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The Big Problem with Lakers' Hopes to Retain Andre Drummond

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterApril 5, 2021

Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The best case for the Los Angeles Lakers: Get through the 2020-21 season with another championship, LeBron James gets his fifth—catching franchise legend Kobe Bryant—and the Lakers overtake the rival Boston Celtics with 18 titles.

But then what? Could the Lakers roll back the same squad for a three-peat?

Anthony Davis and James are a great starting point, but when it comes to players like Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder, the franchise may face an unsolvable puzzle returning the rest of the roster.

Drummond, in particular, faces a murky future with the Lakers. In late March, he joined the Lakers for the remainder of the season for almost $800,000 after a buyout with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

When head coach Frank Vogel spoke after Drummond's first practice, he said: "We're hopeful that [Drummond is] a Laker for a long time to come. That's what we're envisioning, and we think he's going to be a key piece for us both in the short term and in the long term."

Easy to say—far more complicated for the Lakers to pay Drummond enough to stay. The veteran is limited by non-Bird rights to just a contract starting at $2.9 million for next season. Will he happily turn down what could be big money from other teams to stay in Los Angeles for less?

Can the Lakers find a way to keep Drummond but other key potential free agents like Schroder and Harrell as well?

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Given how short careers are in the NBA and how difficult it can be for players to be patient financially, it's not a given the Lakers will be able to navigate the offseason without significant sacrifices.

       

The Big Problem

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

In trading for Schroder in the offseason, the Lakers also acquired his full Bird rights, enabling them to pay him more than any other team to stay. They don't have that same luxury with their big men, just non-Bird rights.

Harrell will almost certainly opt out of the second year of his contract ($9.7 million) for the chance to earn a wealthier deal elsewhere. At worst, he can re-sign in Los Angeles with a relatively small raise ($11.1 million), not a dollar more.

At least that's in the ballpark, compared to the amount they can pay Drummond without cap room or an exception. Given the team's investment in James and Davis, cap room isn't a viable option.

Los Angeles will, however, be able to pay more to Drummond via the taxpayer mid-level exception (projected at $5.9 million) or the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9.5 million). The former would solve many of the Lakers' issues, allowing them to spend freely to re-sign other free agents like Schroder and Harrell.

Should Drummond accept the latter, the Lakers would once again have a "hard cap," which projects to be $143 million next season. With Drummond at $9.5 million, it becomes impossible for the Lakers to keep the entire team together. And that's assuming Drummond is even willing to take a below-market contract to stay.

Per Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes, several teams pursued Drummond before he chose the Lakers. Of those listed, both the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets project to have enough cap space to pay Drummond (or Harrell) in the $20 million range. The Lakers cannot compete at that price.

A one-year deal for Drummond at $9.5 million with the Lakers would enable him to earn a starting salary at approximately $16.7 million the following year via early Bird rights. If he took the smaller exception at $5.9 million, his bump the next year would be to roughly $10.6 million.

Again, the numbers are more favorable to Harrell should he stay a year at $11.1 million, allowing for a jump to $19.4 million. But the reality is that competing teams may test both big men's patience for a richer Lakers' payday, and the franchise may lose both to other suitors.

        

Schroder's Non-Existent Extension

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

If Drummond becomes the priority and is willing to spurn other advances to stay with the Lakers at $9.5 million, the ensuing hard cap will limit what they can pay Schroder.

Negotiations with Schroder on a multiyear extension have stalled, as reported by Jovan Buha and Bill Oram of The Athletic, with the 27-year-old guard looking for a deal "that would pay him more than $20 million per year."

With no hard cap locked for next year (yet), the Lakers can reach Schroder's reported demands but haven't. In waiting for free agency, the guard faces some risk (injury, the Lakers choose to invest in Drummond and other players), but the upside of a larger contract in free agency appears to be too enticing.

As noted in the article, Los Angeles offered him and teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Toronto Raptors for Kyle Lowry before the trade deadline. The deal reportedly fell apart on the Lakers' refusal to include young guard Talen Horton-Tucker. By Buha and Oram's explanation, the Lakers do not appear willing to pay (they can do as much as $86 million over four years) with "the sides ... far apart in extension negotiations."

What's the correct number for Schroder? It may be dictated by how the rest of the puzzle pieces fit together.

        

Don't Forget the Rest of Us

If Drummond's salary locks in a hard cap, the price for the rest of the roster becomes significant. Teams are required to carry at least 14 players for most of the season.

Beyond Drummond, Harrell and Schroder, the Lakers will have several other free agents to negotiate with, including Alex Caruso, Horton-Tucker, Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, Devontae Cacok (restricted) and Kostas Antetokounmpo (restricted). Alfonzo McKinnie is also under contract, but at $1.9 million in non-guaranteed salary.

Of the list, Caruso and Horton-Tucker could earn sizable raises. The Lakers have full rights to Caruso but only early Bird for Horton-Tucker. With just two years in the NBA, Horton-Tucker is subject to the Arenas Rule, limiting what other teams can offer the young guard.

