LOS ANGELES — It didn't take long for the Los Angeles Lakers' new front office to implement significant changes to the team's roster.
According to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka have agreed to deal the team's No. 2 pick from 2015, guard D'Angelo Russell, to the Brooklyn Nets for veteran Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick in Thursday's NBA draft. The move will also shed the contract of Timofey Mozgov, who's owed $48 million over the next three seasons.
Mozgov's bloated contract, signed in July 2016, was a factor in the dismissal of executives Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Lopez is heading into the final year of his contract and will be paid $22.6 million, giving the Lakers a starting center on a short-term deal.
Russell has shown tremendous flashes throughout his first two seasons but also struggled to find consistency. Both Johnson and coach Luke Walton publicly urged the 21-year-old guard to be more of a leader, but the team clearly didn't believe in Russell enough to wait for him to mature as a player.
The Lakers will presumably draft UCLA's Lonzo Ball to start at point guard next season, though the team has also looked closely at Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox.
The Lakers wanted to get rid of Mozgov's contract (and still want to lose Luol Deng's remaining $54 million over three seasons), but they had time on their side with the 2018 free-agent class the priority since players like Paul George and LeBron James are expected to be available.
Instead, they acted swiftly, with Russell the casualty.
Per ESPN's Marc Stein, the Lakers have reportedly talked with the Indiana Pacers about a trade for George.
Through his agent Aaron Mintz, George had informed the Pacers, and other inquiring teams, that he intends to join the Lakers next summer but would prefer to be traded to Los Angeles before next season.
Why the Lakers? Perhaps it's the chance to return home to the Los Angeles metropolitan area (George is from Palmdale), play for Johnson and step into the star void created when Kobe Bryant retired.
All may be true, but there could also be a significant financial component to George's Lakers dream.
Los Angeles is armed with roughly $19.1 million in salary cap space this summer, and if it can swing a trade for George, it will be able to renegotiate his existing contract, which would push his salary to $30.3 million in 2017-18 (based on the NBA's estimate of a $101 million salary cap).
George would be eligible to extend his current deal for two more seasons for a total of $95.4 million (he'd be limited to five percent raises).
If he's patient, and the Lakers hold on to $12 million in cap space heading into the season, George could restructure his deal after a six-month waiting period to $175.7 million over five seasons (including 2017-18).
But Los Angeles will try to get Indiana to send it George via trade, perhaps for a package that is built around Julius Randle or Jordan Clarkson along with one or two of the Lakers' lower first-round picks (Nos. 27 and 28).
Los Angeles can also offer players like Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac and the No. 2 pick, but if the price is too high, it may choose to try to wait and obtain George in free agency next year—though he could choose another destination.
The Lakers will have significant spending power in July 2018.
Including a $12.4 million cap hold for Randle as a restricted free agent next summer, Los Angeles can reach roughly $36 million in cap space (with a $102 million cap projection). That's enough to sign George at $30.6 million per year.
Should the Lakers let Randle go or shed Clarkson's $12.5 million salary, they'd be at $48 million. That wouldn't be quite enough to land George and James, who has been linked to the Lakers in addition to PG-13 since the Finals came to its inevitable Golden State Warriors-dominated conclusion.
James can opt out of the last year of his deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose future is in an interesting state, given the team just let go of general manager David Griffin.
The Lakers' path to pairing George with James would probably mean losing both Randle and Clarkson—though it would certainly help if the team could clear Deng's deal from the books as it did Mozgov's.
James will be eligible to earn $35.7 million in 2018-19, and Los Angeles would need $66.3 million to sign him and George. It can near that number while keeping Randle and Clarkson, provided it dumps Deng.
Should the Lakers trade for George—by sending Clarkson and the Nos. 27 and 28 picks to the Pacers—and restructure his contract for the full five years, they would not have enough cap space (about $17.7 million) to sign James without making another move.
That figure could increase to almost $36 million if Los Angeles found a way to divest of Deng; otherwise, it may need to both renounce the rights to Randle and stretch out the final two seasons of Deng's contract with a $7.4 million cap hit for each of five straight years.
It's too far off in the future to get hung up on the details. What is clear, however, is that the Lakers have a path to both George and James should the duo choose to team up in Los Angeles.
In the meantime, Johnson and Pelinka have shown they're willing to make significant changes to a squad that won just 26 games last season.