LA Lakers and NBA's 10 Best Salary-Cap Situations Ahead of 2018 NBA Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2018

LA Lakers and NBA's 10 Best Salary-Cap Situations Ahead of 2018 NBA Free Agency

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    The NBA's draft lottery is over. The playoffs are winding down. The draft and free agency are on the horizon. 

    In other words: July 1 will be here before you know it, so it's time for some free-agency prep work.

    Brushing up on the league's salary-cap situations is the first part of getting ready. More than two-thirds of the Association could end up operating above the projected $101 million threshold. Pinpointing the select few teams with more flexibility than the field is akin to identifying the most important free-agency players.

    Salary-cap outlooks are inherently fluid. Every team's spending power—or lack thereof—is tied to a string of contract decisions. These forecasts are not meant to be gospel. They're a snapshot of what awaits the market more anything.

    Player options, team options, non-guaranteed deals and salary dumps could all cause a shift in these numbers. We're making predictions on certain player and team decisions, and predictive exercises are always subject to whirring goal posts.

    Some squads will have more money to spend. Others will have less. But this cap-space pecking order offers an accurate outline of which teams are best positioned when the clock strikes midnight on July 1.

Breakdown Guidelines

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    Guaranteed Salaries: Taken from Basketball Insiders, this consists of all contracts guaranteed to be on the books in 2018-19. It also includes money from any partially guaranteed deals.

    Notable Free-Agent Holds: Pre-contract holds of expiring deals that incumbent teams will want to keep. If a player owns an opt-in but isn't a lock to explore free agency, his 2018-19 salary will be included. Enes Kanter, for example, has an option for next season. Since we cannot be certain that he'll decline it, or that the New York Knicks will carry his hold if he does, the value of said option ($18.6 million) will be used for calculations.

    Notable Non-Guarantees: Any non-guaranteed deals expected to stick with a team into free agency, including team options. Contracts that have partial guarantees included in the "Guaranteed Salaries" section will be listed with the balance owed. Just $1.5 million of Bojan Bogdanovic's $10.5 million salary next season is guaranteed. That money will be baked into the Indiana Pacers' guaranteed commitments, with the remaining balance ($9 million) showing up here.

    First-Round Pick Holds: Based on draft positioning after the lottery. Projected salaries come courtesy of RealGM and are slotted as 120 percent holds. Second-round selections will cut into cap space, but they aren't signed under the rookie scale and, therefore, don't have a cap hold. They'll be left out of this exercise; they typically don't earn enough to impact the bottom line anyway.

    Dead Money: Cashed owed to players who are no longer on the team because they were waived.

    Empty Roster Charges: Teams will be assessed a $831,311 roster charge for each open spot below 12 players. These placeholders are rare when surveying cap sheets before the draft, so they'll appear only where applicable.

    All-Inclusive Total: Sum of all the above categories.

    Projected Starting Cap Space: Subtracting the "All-Inclusive Total" from the projected $101 million salary cap. Trade exceptions and mid-level exceptions count against commitments for teams under the salary cap. For our purposes, we'll assume every team with cap space is renouncing both. We'll discuss whether they're able to carve out even more room in the text.

10. New York Knicks

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    Guaranteed Salaries: $70,753,926

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Trey Burke ($1,795,015); Troy Williams ($1,544,951)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Enes Kanter's player option ($18,622,514); Ron Baker's player option ($4,544,400); Kyle O'Quinn's player option ($4,256,250)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 9 ($3,708,120)

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $105,225,176

    Starting Cap Space: -$4,225,176

    It says a lot about this summer that a team operating above the salary cap has one of the 10 best sheets.

    Either the Orlando Magic or Utah Jazz could technically go here, but the Knicks potentially have more flexibility. The Magic can only waive non-guaranteed deals for Khem Birch and Shelvin Mack, and they still would barely be under the cap after the fact. The Jazz need to gut their roster of Dante Exum (restricted), Derrick Favors (unrestricted), Jonas Jerebko (non-guaranteed), Thabo Sefolosha (non-guaranteed) and Ekpe Udoh (non-guaranteed) to maximize their space.

