If LeBron Chooses Lakers in 2018, Who Could Be His Max Contract Running Mate?

Eric PincusLA Lakers Lead WriterSeptember 1, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 12:  LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers attends a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2017 Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 12, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Los Angeles won 103-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — How often in history would a $500,000 fine be considered good news?

After an outside law firm (Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz) conducted an investigation into the tampering accusations against the Los Angeles Lakers, it was general manager Rob Pelinka who was singled out, not Earvin "Magic" Johnson, for the wink heard around the world.

The investigation found that Pelinka communicated with Paul George's agent, Aaron Mintz of Creative Artists Agency, including "a prohibited expression of interest in the player while he was under contract," per NBA.com.

The penalty also reflects a warning issued previously to Johnson for his appearance on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live" in which he joked about a hypothetical chance meeting with George.

The half-million penalty is a significant one financially, but the Lakers could have been barred outright from signing George (in addition to the loss of a draft pick, a $5 million fine and the indefinite suspension of the executive guilty for tampering).

The Palmdale native is expected to opt out of the $20.7 million final year of his contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder after the season, eligible to earn roughly $177.5 million if he re-signs for five seasons.

The Thunder took a gamble in July, trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for George, knowing full well the All-Star might be a one-year rental.

The move was a gambit to entice Russell Westbrook to sign a five-year, $207 million extension. The league's reigning Most Valuable Player has yet to accept the Thunder's offer.

If he doesn't, Oklahoma City could lose both stars next summer.

That is why, in part, Pelinka has called his team's cap room in 2018 "sacred."

The top prize next summer is LeBron James. As detailed by Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, "league executives not only expect James to leave [the Cleveland Cavaliers] but have circled his destination—the Los Angeles Lakers."

Technically, the Lakers do not have enough projected cap space available to land a second max star to pair with James, but the team believes they will when the time comes.

That might mean sacrificing young players like Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The obvious goal is to get out of Luol Deng's unappealing contract at $54 million over the next three seasons.

But assuming the Lakers can get to the $65 million to $70 million necessary to sign two stars, which player would be the best fit alongside James?

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 12:  LeBron James #27 (L) and Russell Westbrook #31 of the 2015 USA Basketball Men's National Team attend a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on August 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Westbrook's availability may be the most fleeting. 

Whispers around the NBA suggest James would love to team up with the explosive guard. 

How would teams defend two triple-double powerhouses like James and Westbrook?

On most nights, they don't...

That said, when asked, various NBA executives believe Westbrook will eventually sign his deal with the Thunder. 

George may be more attainable, especially with the Lakers essentially off the hook for the tampering charge levied by the Pacers.

Their scoring prowess aside, James and George would make a formidable pairing defensively. Add in the length of Brandon Ingram and the Lakers would be a vastly better team on both ends of the court.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Pelicans, who don't have much depth around DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, recently announced injuries to swingman Solomon Hill and rookie guard Frank Jackson.

The Los Angeles Clippers are a question mark this season after trading guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets. DeAndre Jordan's future is uncertain.

The Lakers could pursue either All-Star center with Cousins a free agent and Jordan likely opting out of his final year at $24.1 million. Cousins will be eligible to sign for roughly $30.6 million, while Jordan's max will be about $35.7 million.

If Los Angeles went with size next to James, Cousins and Jordan offer very different skill sets. Cousins is one of the most talented scoring big men in the league, but he's a lesser force on the defensive end.

Jordan is one of the best rim protectors and rebounders in the league. Lobs to Jordan can be unstoppable as one of the league's best screen-and-roll threats, but that may be the extent of his ability to score.

Both would be nice additions to the Lakers, but the team may have another option already in the fold with Brook Lopez.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 28:  Rob Pelinka of the Los Angeles Lakers shakes hands with Brook Lopez after introducing him at a press conference on June 28, 2017 in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Acquired on draft night from the Brooklyn Nets, Lopez is in the final year of his contract at $22.6 million. The Lakers will have the means to pay him up to $35.7 million, but that would lock up the team's "second-star" money.

Instead, the Lakers may be able to renounce Lopez's rights in July, acquire two maximum-salaried players and then re-sign Lopez with the team's room exception (projected at $4.5 million).

On the surface, that seems like too generous a pay cut, but the market for centers next summer may be soft.

Only a third of the league projects to have the kind of cap space needed (if that)—and that available money may go to others ahead of Lopez, with other centers like Nikola Jokic (restricted), Joel Embiid (restricted), Nerlens Noel, Greg Monroe, Jusuf Nurkic (restricted), Clint Capela (restricted), Cousins and Jordan available.

Others on the market may include Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas, LaMarcus Aldridge, James, George, Paul and Westbrook.

There's a strong possibility that the market for Lopez will be the league's mid-level exception at about $8.7 million, which can pay up to $37.2 million over four seasons.

The Lakers would have full rights to pay Lopez a lucrative contract the following summer. He may be more inclined to stay with the Lakers for a shot to win a championship with the expectation that the team comes through financially in 2019.

If Los Angeles can keep Lopez at a discount, it has its starting center and should pass on both Cousins and Jordan.

A lot must fall into place for the Lakers to have the necessary cap space. They are also wholly dependent on the free agents to do more than flirt with the idea of playing in Los Angeles.

With promising young prospects like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma, the addition of two stars could help the Lakers make a significant leap back to NBA elite next summer.

     

Shabazz Muhammad a Consideration

Gaston De Cardenas

The Lakers have 14 players under guaranteed contract this coming season with an additional four hoping to make the roster (Vander Blue, Briante Weber, Stephen Zimmerman and V.J. Beachem).

Per multiple sources, the Lakers are considering adding on 24-year old small forward Shabazz Muhammad.

Muhammad, who played at UCLA, was a client at Landmark Sports with Pelinka, before the Lakers general manager changed careers. Muhammad briefly signed with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports but is currently between agents.

Selected with the No. 14 overall pick in 2013, Muhammad was acquired by the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night from the Utah Jazz. The Wolves let him become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Muhammad has been linked to the New Orleans Pelicans and still may re-sign with the Wolves, though both teams can only offer a minimum contract at $1.6 million.

The Lakers still have their $4.3 million room exception available.

Ingram projects to start at 3 with veterans Corey Brewer and Luol Deng as reserves. Kuzma may also get time at small forward. Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can also fill in at the position when necessary.

Muhammad, who averaged 9.9 points a game last season through 78 appearances with the Wolves, would give the Lakers another scorer off the bench.

         

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