While a competing franchise could give Horton-Tucker up to nearly $83 million over four years, his contract would start at $9.5 million for the 2021-22 season, with a massive jump in the third season. Los Angeles would have the right to match such an offer. While both Horton-Tucker and Caruso have fans throughout many of the league's front offices, it's unclear how big their offers will be this offseason (though all it takes is one or two willing teams to further complicate matters for the Lakers).

Beyond the two guards, the squad's remaining free agents might be eligible for more but may be unlikely to get anything above the veteran's minimum ($1.7-$2.6 million). The Lakers also have a first-round pick in the 2021 NBA draft, provided they don't miss the playoffs and finish with a top-seven selection (which would then go to the New Orleans Pelicans as part of the Davis trade).

The real test may be how willing team governor Jeanie Buss is to pay to earn another title, especially if Drummond surprises with the willingness to take the Lakers' smaller exception.

       

Putting It All Together

First, some basics:

  • Under contract: Kyle Kuzma, Marc Gasol, James, Davis, Caldwell-Pope

  • 2021 Draft Pick: $2.26 million in starting salary

  • The team carries only 14 players through the season

  • NBA luxury tax threshold: $136.6 million

  • NBA hard cap, if triggered: $143 million

      

Scenario 1

Drummond is willing to re-sign for the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5.9 million), enabling the Lakers to spend freely without a hard cap:

  • Schroder re-signs at a $19 million starting salary

  • Harrell returns at $11.1 million

  • Caruso and Horton-Tucker re-sign at a combined $15 million starting salary

  • Three players at the minimum

  • Payroll: ~$168.5 million

  • Luxury tax: ~$94.2 million -- discounted by the NBA because of the pandemic to ~$63.1 million

  • Total: $231.6 million

In comparison, the team projects to pay out about $140.3 million for the current season, including luxury tax. Asking Buss to accept a $91.3 million increase is unreasonable.

Despite Drummond's (theoretical) willingness to return at a below-market price, cuts elsewhere need to be made:

  • Trade Caldwell-Pope to a team with cap room or a trade exception

  • Trade the 2021 first-rounder (after the draft) as an incentive with Caldwell-Pope

  • Five players at the minimum

  • Payroll: ~$156.6 million

  • Luxury tax: ~$44.9 million -- discounted to ~$30.1 million

  • Total: $186.7 million

An improvement, but is a $46.4 million jump the answer? If not, the Lakers might have to pass on Schroder, Harrell or perhaps one of Caruso or Horton-Tucker. Drummond may not have any interest in returning at that price, but that doesn't change the Lakers' pressure with hefty luxury taxes.

         

Scenario 2

Drummond is willing to re-sign for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9.5 million), locking the Lakers into a hard cap:

  • Schroder re-signs at a $19 million starting salary

  • Trade Caldwell-Pope and Gasol to a team with cap room or a trade exception

  • Trade the 2021 first-rounder

  • Harrell leaves as a free agent

  • Only one of Horton-Tucker and Caruso re-sign at $6.5 million

  • Eight players at the minimum

  • Payroll: ~$142.9 million

  • Luxury tax: ~9.8 million -- discounted to ~$6.6 million

  • Total: $149.5 million

The Lakers keep both Drummond and Schroder. The total payroll (including tax) increases by a very reasonable ~$9.2 million, but Harrell, Gasol and one of Horton-Tucker/Caruso are lost.

         

Scenario 3

Drummond is willing to re-sign for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9.5 million), locking the Lakers into a hard cap:

  • Schroder leaves as a free agent

  • Trade Caldwell-Pope to a team with cap room or a trade exception

  • Trade the 2021 first-rounder

  • Harrell returns at $11.1 million

  • Caruso and Horton-Tucker re-sign at a combined $15 million starting salary

  • Six players at the minimum

  • Payroll: ~$142.9 million

  • Luxury tax: ~9.8 million -- discounted to ~$6.6 million

  • Total: $149.5 million

The Lakers keep Drummond, Harrell, Gasol, Horton-Tucker and Caruso. While Schroder, Caldwell-Pope and the pick are gone, the Lakers keep the bulk of their core while managing a reasonable budget.

Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma make relatively equivalent salaries next season at $13 million, but Caldwell-Pope was rumored to be in the trade proposal to Toronto. Additional scenarios include letting both Schroder and Harrell leave as free agents, which could help the Lakers keep Caldwell-Pope and the first-round pick. Should the team look to trade Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope, that might open the door to keeping Harrell, Drummond and Schroder, but almost any path requires difficult sacrifices.

          

Prediction

The Lakers will use their $9.5 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception, with Drummond the target, which will also force the franchise to stay within the fixed budget of a hard cap set by the NBA. That will require significant cuts, and not everyone from the current roster will return next season.

While the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception allows for greater flexibility and remains an option, the team will be highly cognizant of the financial ramifications of a massive luxury tax bill.

Ultimately, any Drummond scenario requires the center to take a leap of faith that he'll eventually cash in with the Lakers before his third year with the team. That may be too big of an ask.

                

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

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