    New York's path to substantive breathing room is cleaner. Everything hinges on Enes Kanter's player option. They'll have more than $14 million at their disposal if he declines it. And while he won't match his $18.6 million salary on the open market, he sounds like he intends to test the waters.

    "You could say that, yes [I'm leaning toward opting out]," he said, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. "I'm not saying I'm in or out 100 percent. I'm just saying I want to stay here long-term because it's always weird just having one year and then leave and come back. I'd rather stay long-term."

    Carrying Kanter's cap hold won't help the Knicks' bottom line. They'll have to renounce him if he hits free agency. They will open up more room from there if Kyle O'Quinn opts out, and they could always circle back to stretching Joakim Noah. Spreading the final two seasons on his contract over the next half-decade would save them close to $11 million this summer.

    This discussion becomes moot if Kanter plays out the last year of his agreement. The Knicks could still duck beneath the cap if O'Quinn opts out, but waiving Noah isn't close to worthwhile when it wouldn't bring them within spitting distance of max room. If Kanter sticks around, look for New York to stand relatively pat on the margins and work the market with its non-taxpayer mid-level exception. 

9. Phoenix Suns

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    Guaranteed Salaries: $70,667,235

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Alan Williams ($5,520,000); Tyler Ulis ($1,544,951); Shaquille Harrison ($1,378,242); Davon Reed ($689,121)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Elfrid Payton ($9,997,020)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 1 ($8,095,680); No. 16 ($2,589,480)

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $100,481,729

    Starting Cap Space: $518,271

    Chill out, calculator police. The Phoenix Suns are not doomed to inconsequential wiggle room. They can carve out significantly more money by clearing their non-guaranteed and free-agent decks.

    We're already operating under the assumption they'll renounce Alex Len. Dragan Bender, Tyson Chandler and Marquese Chriss will all be on the books next season, and the Suns are in prime Deandre Ayton territory after winning the lottery. The rest of their will-they, won't-they decisions aren't so cut-and-dry.

    Letting Elfrid Payton (restricted) walk and waiving Alan Williams gets them to over $16 million in space. They'll have no trouble rising above the $20 million line. Hitting the $25 to $30 million range will also be in play if they find takers for the expiring deals of Chandler and Jared Dudley.

    General manager Ryan McDonough made it clear back in January that he'll be aggressive over the summer, which suggests Phoenix will tap into the full extent of its cap-clearing resources. But parting ways with Payton isn't a no-duh move. The Suns need a point guard, and the poachable pickings will be slim in free agency. They aren't stealing Chris Paul from the Houston Rockets, and most of the intriguing second-tier options are either restricted (Fred VanVleet, Marcus Smart, etc.) or underwhelming.

    Showing Williams the door could be similarly difficult if the Suns don't take Ayton. He profiles as their second-best rim protector when healthy, and neither Bender nor Chriss has earned the benefit of doubt in their development.

    Count on the Suns to build upon this starting number in some form. With Devin Booker's salary scheduled to balloon in 2019-20, now would be their time to strike. But the degree to which they're willing to manipulate the books remains unclear. And without assuming full-on departures for Payton and Williams, they cannot be placed any higher.

8. Indiana Pacers

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    Guaranteed Salaries: $45,612,644

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Bojan Bogdanovic ($9,000,000); Darren Collison ($8,000,000); Al Jefferson ($6,000,000); Lance Stephenson's team option ($4,360,000); Joseph Young ($1,600,520); Alex Poythress ($1,544,951); Ike Anigbogu ($688,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Thaddeus Young's player option ($13,764,045); Glenn Robinson III ($2,896,180)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 23 ($1,895,520)

    Dead Money: Monta Ellis ($2,245,400)

    All-Inclusive Total: $97,607,502

    Starting Cap Space: $3,392,498

    The temptation to place the Pacers behind the Suns is strong. They're slated to begin the summer with more no-strings-attached cap space, but they're less likely to buzzsaw through the roadblocks separating them from serious room.

