-- How should the Los Angeles Lakers start to get back to title contention over the next six months?
L.A. has the option to clear the decks to make way to add two maximum free agents such as LeBron James, Paul George and/or DeMarcus Cousins -- though with plenty of other costs -- or take a more patient approach. What does each path look like, and what are the best options?
Let's look at all the potential maneuvers and decisions the Lakers will face as they continue to rebuild a team that has missed the playoffs four straight seasons.
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 $49.5 million in guaranteed contracts, plus $4.5 million in non-guaranteed salary, the $66 million in combined free-agent cap holds has Los Angeles over the salary cap.
The double max option
Rarely does a team get a mulligan to fix past mistakes.
Fortunately, Los Angeles is still in position to chase two max free agents in July even after signing Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to a combined $136 million in 2016. It will, however, come at a cost to the Lakers' depth.
Gone will be starters Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, key reserves Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, and veterans Deng and Corey Brewer.
Moving Clarkson, one of the early favorites for sixth man of the year, and his two-year, $26 million salary (2018-19 and 2019-20) is Step 1 in the Lakers' path to clear room. Although there could be suitors at the trade deadline, as there were for Lou Williams last season, the Lakers would prove prudent in keeping the guard until the summer.
Moving Clarkson mostly for cap space in early February only to strike out in free agency would be a serious blow to L.A.'s depth.
You would think that the combination of Kyle Kuzma and Larry Nance Jr. would make Randle expendable. Relegated to backup center after starting 133 games the previous two seasons at power forward, Randle has not only found a role with the Lakers but has proved to be one of their best players. Although Randle's minutes are down from the previous season (28.8 to 22.3), including a season-low eight minutes in a win at Houston, the 23-year-old's production has increased (notably posting a career-low 102.5 defensive rating). Randle's biggest attribute is his ability to play the backup 5 when the Lakers go small. After spending 97 percent of his minutes at the 4 in 2015-26 and 67 percent last season, Randle is now logging 85 percent of his minutes at center, according to Cleaning the Glass, and playing 8.4 fourth-quarter minutes per game.
For the Lakers to optimize Randle's value, the 2014 lottery pick would need to be traded by the Feb. 8 trade deadline. The obstacle Lakers management will face is finding a team willing to trade away a key asset (such as a good draft pick) for a player the team could sign as a free agent in July. However, Randle's Bird rights (and, thus, the ability to exceed the cap) have appeal based on the majority of the teams not having cap space next summer. If the Lakers fail to trade Randle, they run the risk of losing him for nothing in free agency while they go star chasing.
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 the two sides, something 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 George this summer, L.A. management would be hesitant to go in this direction.
A good veteran presence, Deng has a contract (two years, $37 million remaining) that is not moveable unless the Lakers want to deplete their future first-round assets.
Unlike the Mozgov trade that cost L.A. 2015 No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell, the Lakers will not take that approach with Deng. Sources close to the team told ESPN that they will not attach a first-round pick to the Deng contract to shed his salary. Starting in 2019, the Lakers will be in control of their own first-round picks (the 2018 first is owed to Philly or Boston) and attaching multiple firsts to shed Deng's contract would be reckless.
The past three seasons have proved there is a blueprint to build through the draft after the additions of Ball, Brandon Ingram, Nance, Randle and Kuzma. The smart move is to stretch Deng's $37 million over five years and incur an annual $7.3 million cap hit.
After stretching Deng and moving Randle and Clarkson without taking on salary, here's how the Lakers' books would look:
The free-agent pitch
Here is where things get complicated.
When the Lakers are likely granted a July 1 meeting with James, George and Cousins, each one of the All-Stars will ask Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka three questions that affect the product on the court:
Each answer will depend on what salary each player starts at -- or, at least, it would if James or George makes a financial sacrifice to help build depth on the bench, which is reportedly not on the table in James' case.
By adding two more max deals, L.A. would lose bench scoring and shooting at the wings. Besides the $66.7 million in room, the Lakers would have only $5.4 million in room (if the three players on non-guaranteed contracts -- Zubac, Bryant and Ennis -- are waived), the $4.4 million room exception and the minimum to fill in the holes. As Oklahoma City has shown this season, replacing depth for All-Star caliber players doesn't always work.
The Lakers would still have $8 million available if they sign two max players with a starting salary of $30.3 million (think Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins), and that room would increase to $10 million if the three players on non-guaranteed contracts are waived. L.A. would still have the $4.4 million room exception available, too.
In both scenarios, the Lakers would have their first-round pick in 2019 along with the non-taxpayer midlevel (projected to be $9.2 million) and biannual exceptions (projected to be $3.6 million). Los Angeles also would have Bird rights on Nance when the power forward becomes a restricted free agent in 2019.
The question for each star free agent to consider will be whether Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Nance form a foundation strong enough not just to compete for a playoff spot but to challenge top Western Conference teams such as Golden State, Houston and San Antonio for the foreseeable future.
The one max option and retain depth
If the Lakers can't swing two star free agents next summer, there's another appealing option.
They can try to bring back Lopez and Caldwell-Pope on one-year deals -- a possibility since so few teams will have cap space to compete for them -- retain Clarkson and Randle, sign a star free agent such as George ... and then potentially add another max salary in 2019.
In this scenario, the Lakers also would need to stretch Deng's contract and waive the non-guaranteed deals.
Signing a player like George in 2018 and rolling over cap space to 2019 would be complicated but doable. For the Lakers to target a player such as Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler in 2019, Los Angeles would have to trade Clarkson and his $13.4 million expiring contract before free agency. By that time, Clarkson will have one year left at $13.4 million. This scenario will depend on what the Lakers do with Randle. If they sign Randle to a contract in 2018, the Lakers would have to trade both players before the summer of 2019.
If Randle is traded before the Feb. 8 deadline or not signed in the offseason, Los Angeles would have $25 million in cap space (including Clarkson) in 2019-20, $7 million below the projected max. That amount takes into account one max player signed in 2018, Deng stretched and Nance's $6.8 million free-agent hold.
The patience in rebuilding
Once you get past Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins, there is a significant drop with impact players in free agency in 2018.
In fact, two of the Lakers' own free agents, Lopez and Caldwell-Pope, fall in the top 25 of available players come July.
If the Lakers want to continue to focus on their young roster, they can sign Lopez and Caldwell-Pope to two-year contracts (with the second year non-guaranteed), retain Clarkson, not stretch Deng and preserve cap space until 2020.
By then, Los Angeles could have $66 million in cap space, good enough to entertain a free-agent class of Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, DeMar DeRozan and Otto Porter Jr.
The Lakers patience' will be tested this summer. Although cap space creates options and flexibility, the summer of 2016 also proved that having money to spend could be detrimental, especially if you miss out on your targets and spend unwisely.
In this case, the Lakers are not going to have another mulligan if they make the wrong decision.