LOS ANGELES — The Lakers are targeting two maximum-salaried players in the summer of 2018. Neither president of basketball operations Earvin "Magic" Johnson nor general manager Rob Pelinka have been coy about that.
Johnson insists the Lakers will be "major players next summer."
In June, the team shed the contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets, costing the Lakers their developing guard, D'Angelo Russell.
"I wouldn't have made that move if I didn't think I could use that money [in 2018]," Johnson said. "Enough said."
"We were able to get amazing salary-cap relief and space so that in July of 2018 we have the ability to add hopefully two max-salary players to our franchise," Pelinka told the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina.
Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com tweeted:
With preserving space in mind, the Lakers chose not to offer interested guard George Hill (who signed with the Sacramento Kings), instead using the bulk of their 2017 spending power on guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who inked a one-year, $18 million contract.
Who's Available, and For How Much?
Next summer, the NBA projects the salary cap to climb to $102 million. The top potential free agents include LeBron James, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Russell Westbrook. Technically, Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant can hit free agency next July but he seems certain to return.
The Lakers would be able to offer James and/or Westbrook four-year, $153.5 million contracts starting at $35.7 million. George and Cousins would be eligible for four-year deals ($131.6 million) starting at $30.6 million.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are believed to have a standing offer to Westbrook on an extension worth north of $200 million.
To sign two of the four, the Lakers would need between $61.2 million and $71.4 million in cap space.
Where Do the Lakers Stand?
If the Lakers head into the summer of 2018 with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson and Luol Deng, they would have roughly $47.8 million of the necessary spending power.
Even letting Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and Caldwell-Pope walk as unrestricted free agents, the Lakers are well short of the space needed to sign two max free agents.
Perhaps Johnson and Pelinka's confidence stems from conversations they've had with teams over the course of the past few months.
One person within the organization who isn't permitted to speak publicly on the subject told Bleacher Report the team is confident it can move Clarkson if needed to open space.
The Lakers, sans Clarkson, project to have about $59.4 million, which is close to the numbers needed for George and Cousins together but not quite there to land one with either James or Westbrook.
The key is getting out of Deng's contract. The veteran forward is under contract for the next three seasons at $54 million. Shedding him in trade will prove costly, be it in prospects and/or draft considerations.
Without Deng, Randle and Clarkson, the Lakers would have about $76.6 million to spend. Removing Deng could open the door for Los Angeles to either keep Clarkson (under contract at $12.5 million for 2018-19), Randle (who has a cap hold of $12.4 million as a restricted free agent next summer) or free agents in Lopez or Caldwell-Pope.
The Lakers could instead look to stretch out the final two seasons on Deng's salary over a five-year period (at $7.4 million per season), which would put the team at about $69.2 million in space (without Clarkson and Randle).
While Los Angeles would have Bird rights for Lopez—and the ability to pay him handsomely—unsigned, his rights take up a max slot and obstruct the team's ability to spend elsewhere.
Judging by Johnson and Pelinka's public comments, they're well aware of the many scenarios yet are still bullish at the Lakers' chances to make major moves next summer.
Who Are the Lakers Up Against in 2018 Free Agency?
Of course, the Lakers won't be the only team star-hunting next summer. The Cavaliers will certainly look to keep James, the Thunder will make every effort to retain Westbrook and George, and the Pelicans will undoubtedly do the same with Cousins.
If at least two decide to leave, the Lakers won't be the only bidders. Several franchises will make strong cases.
The following teams could have space for one of the top free agents: Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz.
Like the Lakers, franchises can make moves to open additional space, although none of the aforementioned squads are especially close to the space needed for two max stars.
Five teams stand out as potential competitors for two max players:
The San Antonio Spurs have four players with opt-outs before next season (LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne). If they all leave, San Antonio would have nearly $42 million in spending power. The Spurs may be less of a threat to sign two stars because they already have one in Kawhi Leonard, but don't sleep on San Antonio as a serious threat to steal one of the top four free agents.
The Dallas Mavericks may be sitting on $51 million in cap space, which could climb to about $62 million if they can get out of Dwight Powell and J.J. Barea's contracts. If the Mavericks are also able to find a taker for Harrison Barnes, they could get to almost $86 million in space with not much more on the roster than Dennis Smith Jr.
The Philadelphia 76ers can near $57.1 million, but Joel Embiid would take up $18.3 million of that space, shrinking Philadelphia's spending power to about $39.7 million (or $45.1 million with a Jahlil Okafor salary dump).
The Chicago Bulls can enter next summer with $49.6 million in space, although $9.6 million of that may be saved for guard Zach LaVine, who will likely be a restricted free agent. The Bulls can get to almost $55 million in space if they can dump the contract of Robin Lopez—close, albeit not quite there for two max players unless they also let LaVine walk. (This assumes the Bulls do not lock in a new long-term deal this summer with restricted free-agent forward Nikola Mirotic.)
Finally, the Thunder, who can pay both Westbrook and George to stay, may be the biggest threat if the pairing in Oklahoma City proves harmonious and productive.
Will the Stars Align?
Johnson and Pelinka's confidence is legitimate. They will be in a strong position relative to the rest of the NBA.
Few franchises will have the spending power to land two stars, and the Lakers can do it even without finding a taker for Deng.
About 11 other teams may have significant cap room next summer. The Lakers could use some help from at least one to gain the flexibility needed to keep one of Randle, Clarkson, Lopez and Caldwell-Pope, in addition to landing two stars.
Another factor to consider is the unpredictability of the NBA. The league is full of twists and turns that can quickly reshape the landscape—like the George trade to the Thunder, or Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets, or Cousins to the Pelicans.
In the meantime, the Lakers need players like Ingram and Ball to have strong seasons to help entice stars to join up in one of the league's top media markets.
The numbers suggest Magic and Pelinka's vision may be grounded in reality. Now it's up to the stars to decide their fates.