    At the same time, the Pacers' cash flow is so much more open-ended, even after Cory Joseph exercised his player option. They have nearly $31.2 million in non-guaranteed money on next year's ledger, so they could carve out almost $35 million in cap space by waiving every one of those deals. That number would rise close to $50 million if Thaddeus Young opts out and they renounce him.

    Spoiler alert: The Pacers aren't jumping through all of those hoops. They just won 48 games with this group. Their first inclination should be to run it back and make sure they aren't a one-year wonder. 

    Plus, unlike Phoenix, Indiana's returning players are actual trade assets. Sellers will pounce on the cap relief promised by the expiring deals of Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Al Jefferson, et al., before they form an orderly queue to sign Elfrid Payton to his next pact.

    Expect the Pacers to toe the line somewhere between continuity and aggression. Doing nothing infers complacency, and they aren't good enough to turn their back on a free-agent market begging for buyers. They'll have money to burn next summer, but outside of a specific trade pursuit, they'll find value in acting before the cash-rich field expands in 2019.

7. Dallas Mavericks

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    Guaranteed Salaries: $59,891,832

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Dirk Nowitzki's team option ($5,000,000); Dorian Finney-Smith ($1,544,951); Maxi Kleber ($1,378,242); Kyle Collinsworth ($1,378,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Doug McDermott ($9,884,982); Seth Curry ($3,936,933); Yogi Ferrell ($2,919,204); Salah Mejri ($1,839,228); Aaron Harrison ($1,753,640)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 5 ($5,310,720)

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $94,837,974

    Starting Cap Space: $6,162,026

    Hovering around the $6 million marker is a good place for the Dallas Mavericks to start. They aren't ditching any free agents who matter in this projection—sorry, Nerlens Noel—and they have the capacity to more than double their summer purse.

    Cutting ties with Seth Curry and Doug McDermott (restricted) alone would vault them past $20 million. Flex all their muscles by renouncing every in-house free agent, and they'll be closer to $30 million than not.

    This to-be-determined wallet doesn't make the Mavericks a LeBron James destination. They would have to stomach some noteworthy losses if they're hoping to enter the Paul George sweepstakes. But they're free to shop among most other marquee names without worrying about untenable collateral damage.

    Whether they throw their weight around is an entirely different matter. Owner Mark Cuban hasn't shied from glitzy courtships in the past, but he and the organization are thus far intimating restraint above all else. As The Athletic's Saad Yousuf wrote:

    "Cuban believes the first- and second-round picks will join a team that will feature a lot of the same players as the 2017-18 squad. While that may make Mavs fans grimace considering the team lost 58 games, it makes sense if Seth Curry is able to successfully return after missing all year with an injury. Their success will also hinge on the young group improving upon its NBA-worst 12-38 'clutch games' record, which considers games in which the team was within five points in the final five minutes."

    Allowing the youth to marinate isn't a foolproof way of returning to the playoffs. If the Mavericks are more smitten by building something from the ground up, though, they're on the right track. Besides, they're lean enough to play the wait-and-see game—you know, just in case the right opportunity presents itself.

6. Brooklyn Nets

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    Guaranteed Salaries: $75,643,721

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Spencer Dinwiddie ($1,656,092); Isaiah Whitehead ($1,544,951)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Joe Harris ($1,499,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 29 ($1,618,320)

    Dead Money: Deron Williams ($5,474,787)

    All-Inclusive Total: $87,437,569

    Starting Cap Space: $13,562,431

    Teams with restricted free agents worth a damn can breathe a sigh of relief. The Brooklyn Nets aren't lingering in the shadows with max money in hand, subtly waiting to overpay one of your own. The days of them flooding the landscape with egregious offers aimed at pilfering rival players or hamstringing enemy books are in the rear view.

