Los Angeles Lakers' Top 2018 Free-Agency and NBA Draft Targets

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMarch 30, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives past Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers haven't made the playoffs since Dwight Howard's ejection in Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs back on April 28, 2013, at Staples Center.

That was shortly after Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon. He never fully recovered, and neither have the Lakers.

Los Angeles is still working its way back to relevance, and is making sizable strides through the nearly completed 2017-18 season. The Lakers won't qualify for the playoffs this year, but a 33-41 record represents a shift in the right direction.

Both Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle showed major growth. Lonzo Ball struggled at times with his shot but proved to be an offensive catalyst and impressive defender. Kyle Kuzma may have been the best pick in the draft based on position (27th). Josh Hart (30th) gave the Lakers toughness and rebounding from the off-guard position.

At least four of the five appear to be key pieces moving forward. Randle's fate is yet to be determined.

The Lakers bottomed out in 2015-16 with just 17 victories, but the team is on the verge of doubling that win total two years later, with eight to go in the regular season.

     

Free-Agency Casualties

DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 10: Isaiah Thomas #7 and Brook Lopez #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers react during game against the Dallas Mavericks on February 10, 2018 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Glenn James/Getty Images

Before the season, the Lakers dealt Timofey Mozgov and D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets. At the trade deadline, the team sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The moves were made to open significant cap space in July, enough for two maximum-salaried free agents.

Only five Lakers have guaranteed contracts for the 2018-19 season: Luol Deng, Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart. Deng is still owed $36.8 million over two seasons, starting at $18 million for next year. If the Lakers feel compelled to get the veteran forward off their books, the price in a trade will be high (at least one future first-round pick, if not two...and then some).

Instead, the Lakers can waive and stretch Deng's salary over five seasons at $7.4 million per year. That would give the team approximately $63.5 million in cap space, provided it renounces the rest of the non-guaranteed roster.

Los Angeles has three players on non-guaranteed contracts for 2018-19: Tyler Ennis ($1.7 million), Ivica Zubac ($1.5 million) and Thomas Bryant ($1.4 million).

Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas will be unrestricted free agents. The Lakers can make Randle restricted with a $5.6 million qualifying offer. If they do, he'll take up $12.4 million of the team's cap space in July.

They may all be casualties of the Lakers' free-agency goals.

The Lakers sent this year's first-rounder to the Phoenix Suns years ago when they acquired Nash in 2012. Years of losing kept the pick in limbo until this summer. It will convey to either the Philadelphia 76ers (provided it's not the second or third overall selection) or Boston Celtics.

Los Angeles also sent a protected first to the Orlando Magic to acquire Howard in 2012, but protections resulted in the Lakers sending their 2018 second-rounder instead.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles will still have two selections in June after it acquired the Cavaliers' first at the deadline and the Denver Nuggets' second in 2016 (with Jose Calderon in a deal with the Chicago Bulls).

The Cavaliers' selection is currently slotted as the 25th pick. Denver's is roughly 43rd.

     

Free-Agency Priority No. 1: LeBron James, Paul George

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

These names shouldn't be a surprise. At 33, James is still averaging 27.6 points, 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game for the Cavaliers.

Cleveland has struggled for consistency throughout the year, but it could still push through the playoffs for a fourth-straight NBA Finals appearance.

Should the Cavs win a title, perhaps James re-signs. An early exit may prompt him to find a new home.

The Philadelphia 76ers boast Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the lighter competition of the Eastern Conference. The Houston Rockets have the best record in the NBA and may be able to lure James without breaking apart their core roster.

The Lakers have a lot to offer as well, with their emerging players and the ability to pair James with George.

George, 27, is averaging 21.7 points per game in his first year with the Oklahoma City Thunder and shooting 40.1 percent from three-point range. The Thunder (44-32) are still jockeying for playoff position, and are currently in fifth place—just 2.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers (41-34).

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

Will the Palmdale native stay in Oklahoma City or choose to play closer to home? Can the Thunder even afford to pay George with a roster that could cost more than $250 million?

Both James ($35.6 million) and George ($20.7 million) need to opt out of the final years of their contracts to hit free agency this summer. Those decisions need to be made in June before they can negotiate with new teams in July.

Either could choose to opt in, contingent on their respective teams agreeing to trade them to their desired destinations (like how Chris Paul manipulated the Clippers to deal him to the Rockets last summer).

Financially, James may be willing to go that route, given a new contract would start slightly lower at $35.4 million (based on the NBA's salary cap projection of $101 million for 2018-19).

While George can try to do the same, he's eligible for a sizable raise with a contract starting at $30.3 million, which suggests George will inevitably opt out.

