LOS ANGELES — A bombshell dropped Friday when the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook signed off on a $205 million extension that could keep him with the Oklahoma City Thunder through 2023. It's also ominous news for the Los Angeles Lakers, who under President of Basketball Operations Earvin "Magic" Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have all but made a mantra out of having "two max slots" in 2018.
Some in the Lakers front office expected Westbrook to extend, but until he did, the chance of him becoming a free agent next summer remained, and so, too, remained the chance the the Lakers could fill a max slot with Westbrook. That hope is now extinguished, raising internal fears that Johnson and Pelinka may repeat the mistakes made by Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak.
They, too, spoke of two max slots, but when they struck out on stars, they over-invested in Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. Now both executives are out of jobs. To shed Mozgov's contract in June, Johnson and Pelinka sent D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that also yielded Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick that became Kyle Kuzma.
"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 said after the deal, again stressing the team's free-agency goals.
It took a miserable 21-win season to earn the No. 2 pick for Russell. The price to escape Deng's final three seasons at $54 million will undoubtedly be painful as well. Complicating matters, the NBA sent out a memo Thursday informing teams of a $1 million dip in the previous projection of a $102 million salary cap for 2018-19.
Pelinka may reiterate that the team has the spending power to add two superstars, but the Lakers are currently projected to have about $47 million in room (with a $101 million cap) if they let Julius Randle leave as a restricted free agent.
That's not enough for two maximum contracts.
LeBron James, the top available star and likely target next summer, will be eligible for most of that space at $35.4 million.
The Cleveland Cavaliers recently traded Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas and draft considerations. They also inked Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade with hopes of competing for another title. Would James leave the Cavaliers to join Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and the Lakers? Does he come without another star in tow?
Recent buzz had James eyeing Westbrook as a running mate, but the Thunder guard made other plans. Westbrook has all year to work on convincing George to re-sign in Oklahoma City next summer. It's a concern for the Lakers staff.
George has long been linked to the franchise. Recently, the team was fined $500,000 for tampering after Pelinka made contact with Aaron Mintz, George's agent with Creative Artists Agency.
Johnson was also warned for joking and winking about the prospect of luring George to the Lakers next year. George will be eligible to earn up to $30.3 million as a free agent. The Lakers aren't close to the necessary $65.7 million to land both James and George.
Even if Los Angeles traded Jordan Clarkson without any long-term salary in return, they're looking at about $58.5 million in space.
Now if Pelinka can get rid of Deng's final two years at $36.8 million before next July, he'll be in the running for Executive of the Year (which will certainly go to Presti in Oklahoma City for the coming season).
The Lakers can choose to stretch Deng's contract over five years at $7.4 million a season. That obligation would be a long burden, but it would give the franchise about $68 million to spend (without both Randle and Clarkson). Trading Deng outright gives the Lakers a lot more flexibility, but there isn't an obvious market for the veteran forward.
Even if Los Angeles frees enough cap space, the trick will be getting stars to come. That's been a problem in recent years.
George may want to return to the metropolitan Los Angeles area (he grew up in Palmdale), but then again, he may instead thoroughly enjoy his time with the Thunder, choosing to stay long-term with Westbrook. On Saturday, he told the media Westbrook's extension would make his 2018 free-agency decision "easier."
"Not only in us pairing together, but just knowing what type of dude Russ is and his values and his beliefs and him being committed to this organization says a lot. And I'm one person that's enjoying it here, so I think when [free agency] comes, the decision will be easier to make for myself."
Chris Paul is already 32 years old. The Lakers just drafted a true point guard of the future in Lonzo Ball.
While Westbrook may also play the same position, the idea of placing a dominant attacker alongside Ball in the backcourt with James on the wing held significant appeal internally.
With no Westbrook and possibly no George, the next-best option may be the mercurial but talented center DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans. Big man DeAndre Jordan is another option, although he may be considering an extension to stay with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Other potential free agents include Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and LaMarcus Aldridge. Joel Embiid will be restricted if he and the Philadelphia 76ers don't hammer out an extension before the start of the season.
It's going to take a lot for the Lakers to realize their plan. Westbrook was a predictable but painful domino to fall. First, they need to find a way to the necessary cap space, even if Pelinka continues to suggest his franchise is already there.
Secondly, they need the stars to come.
Finally, if they do strike out, they better not reinvest in Deng/Mozgov equivalents.
Today's Lakers have buzz about them with young, developing players like Larry Nance Jr., Kuzma, Randle, Clarkson and especially Ball.
A productive season may inspire the team to keep veterans like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lopez, but both are a far cry from James and a friend-to-be-named-later.
In a year's time, it'll be obvious if the Lakers have fallen into the same trap of pinning their hopes on their high-drafted players while striking out in the free-agent market. Or perhaps they'll have multiple All-Stars surrounded by an athletic, hungry group of kids ready to take on the Warriors.
Regardless, one powerful option is off the table with Westbrook staying loyal to the Thunder.