LOS ANGELES — A 1970 lyric from Steven Stills may sum up the Los Angeles Lakers' relationship with impending restricted free agent Julius Randle:
"If you can't be with the one you love ... love the one you're with."
Executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka have made cap room in July the priority, at the cost of young players such as D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. All three were traded over the last year to open enough spending power to pursue two max-salaried players this summer.
Dreams of landing superstars like LeBron James and Paul George may or may not come to fruition. In the meantime, the Lakers have a 23-year old in Randle averaging 19.4 points (on 58.9 percent shooting) and nine rebounds in the month of February.
More importantly, Los Angeles has won 15 of its last 22 games with Randle playing a key role in the recent success.
That's not to say the Lakers have forsaken all youth. The core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, along with defensive-minded guard Josh Hart, would balance out a contending squad built around two veteran All-Stars, should Johnson and Pelinka have their way.
It's not that Randle's play hasn't warranted inclusion as a vital part of the team's future, it's that he'll take up $12.4 million of the Lakers' precious cap space as an unsigned free agent. That's almost as much as Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart combined ($16.6 million next season).
The Lakers can go over the NBA's projected salary cap of $101 million for 2018-19 to pay Randle up to $25.3 million, but the first step is a $5.6 million qualifying offer to make him restricted. In doing so, the Lakers will need to allocate the $12.4 million for Randle's cap hold.
The earliest he can sign an offer sheet from another team is on July 1 but the two-day clock for the Lakers to decide Randle's fate doesn't start until July 6.
Not many teams will have cap room next summer, but if the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings or Utah Jazz (among others) decide Randle is worth pursuing, the Lakers may face a difficult decision.
The Mavericks are probably the favorite to give the Dallas native an offer. Through three games against the Mavs, Randle has averaged 22.3 points, 12 rebounds and 6.3 assists, while shooting 65.1 percent from the field. Dallas projects to have about $18 million ($77 million over four seasons) to offer, more if Wesley Matthews opts out of his contract and/or if the team renounces Doug McDermott.
Upon matching a theoretical Dallas offer, Randle's new actual salary counts against the Lakers' cap.
Can Los Angeles land James and George while keeping Randle?
Without help from another team, that appears to be problematic unless James ($35.4 million) and George ($30.3 million) are willing to take less than their maximum salaries.
If the Lakers renounced every free agent and non-guaranteed player (like Brook Lopez, Isaiah Thomas, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, etc.) except Randle, they would only have about $48 million in cap room.
The Lakers could look to stretch out Luol Deng's $36.8 million salary over the next five seasons (or even 11 years), but that still leaves Los Angeles short the number needed to max out its two top targets by $3.3-$6.8 million.
If the Lakers can trade Deng outright that may be the best answer.
The cost would undoubtedly start at a first-round pick, be it the Cleveland Cavaliers' pick L.A. received in the Clarkson/Nance trade, or perhaps one of the team's own selections in subsequent years.
The Lakers won't be able to dump all of Deng's current salary ($17.2 million) in a trade before July. The Mavericks ($14.2 million) and Chicago Bulls ($11.3 million) don't have enough cap space to absorb Deng outright.
Los Angeles might have to wait until some of the aforementioned franchises have significant cap space in July. The team may not rush to lose draft considerations just to dump Deng unless it succeeds in its star chase.
The Lakers may be able to get those stars without trading Deng. It would be a move to keep Randle, who will probably be a better player than those eventually drafted with the pick(s) the Lakers might need to give up to open space.
Timing will be vital for the Lakers, especially if Randle quickly signs an offer sheet. James has historically taken his time to decide in free agency.
If the Lakers succeed in landing George but not James, the team can invest in Randle (at an $18 million starting salary) and still have enough money available to spend the following summer when players like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler project to be free agents.
Los Angeles would still need to move out of Deng's contract to near the $32.4 million in cap space needed for another All-Star, but the veteran forward will only have a final year at $18 million left on his deal.
Waiting until 2019 creates other issues, in that the Lakers cannot commit to other multi-year contracts to build their roster for 2018-19 without endangering their spending power.
Like the 29 competing franchises, Johnson and Pelinka will have several key decisions through June's draft and July's free agency.
Randle should factor heavily in what they choose. He's earned that.