LOS ANGELES — From the moment Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in 2013, the Los Angeles Lakers have been rebuilding. They haven't been to the playoffs since that season. But after the team finally clinched a berth seven years later, the entire NBA was suspended because of an international health crisis.
Outside their 104-102 letdown Tuesday to the Brooklyn Nets, the Lakers were playing their best basketball of the season, with back-to-back wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. LeBron James had thrust himself back into the MVP race. But it's all in danger, with play suspended for at least a month and the possibility that the rest of the 2019-20 season may be canceled.
If the situation stabilizes, the league and the players union league can agree to a truncated regular season (perhaps 70 games?), with playoffs that could run beyond June. Player contracts would normally roll over to the 2020-21 season (or end altogether) in July, but the entire calendar can be pushed back, including the draft, free agency and summer league. That only works if players and the league, along with their network partners and the arenas, are all willing and able to accommodate.
It's probably safe to say that billions of dollars are on the line, but that all pales in comparison to public and player safety.
For the Lakers, they'd certainly like the opportunity to get through the Western Conference for a chance at their first title since 2010. That's a 10-year gap, longer than the seven years between the last Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal championship and the first Bryant/Pau Gasol title. Before that, the Lakers had to wait 12 years after the final Showtime Lakers ring in 1988.
Can they get past the Clippers, Bucks and all comers?
The chance to find out would be tremendous because it would mean America had gained a foothold against COVID-19. If not, what would the Lakers face after a canceled season?
Will Anthony Davis Opt In?
The Lakers traded a bounty to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. He's only worth it if he stays beyond his contract. For 2019-20, Davis is earning $27.1 million. He's expected to opt out of his final year at $28.8 million next season to sign a new deal, which would start at $34.5 million based on the NBA's salary-cap projection for 2020-21 ($115 million).
Except next year's salary cap will likely take a large hit if the NBA loses a significant amount of money based on the shutdown. It's not a question of if the cap will fall, but by how much?
The answer isn't clear. The league and the union can agree to anything they want. Neither can change the rules unilaterally. If the league loses $1.2 billion, that would lead to a $20 million drop in the cap projection to roughly $95 million, down from this year's $109 million. But an agreement can lead to an artificially higher figure, one that doesn't shake up the system so dramatically.
If the cap does drop enough, Davis may be better off either opting into his final year. While an extension would start as high as $32.5 million (a 20 percent bump over his current salary), it would be amended down to next season's max. That might dip to roughly $28.5 million with a $95 million cap, slightly less than his player option.
What Other Lakers Will Opt In?
Davis isn't the only Laker with an option after the season.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($8.5 million), Avery Bradley ($5 million), JaVale McGee ($4.2 million) and Rajon Rondo ($2.7 million) can all choose free agency over a return. But if the salary cap does drop significantly, spending power around the league will be curtailed.
If so, it'd be more likely than not that all four choose to stay another season.
How Can Lakers Get Value Back for Quinn Cook?
While Quinn Cook is valued by his teammates, he hasn't carved out a steady role in the rotation. Beyond James, the only true point guard is Rondo. Both Cook and Alex Caruso bring different skills, but neither has shown enough consistency in running the team.
Cook is due $3 million next season, but only $1 million is guaranteed. Whether Rondo opts in or out, the Lakers need to upgrade at the position and may choose to move on from Cook to do so.
If that's by trade, Cook's outgoing salary would count as the lower figure ($1 million), unless the team that acquires him allows for his full $3 million to be guaranteed. That's also not a unilateral decision. Cook has to agree to accept the additional $2 million in guarantees.
Will Lakers Keep Any of Their Free Agents?
The Lakers will have only a few free agents in the summer—more if players opt out—but assuming they do not, the list is just Dwight Howard, Jared Dudley, Markieff Morris and Dion Waiters.
Howard is the most significant of the group, as he provides the Lakers with valuable minutes off the bench at center. He might be looking for one of a team's available exceptions (ranging from $3.8 to $9.8 million with a $115 million cap or $3.2 to $8.1 million at $95 million), instead of the minimum the Lakers have him on at $2.6 million.
