contract despite his injury issues? Again, the cynical answer would be that Kobe’s $48.5 million contract is ‘hush money’–now that the Lakers have another lottery-bound team set to play around Kobe, they couldn’t afford to have Kobe demand a trade at the very end of his career because he refused to play with a sub-par team.
As much as everyone would like to see the Lakers land a superstar via free agency or a trade, fans would probably be just as happy to watch a team reminiscent of the plucky mid-1990s teams that featured the likes of Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Cedric Ceballos, Anthony Peeler, Sedale Threatt, and Vlade Divac. About 50 wins a season and at least one playoff series victory? Doesn’t sound so bad, at this point.
So where does this leave the Lakers? Once all contracts are officially signed, they will have the following players under contract (with 2014-15 salary in parentheses): Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Steve Nash ($9.7 million), Jordan Hill ($9 million), Jeremy Lin ($8.375 million), Nick Young ($4.83 million), Julius Randle ($2.997 million), Robert Sacre ($900,000), Kendall Marshall ($900,000), and Jordan Clarkson (TBD). The Lakers are also expected to retain Ryan Kelly for about $1 million. Altogether, that’s about $61.2 million (not including Jordan Clarkson’s salary), with the cap being $63.2 million. The Lakers also still have ‘cap holds’ for Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, MarShon Brooks, and Andrew Goudelock. They’re likely to renounce their rights to Brooks and Goudelock. They can re-sign Henry and Johnson, but there’s been no indication as to whether or not either player would be willing to play for the veteran’s minimum next season.
As for ‘assets’, the Lakers only get to keep their first round pick in 2015 if it lands in the top 5 (perhaps one benefit of the Lakers fielding a sub-par team next season), as a result of the Steve Nash trade (i.e. the gift that keeps on giving). They also acquired the Rockets’ first round pick in 2015 in the Jeremy Lin trade, but it’s lottery-protected. While the Rockets lost out on Chris Bosh, and lost Chandler Parsons to the Mavericks, they should still make the playoffs, giving the Lakers at least one first round draft pick in 2015. Speaking of Jeremy Lin–his contract expires after this season, so acquiring him for just about nothing was actually a very shrewd move on the part of the Lakers, especially because Lin is a pretty solid point guard and they needed more than a broken-down Steve Nash and still-developing Kendall Marshall.
In the end, Lakers fans have to hope that Kobe can remain healthy all season, and you never know–maybe a mid-season trade for a Kevin Love or some other unhappy star will have the same impact as the Pau Gasol trade did, OR, fans can hope that the Lakers absolutely tank, and end up with a top 5 pick. That would give the Lakers two first round draft picks (including a high lottery pick), and $18 million will come off the books next summer when the Lin and Nash contracts expire. In other words, the Lakers would have one more season of Kobe Bryant, 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle, two 2015 first round draft picks, and a slot available for a max contract. Let’s just call this Plan R(edemption). I can’t imagine having to root for the Lakers to tank in consecutive seasons, but if it results in keeping that top 5 pick, that’s a pretty good consolation. If Kobe can keep anything in the tank for his final season in 2015-16, the Lakers would still have some hope, but for now, the Lakers have decided to execute Plan F(AIL).