    For now.

    Brooklyn could still get cute in a skimpy market. Nearly $14 million in cap space, with a direct line to $17-plus million, goes a long way when two-thirds of the league is strapped for cash. 

    Perhaps the Nets have a good laugh about forcing the Chicago Bulls to match an over-the-top offer sheet for Zach LaVine (restricted). Or perhaps they'll be among those coaxing the Los Angeles Lakers into a tough Julius Randle decision. Or maybe, just maybe, the Nets aren't looking to do much of anything.

    Arming general manager Sean Marks with any money whatsoever always opens the door for fireworks on the restricted free agent front. But the Nets' draft-pick obligations from the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce jalopy are officially fulfilled. They have all of their own first-rounders beginning next season. They'll have less incentive to stock the roster with impact talent however they can.

    Full-tilt tanking is likely off the table with the new lottery rules set to take effect next year. But the league hasn't completely discouraged bottoming out. The worst teams still get the best odds at landing a top-four pick. They're reduced and, in the case of the No. 1 selection, co-opted by three squads, but the system continues to reward losing. The Nets might find purpose in plumbing the win-loss dungeons.

    Saddling themselves with more long-term salary will be newly damaging even if they don't. Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (restricted) and D'Angelo Russell (restricted) are all up for raises next summer, and the Nets have to start thinking about Caris LeVert's second deal, as he's eligible for an extension in 2019. Saving their ammo for roster reinvestment and future free-agency waves will appeal to them more than it has in summers past.

    Then again, if DeMarre Carroll's expiring contract gets sent into another team's cap space, the Lakers (Julius Randle), Magic (Aaron Gordon) and Milwaukee Bucks (Jabari Parker) need to hold an emergency front office summit. The Nets would have max money to pair with a history of using it.

5. Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Guaranteed Salaries: $51,371,476

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Nigel Hayes ($1,378,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Iman Shumpert's player option ($11,011,234); Garrett Temple's player option ($8,000,000)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 2 ($7,243,440)

    Dead Money: Matt Barnes ($2,133,542); Georgios Papagiannis ($2,000,400); Caron Butler ($517,219)

    All-Inclusive Total: $83,655,553

    Starting Cap Space: $17,344,447

    Most initially expected the Sacramento Kings to sit out of this summer's free-agency festivities. They aren't teeming with building-block projects, but their depth chart is overflowing at essentially every turn. They'll have enough trouble grooming their youth.

    Last year's foray into the free-agent market also didn't go so well for them. No way, no how, would they muck up their rotation by falling into the same-old method of self-sabotage.

    Except, then Sacramento snagged the No. 2 pick in the draft lottery. And now, all bets are off.

    Things will get even more complicated if Shumpert and Temple decline their player options, but this figures to be a spot-on(ish) glance at the Kings' finances. Those two won't match their 2018-19 salary on an annual basis. They're virtual locks to follow Kosta Koufos' lead and return to Sacramento.

    Still, the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($8.6 million) will be a meaningful tool in this summer's market. The Kings have more than double that amount at their disposal without touching the roster. And Temple is bound to engender intrigue if the Kings place him on the chopping block. Offloading him into another team's space would put Sacramento at more than $25 million in cap room.

    Picture a Kings team with Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic, no first-round pick in 2019 and top-five cap space. Got that mental imaged locked and loaded? That's the situation in Sacramento as we know it—which, depending on how much you trust the Kings' judgement, is either fairly envious or a crippling curse disguised as a blessing.