The Lakers will have his non-Bird rights, allowing them to pay Howard a starting salary of $3.1 million without using their mid-level or bi-annual exceptions.
Dudley is more valuable in the locker room than he is on the court. If he returns, it should be at the minimum once again. Waiters just signed with the team but may not get a chance to showcase his game. Morris, who also recently joined the squad, would be seeking one of the exceptions as previously detailed. His non-Bird rights would only pay him $2.1 million, which may be below a minimum contract.
Can Lakers Afford to Lose Giannis' Brother?
On a two-way deal, Kostas Antetokounmpo will be a restricted free agent in July should the league calendar stay intact. Given that his brother, Giannis Antetokounmpo, could be a free agent in 2021, expect the Lakers to keep the NBA MVP's younger sibling in the fold.
The Lakers may not be a favorite to land Giannis, though. James would probably need to take apay cut, and the pandemic could change the numbers dramatically—but expect the Lakers to at least put themselves in position to make a run at Giannis, and Kostas could be the key.
Free-Agent Shopping Options
Assuming Davis stays, the Lakers will have only a couple of real spending tools. If they use most of their mid-level exception or any of their bi-annual, they'll lock in a hard cap. While that projects to be $145.5 million with a $115 million salary cap, that could drop to the $120 million range if the cap falls to $95 million.
That may prove to be too restricting, with so many teams planning for a much higher tax threshold before the coronavirus put the NBA on hold. The league and union may agree to push that line high enough for teams to function financially.
If the details are ironed out, the Lakers would have around $8 million to $10 million and a little over $3 million to spend in free agency.
While Fred VanVleet would be a tremendous get as an unrestricted free agent, the Lakers probably don't have anywhere close to what the Raptors will offer to keep him in Toronto. Similarly, the team would benefit tremendously from Joe Harris' shooting, but the Brooklyn Nets have his full Bird rights and can offer far more than the Lakers if they choose to do so.
Some names to keep in mind might include D.J. Augustin, Jeff Teague, Goran Dragic, Darren Collison, Davis Bertans, Carmelo Anthony, Maurice Harkless, Dario Saric (restricted), Kent Bazemore, Marco Belinelli and Jae Crowder, among several others.
Howard may also seek out one of the Lakers' exceptions. If they felt it was important enough to keep him at a price above what they can pay outright with his rights, they may not have the means to bring in significant additional talent.
Draft Positioning Isn't Great
Jonathan Wasserman had Jahmi'us Ramsey of Texas Tech at No. 29 in his March 4mock draft.
And What About Extension-Eligible Kyle Kuzma?
The Lakers need to decide if Kyle Kuzma is the right fit with James and Davis. If so, he'll be extension-eligible until the start of next season. If they don't give him a new deal, he'll be a restricted free agent in 2021.
Or Los Angeles could look to trade Kuzma, and its first-round pick (after it's selected, not before because of the Stepien Rule), to try to upgrade, probably at the point. That's where Cook's $3 million, along with Kuzma's $3.6 million for 2020-21, could combine to bring in a player who earns up to $11.6 million.
Once (and if) players such as Caldwell-Pope, Bradley, McGee and Rondo opt in, they can also be traded (but not before). The Lakers can deal Danny Green ($15.4 million for next year), Caruso ($2.8 million) and Horton-Tucker ($1.5 million) if they see fit—although any gaps they open in their rotation would subsequently need to be filled.
It wouldn't be as difficult to trade for a player like Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder, in terms of matching his $15.5 million salary. Provided the Thunder were interested, a summer deal would be far more feasible than at last month's trade deadline, with Kuzma earning just $2 million.
The league is in a moratorium and will be until further notice. The initial plan is 30 days, but the deciding factors go well beyond the NBA's grasp. The hope is that play will resume, and that the massive financial hit will be diminished.
If not, the Lakers will miss out on a valuable, rare chance to win a championship. It's a small thing in the midst of a health crisis, but in the world of the NBA, it's a significant moment. What comes next will remain a mystery for some time.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.