- Can the Lakers find a third star in NBA free agency? That question seems like it could decide next year's title, and the next seven days will provide an answer.
In the aftermath of the Anthony Davis trade there was a popular debate swirling around the NBA: how should the Lakers use their remaining cap space? Do they chase one more star or try to split that money among a few different role players? The questions were usually raised by people who were then quick to tell you that, actually, the smarter and more responsible approach was to focus on building out the remainder of the roster with dependable role players. Less Kemba Walker, more Patrick Beverley. In the abstract, the argument makes sense. LeBron James is going to be turning 35 years old this season, Anthony Davis can't do everything, and Kyle Kuzma's Mamba-mentality doesn't mean he's ready to be anything more than a sixth man or a fifth starter. The team needs go beyond just one more piece.
The problem is that an emphasis on role players ignores the practical mechanics of the NBA. It's true that role players can be crucial to title contenders, but the most valuable role players are the ones who outperform their contracts. Sometimes these are players that a team has drafted, like Kevon Looney in Golden State this season. Other times a team can find some of these players in a trade, like the Clippers did with Beverley. Occasionally some players will sign on a discount because of an existing relationship with stars, like P.J. Tucker in Houston the past two years. But in general, it's almost impossible to enter free agency and sign a handful of championship-caliber role players on team-friendly deals. By the time the best role players have proven themselves and hit free agency, it's already too late. Beverley made $5 million last season with the Clippers. Next season he will reportedly command more than $13 million annually over three seasons.
All of which is to say, if you find yourself in an office argument with anyone who's trying to signify wisdom and maturity by extolling the virtues of a good role player in L.A., tell them to stop being naive. The Lakers don't need to enter this summer looking to pay a premium for guys like Beverley or Danny Green or Darren Collison. In time, it will definintely be crucial to get lucky with a few minimum contracts and use cap exceptions wisely, but all of that comes second. If LeBron James and Anthony Davis want to win a title next season, they need a third star.
Alongside rookies and journeymen stuck on discount deals, superstars comprise the other category of NBA players that regularly outperform their contracts. LeBron and AD, for example, are worth more than what they'll earn in L.A. next season. Can the Lakers find another star who fits that criteria? That question seems like it could decide next year's title, and the next seven days will provide an answer.
At the moment, of course, we have no idea how any of this might be resolved. It's really kind of amazing: the Lakers offseason is the biggest story in basketball and thus far the parameters of L.A.'s next steps have remained laughably opaque. We're not sure what meetings will be held, we're not sure who will be holding the meetings, and we're not even sure how much cap space L.A. will have. There is a convoluted path to near-max space (~$32 million), while more conservative reporting has projected that the Lakers will have anywhere between $19 million (if they keep Reggie Bullock's $4.75 million hold on the books and then use his Bird rights to exceed the cap to re-sign him after spending cap space in free agency) or around $27 million (if they renounce Bullock and Anthony Davis waives his trade kicker).
As for players: if the Lakers can create max space and land Kawhi Leonard, obviously that vaults them to the front of the line for next year's title. Kyrie Irving would be a dream fit next to LeBron and AD, and while the whole world now expects him to sign in Brooklyn, his market becomes a lot more complicated in the event that KD goes to the Knicks and Brooklyn gets cold feet before turning the future over to the superstar that just just wrecked the Celtics.
Beyond those two dream options, another potential target would also be Walker, the Hornets guard who's now a rumored Celtics target, and Jimmy Butler, the Sixers guard that is currently at the center of a bizarre Rockets sign-and-trade attempt. If the goal is to find a max player who can outperform a max deal, each of those players represents a bigger gamble than Irving or Leonard, and neither one seems like realistic target (Walker seems like he's choosing between Charlotte, Dallas, or Boston; Butler seems like he'll eventually stay in Philly on a five-year, $190 million deal).
There's also D'Angelo Russell. If the Nets do sign Irving and Durant, Russell would be the odd man out in Brooklyn. His market elsewhere in the league is unclear (Suns? Wolves? Pacers?) and he's also played fewer seasons than the other stars L.A. would be chasing, which means his max salary would be for 25% of the cap, not 30% like the others. If the market for his services narrows in the days to come, there might even be room for the Lakers to negotiate down from the max and land Russell for closer to $20 million per year, an outcome that could leave room to go chase at least one other role player with the remainder of cap space. Adding D'Angelo would be A) hilarious after the Lakers discarded him two years ago to shed Timofey Mozgov's contract and help create this summer's cap space, but also B) an intriguing gamble on a 24-year-old player who could absolutely outperform his deal and pair well with the 27-year-old Davis through the duration of the era to come in L.A.
Whatever happens, the resolution to this story will be crucial to L.A.'s outlook not only for next season, but maybe for the majority of LeBron and A.D.'s time together. As early as next summer, Davis will re-sign and all cap flexibility will disappear. Meanwhile, we just watched the Lakers trade almost every asset they have to land Davis, which means that it will be very difficult to make meaningful additions via trade over the next few years. All of it helps explain why the next few weeks will be so massively important to not just the Lakers, but the shape of the entire league. The Lakers need to successfully create cap space, recruit a third star, and then the front office needs to successfully build out the rest of the roster with value signings that can give this team a chance to win at the highest levels of the league. All of three of those tasks will be much harder than signing LeBron last summer or trading for Davis earlier this month.
While we wait to see where this goes, the confusion and drama is perfect. The Lakers now have two of the best eight players on the planet, but no one has any idea what's next or whether any of this potential will be fulfilled. Trusted veteran reporters remain skeptical and conservative, while Lakers fans online are convinced that the media is overstating the cap constraints and underplaying the Kawhi possibilities. And you know what? Maybe those fans will be right.
In general with the Lakers, you can never quite tell whether they are a sleeping giant or the biggest buffoons in the league. On one hand they are the team with the most money, in the second-biggest market, with the richest history. If any team should feel entitled to go all-in assuming that things will probably work out in its favor, it's this one. Of course, this is also the team that has been lost for nearly a decade now, the infrastructure of the franchise (front office, medical staff, player development) has been regularly called into question in recent years, and we just watched them sign the greatest player of this generation and then miss the playoffs.
Even beyond everything that went wrong during the regular season, last year's post-LeBron July was a disaster and the whole world knew it except the Lakers. Now there's a second chance. All we know for sure is that the team the Lakers assemble by the end of this offseason could be here for the foreseeable future, and one side of the Lakers argument will be validated by the results over the next few weeks. If we're getting three stars in L.A. plus a collection of veterans who sign on to chase rings, that team could own the NBA as early as next October. Anything less than that, and both LeBron and Davis will have to be flat out incredible to make any of this work.
We'll see how it ends.