4. Atlanta Hawks

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    Guaranteed Salaries: $53,928,689

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Isaiah Taylor ($1,544,951); Antonius Cleveland ($1,378,242); Jaylen Morris ($1,378,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Dewayne Dedmon’s player option ($6,300,000); Mike Muscala’s player option ($5,000,000); Damion Lee ($1,537,872)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 3 ($6,504,600); No. 19 ($2,231,760); No. 30 ($1,606,680)

    Dead Money: Jamal Crawford ($2,304,226)

    All-Inclusive Total: $83,715,262

    Starting Cap Space: $17,284,738

    Sliding into fourth place with over $17 million of cap space is just the beginning for the Atlanta Hawks. They'll be fast-tracked to more than $30 million if Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala decline their player options.

    Too bad they don't plan on parlaying premium flexibility into a spending binge.

    General manager Travis Schlenk has been crystal clear in mapping out his plan: Atlanta will develop its kiddies, including this year's No. 3 pick, and use its cap space to absorb bloated contracts from other teams so long as they come packaged with draft picks and/or promising prospects.

    Feel free to lament the Hawks' planned absence from free agency for a moment. They could lure teams with restricted free agents into some absurdly expensive commitments if they were up for it. They aren't, and during a summer in which tweeters will want for the next iteration of the Nets, that's a letdown.

    But the Hawks should not be excommunicated from our offseason purview altogether. They have the juice to absorb almost any unsavory contract in the NBA without sending out salary of their own. That will invite souped-up buffers from the league's tax-evaders and pipe-dream buyers.

    What would the Portland Trail Blazers fork over to pawn off Evan Turner (two years, $36.5 million)? How about Meyers Leonard (two years, $21.9 million)? Would the Washington Wizards sweeten a Ian Mahinmi dump (two years, $31.4 million) so they're not as tempted to break up their Big Three?

    Could the Magic go rogue, prioritize immediate cap space over procedural rebuilding and grease the wheels of a Bismack Biyombo fire sale (two years, $34 million)? Does Atlanta have the stomach to take on Chandler Parsons (two years, $49.2 million), Gorgui Dieng (three years, $48.7 million), Ryan Anderson (two years, $41.7 million) or anyone currently under contract with the Detroit Pistons?

    Watch out for the Hawks. They're going to be on every handcuffed team's speed dial. 

3. Chicago Bulls

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    Guaranteed Salaries: $57,934,536

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Sean Kilpatrick ($2,054,856); Paul Zipser ($1,544,951)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Zach LaVine ($9,606,654); David Nwaba ($1,699,698)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 7 ($4,403,280), No. 22 ($1,974,480)

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $79,218,455

    Projected Cap Space: $21,781,545

    Chicago prefers to table its cap space for 2019 and beyond, according to NBC Sports Chicago's Mark Schanowski. Good luck convincing anyone that general manager Gar Forman and team vice president John Paxson have not drawn that line in the sand.

    Escorting Noah Vonleh (restricted) out of town positions the Bulls for close to $25 million in space while they tote Zach LaVine's pre-contract cap hold. They'll land around $30 million if they let go of their non-guaranteed deals.

    Another franchise in this situation would follow the maybe-next-time blueprint. The Bulls just wrapped up the first year of a rebuild that taught them little about anyone other than Kris Dunn, rookie Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis and David Nwaba (restricted). That includes LaVine. His recovery from an ACL injury limited him to just 24 appearances, and he finished the season right where he began it: on the shelf shelf, this time with tendinitis in the same left knee.

    Having to foot the bill for LaVine's next contract should scare the Bulls enough. Few would bank on them failing to match any offer sheet he receives. They viewed him as the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade. Severing ties now would imply they sold too low (they did). Keeping him around allows for the possibility that he eventually makes them look good.

    Lucrative long-term contracts are contrarian investments for transitioning teams. The Bulls don't have control over LaVine's status. They acquired him knowing they'd reach this juncture. And if they're bent on retaining him, they shouldn't be angling for any other outsized stabs in the dark. 

    Overpriced placeholder deals for the next year or two are fine. The same goes for sponging up unwanted salary in exchange for draft picks and cost-controlled prospects. Dedicating their cap space to anything else is unwise.

