-- The Los Angeles Lakers started their free-agent frenzy five months early at the trade deadline.
The decision to shed the $26 million remaining on Jordan Clarkson's contract in a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers now sets the Lakers up to have multiple options with how they build their roster. They can chase the two big free agents, in LeBron James and Paul George, this summer or shift focus to 2019, which will feature Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler.
It's certain that Los Angeles will be a major player in free agency. The only question: Which year?
Let's look at all the potential maneuvers and decisions the Lakers will face.
Under contract in 2018-19
Creating cap space is like putting together a complicated puzzle. For the Lakers to optimize room in July, the pieces will need to fit. And right now they don't.
Although the Lakers have only $34.7 million in guaranteed contracts, plus $4.5 million in non-guaranteed salary, the $100 million in combined free-agent cap holds has Los Angeles over the salary cap.
The double-max option
The Clarkson trade to the Cavaliers now opens up the possibility of the Lakers chasing two superstar players in July. The deal not only reduced payroll this summer (and in the future) but also brought back a first-round pick from the Cavaliers. League executives felt that the Lakers would have to attach a draft pick -- not receive one -- if they went in the direction of clearing room.
Now with Clarkson off the cap ledger, L.A. is projected to have $47 million in room. The amount includes renouncing all free-agent cap holds, except for Julius Randle, and keeping Luol Deng's $18 million salary counting against the cap. The Lakers also could create additional savings if they waive the $4.5 million in non-guaranteed contract for? Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant.
Stretching the Deng contract and waiving the three players on non-guaranteed contracts would leave the Lakers with $57.6 million in cap space, roughly $7 million short of the magic number of $65 million. The dilemma for the Lakers would be creating additional savings but also keeping Randle.
Would Randle sign a one-year, $5.5 million qualifying offer to help the Lakers in free agency? Unlikely. Even though Randle and Paul George share the same agent, bypassing a contract on the free-agent market would signal that there is an under-the-table agreement in place between both sides, something that the NBA would certainly investigate (especially considering that no first-round pick has ever signed a qualifying offer during the first two weeks of free agency). Having already been fined $500,000 for tampering with Paul George last summer, Lakers management would be hesitant to go in this direction.
The free-agent pitch
Here is where things get complicated.
When the Lakers are likely granted July 1 meetings with LeBron James, Paul George and DeAndre Jordan, each of the All-Stars should ask Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka three questions:
1. Who am I going to play with on the current roster?
2. What other free agents can we sign?
3. What is the future flexibility to improve
While a combination of James and George (or Jordan) on paper has the Hollywood appeal, L.A. would need to replenish its bench. If both James and George are signed, the Lakers would have roughly $5 million in room plus the $4.4 million midlevel exception to use. The Lakers would have $11 million available if they went with the combination of James and Jordan.
Each player will need to consider whether Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart are a foundation strong enough not just to compete for a playoff spot, but also to challenge the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs for the foreseeable future.
The Philadelphia option
Last summer the Philadelphia 76ers proved that you can stay competitive without risking future cap flexibility. The one-year signings of JJ Redick at $23 million and Amir Johnson at $11 million allowed the 76ers to add two veterans, compete for a playoff spot and preserve cap space. Even with the contract extensions of Robert Covington and Joel Embiid, Philadelphia is set to have $30 million in room this summer or preserve it for the summer of 2019.
The Lakers are in a similar position, though one year early.
With the high salaries of Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope set to be off the books, L.A. will have $47 million in cap space. That includes not stretching the $36 million owed to Deng and letting the market dictate the free agency of Randle. Randle's cap hold is $12.4 million, a figure that should mirror his 2018-19 salary.
The Lakers would still have a league-best $45.7 million in room to go out and sign two veterans to one-year contracts without taking a cap hit the following season. With the league heading toward a financial crunch, free agents will be lined up outside of Magic Johnson's door looking for a big one-year deal.
With a glaring need at shooting guard, either Will Barton or Avery Bradley would be a perfect fit on a one-year, $15 million contract. Or the Lakers can turn to Isaiah Thomas and bring back the point guard on a one-year deal. The Lakers could also pursue bringing back their own free agents in Caldwell-Pope and Lopez on similar contracts. Both players are projected to get around the $8.6 midlevel exception on the open market and could see that salary double on a one-year contract.
This is assuming George decides to stay in OKC. Of course, if the All-Star forward wants to sign with the Lakers, L.A. should use its cap space on him and then decide what to do with Randle and Deng from there.
The two players who were thought to be on the trade block or eventually waived -- Randle and Deng -- would all have value in 2018-19.
If Randle continues to play well next season, his new contract would present significant value for a team looking for someone who can play multiple positions and come off the bench or start. The risk comes if the Randle contract becomes untouchable in restricted free agency, something that the Trail Blazers have faced with Meyers Leonard. However, if structured right in both years and salary, Randle's contract wouldn't be a hindrance if they needed to shed the deal.
In the case of Deng, not stretching the veteran until the 2019-20 season would give the Lakers flexibility in a lower cap hit with shorter years. If Deng was stretched this summer he would count $7.4 million toward the cap for the next five years. Wait until 2019, and Deng counts $6.3 million for only three seasons.
The summer of 2019
The benefit of having cap space in 2019 is that the market still has not corrected itself. The albatross contracts signed in the summer of 2016 will still count toward the cap for the majority of teams. While the number of teams with cap space is projected to increase from seven this July to 16 in 2019, the Lakers will still be in the lead with total room available.
The salary cap is also projected to increase from $101 million to $108 million. Plus, factor in that Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart will have another season of development under their belts, along with the Lakers having their own 2019 first-round pick.
The Lakers' patience will be tested. The one thing they cannot do is follow 2016's plan, when they spent cap space on Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. If they're judicious, the goal of once again having a championship-level roster becomes realistic.