Presently, the Lakers do not project to have enough to pay both James and George the maximum outright without stretching or trading Deng's contract.

     

Free Agency Priority No. 2: Julius Randle

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

The Lakers had the opportunity to lock in Randle before the season on an extension starting at $12.4 million, the amount of his cap hold, according to a person privy to the stalled negotiations.

The team wasn't ready to commit to Randle over the possibility of landing two stars this summer.

Now, off a career year (16.2 points per game on 56.6 percent), Randle, 23, will probably command a much larger salary. How much will depend on the market, but the maximum he can earn will be roughly $25.3 million.

He can sign an offer sheet on July 1 with another team, but the Lakers' 48-hour matching window won't start until the end of the NBA's moratorium, giving Los Angeles until July 8 to decide.

Given how transparent the Lakers have been with their plans, a team flush with cap space, like the Dallas Mavericks, may make an early, sizable offer. The hope for a team like that would be that if Los Angeles is still chasing stars, it'll blink and let Randle go.

Complicating matters, both Randle and George are represented by Aaron Mintz of Creative Artists Agency.

The Lakers taking care of Randle may be the key to landing George, which in turn may be the reason why James leaves Cleveland for Los Angeles.

Los Angeles can make the numbers work but, it would need to trade Deng to make everyone fit.

While Randle takes up $12.4 million of the Lakers' cap room unsigned, the team can pay him above that number once it has used available space to bring in players like James and George.

Should the Lakers strike out with either (or both), keeping Randle should be a priority. Signing all three would be a tremendous haul.

     

Other Free Agency Targets: DeMarcus, DeAndre and More

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Beyond the two big names mentioned, the Lakers could look to sign other available free agents like DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Derrick Favors or Avery Bradley, among many others.

Cousins is currently recovering from a torn Achilles, making him a less-attractive option.

Or the Lakers may choose to wait until the summer of 2019, when the list of free agents could include Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler.

Leonard has missed most of the season with a quadriceps injury. If he and the San Antonio Spurs aren't on the same page, Leonard may be available.

The Golden State Warriors are looking at a massive payroll to keep their championship core together. They may be willing to bankroll a sizable deal to Thompson, but if not, the Lakers could be a destination (his father Mychal Thompson won two championships with current team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and is a radio broadcaster for the organization).

The maximum salaries for both Leonard and Thompson project to be $32.4 million for the 2019-20 season. The Lakers would need to mind their spending this offseason to make sure they have enough the following summer.

To that end, the Lakers may look to keep veterans like Lopez, Thomas and/or Pope on one-year deals, if they don't hit their top free-agent targets.

The current group has strong chemistry. Continuity might help the young core grow together while the team waits to spend long-term in 2019.

Meanwhile, Thomas will be out for the next four months, recovering from hip surgery.

     

Draft Targets: Anfernee Simons, Zhaire Smith and More

John Minchillo/Associated Press

According to Jonathan Wasserman's March 13 mock draft here on Bleacher Report, the Lakers could end up with Ball's former UCLA teammate Aaron Holiday.

The 6'1" point guard is more of an attacking scorer than Ball was with the Bruins. He averaged 20.3 points and 5.8 assists this past year as a junior.

With Ennis' future uncertain and Alex Caruso coming off a two-way contract, the Lakers could use a young point guard to develop, and Holiday's chemistry with Ball may be a factor to consider.

Other interesting prospects in the Lakers' range might include combo guard Anfernee Simons, three-and-D wing Khyri Thomas and athletic forward Zhaire Smith.

Then again, will the Lakers even keep the pick? If they have the opportunity to dump Deng's contract, they may need to sacrifice their slot in June's draft.

Quickly, Los Angeles could become a contender in the West. Or if snubbed by both James and George, it might choose to stay the course and further develop the young group that has finally begun to emerge.

      

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

Related

    NBA's Most Epic Acts of Disrespect 😡

    Los Angeles Lakers logo
    Los Angeles Lakers

    NBA's Most Epic Acts of Disrespect 😡

    Dan Favale
    via Bleacher Report

    Supporting Cast Proves Value Through Harden's Struggles

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Supporting Cast Proves Value Through Harden's Struggles

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    Sixers, Nets Building NBA's Most Heated Rivalry 🔥

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Sixers, Nets Building NBA's Most Heated Rivalry 🔥

    Grant Hughes
    via Bleacher Report

    Blake Griffin (Knee) to Play Game 3

    Griffin will suit up vs. Bucks after first two games of series

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Blake Griffin (Knee) to Play Game 3

    Griffin will suit up vs. Bucks after first two games of series

    Paul Kasabian
    via Bleacher Report