Let’s start with some good news: The Los Angeles Lakers will enter this summer with roughly $67 million to spend before they hit the salary cap, which may stretch to $92 million. That’s more than just about every team in the league. That's plenty of space for two, or even three, max contracts, depending on which players the Lakers target and what happens with their first-round draft pick.
Now, some bad news: This July’s free-agent crop won't satisfy a seller’s market. Guys who don't "deserve" eight- or nine-figure contracts will get them.
But franchise-altering talent can still be plucked from the ground. Players who can single-handedly help L.A. immediately are out there. And of the reasonably obtainable options available (aka not Kevin Durant), no signing would be more momentous than Toronto Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan.
A maximum contract for the L.A. native will cost roughly $25.3 million next year and eventually spill over the $100 million mark. ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe reported last month the Lakers are more than willing to splurge:
That starts with DeRozan, a lock to decline his option and hit free agency this summer. A bunch of teams, including DeRozan's hometown Lakers, are prepared to offer him a max deal starting at $25 million per season, and the Raptors know they will have to spend big to keep him.
This jibes with an earlier report from the Toronto Sun’s Ryan Wolstat:
Just about every team will have ample cap space, including his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. ... While his hometown Lakers surely will be one of those suitors — they long have had interest in the swingman — DeRozan has always been fiercely loyal to the organization that drafted him, paid him what at the time was considered above market value on an extension (eventually it became one of the shrewdest bargains of then general manager Bryan Colangelo’s career) and made him the face of the franchise. He loves the city and the fanbase arguably much more than Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter or Chris Bosh ever did.
In this market, DeRozan is still worth every penny. The 26-year-old was named to his second All-Star Game this season and has evolved from a one-dimensional “shoot first, ask questions later” athletic supernova to a more focused primary option.
He’s averaging a career-high 23.3 points per game and ranks third among shooting guards with a 21.55 PER, according to ESPN.com's Hollinger stats. DeRozan’s usage percentage (29.7 percent) has never been higher, and his turnover rate remains at his career average (1.8). He’s ascending, and he'd fit right in with the Lakers.
Unless we’re talking about Durant or LeBron James, incoming free agents need to have at least some promise of compatibility with D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. It's easy to imagine a scenario where DeRozan and Russell eventually form one of the more potent backcourts in the Western Conference, and not for reasons you'd expect.
Right now, only three players have been isolated more than DeRozan (LeBron, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony); it’s where 17.4 percent of his offensive possessions come from—Bryant’s currently at 17.8 percent, per Synergy Sports. DeRozan creates easy looks for himself out of thin air: driving to the rim, backing a smaller defender down, pulling up off the dribble—you name it.
And the attention he draws would make life much easier for L.A.'s young core. According to NBA.com, Russell is shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 37 percent from behind the three-point line with Bryant on the court. When the rookie is out there by himself, those numbers drop to 37.9 and 31.9 percent, respectively. (Jordan Clarkson's numbers are also better with Kobe by his side.) What does this tell us?
Bryant isn't the scorer he once was. He can't carry an offense or efficiently put the ball in the basket on a nightly basis. But he still draws attention regardless of whether he's on or off the ball. Some teams (somewhat inexplicably) still double him in the post. Others send risky help off ball screens.
DeRozan does all that without sacrificing efficiency.
DeRozan is one of the league’s best options scoring out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, maintaining his efficiency without a diabolical stretch 4 setting most of the screens, too. That’s a good sign for the Lakers, who would presumably have Randle and Larry Nance Jr. in that role next season. Neither is a respectable threat outside of the paint, but they should eventually suck help defenders in from the weak side on hard dives to the rim.
DeRozan isn’t a great defender, and L.A. will badly need to upgrade its perimeter defense before it can make the postseason, let alone compete for a championship. But there's hope Anthony Brown will develop into a solid mainstay on that end, and the Lakers have been equally atrocious on both sides of the ball with Byron Scott as their head coach.
For now, they need to grab the best player they can, someone who can takeover games with the ball in his hands. DeRozan is that guy.
Of course, spending money just to spend it—being shortsighted and locking into a long-term, low-ceiling situation—would crush L.A.’s rebuild before it even gets started. The front office must somehow negotiate with caution from a desperate position.
Patience is necessary, but failing to acquire at least one All-Star-caliber force this summer would be a borderline disaster. Getting overlooked in three straight offseasons by the league’s top talent would not be a good look, especially if nobody is willing to take the baton from a retiring Bryant and become the face of a franchise that badly needs on-court leadership.
It's a critical time for the Lakers, and DeRozan is the perfect rudder to help them navigate through the struggle.
Even if it's unlikely they pry him away from the rising Raptors, they need to try.
Salary-cap information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics per Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com.