    For the sake of Bulls fans, here's hoping Chicago isn't putting the finishing touches on a four-year, $70 million offer sheet for Rodney Hood or a multiseason near-max for DeMarcus Cousins.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Guaranteed Salaries: $67,392,247

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Richaun Holmes' team option ($1,600,520); TJ McConnell's team option ($1,600,520)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: $0

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 10 ($3,522,480); No. 26 ($1,689,000)

    Dead Money: $0

    All-Inclusive Total: $75,804,767

    Starting Cap Space: $25,195,233

    Well, this doesn't seem fair.

    The Philadelphia 76ers are working off a 52-win campaign and second-round postseason appearance. Now they enjoy the Association's second-best cap situation? For real?

    LeBron James or Paul George won't necessarily flock to Philly, but they could. And the Sixers would welcome them.

    "I think the bar is very high for us in terms of who we are going to put on this team," co-managing partner Josh Harris said, per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey. "But on the other hand, for a certain small number of players, like we are going to go after them hard."

    The Sixers have to make moves on the margins to go full-on coup. They can sleepwalk their way to George's $30.3 max starting salary by jettisoning some cheap prospects or stretching the remaining year of Jerryd Bayless' contract, but they need to shed a little over $10 million to afford James at top dollar.

    Bayless just so happens to have a salary of $8.6 million in 2018-19. Isn't that lucky? The Sixers will be hard-pressed to find a team ready and willing to swallow him alone; it would take a Western Conference squad determined to keep LeBron in the East. That's fine.

    It shouldn't cost more than the Sixers' own first-round pick (No. 26) or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to push through an expiring-contract dump. And if it does, well, the Sixers will somehow come to grips with jettisoning the No. 10 pick should it mean landing a four-time MVP.

    Monitor their trade-market presence if they whiff on George and James—or should they (rightlydecide the latter isn't a fairy-tale fit. With Bayless as an anchor and a wealth of cost-controlled assets on their books, the Sixers are among the only teams that can pitch the San Antonio Spurs on a balanced Kawhi Leonard package. 

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Guaranteed Salaries: $34,564,080

    Non-Guaranteed Salaries: Tyler Ennis ($1,656,092); Ivica Zubac ($1,544,951); Thomas Bryant ($1,378,242)

    Expected Free-Agent Holds: Julius Randle ($12,447,727); Andre Ingram ($1,537,872)

    First-Round Pick Holds: No. 25 ($1,746,840)

    Dead Money: $0

    Empty Roster Charges: One ($831,311)

    All-Inclusive Total: $55,707,115

    Starting Cap Space: $45,292,885

    Adequately encapsulating the Lakers' flexibility is damn near impossible. Earmarking them for $45-plus million in room somehow undersells their outlook.

    Julius Randle's restricted free-agent hold is the sticking point. Los Angeles should have no problems ditching intended placeholders like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas. But Randle could be a part of their future. The Lakers should plan to keep his cap hit on the books until they're forced into a decision.

    The Lakers don't need dual-max slots from the jump. They have enough money to show Paul George and LeBron James they're serious. They can make up the difference in combined salary—the two of them will cost roughly $65.7 million—by renouncing Randle and stretching Luol Deng or by loading up a Deng dump with buffers galore.

    Strike out in free agency, and the Lakers have the trade winds to fall back on. They can build an alluring Kawhi Leonard package or lease out their cap space for more picks and prospects to buyers in a pinch.

    Kicking the can into next summer is also an option. Leonard (player option), Jimmy Butler (player option) and Klay Thompson all could be available, and the Lakers aren't ones to abandon the superstar-hunting game.

    Offering another series of one-year overpays both to incumbents and free agents prepared to roll the dice keeps them lean over the long haul and potentially competitive in the interim.

            

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball ReferenceSalary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.