Would it be a good idea for the Lakers to make immediate improvements by trading the No. 2 pick?
Could they acquire an NBA superstar with such a prize?
With the Lakers looking to build their next great team after Kobe Bryant's retirement, dealing the pick could help them improve faster than taking one of the top prospects available. Would it really make sense for them to trade the long-term potential of Brandon Ingram, Ben Simmons or another top prospect for a more expensive veteran player?
This year's draft picks more valuable than ever
While scouts aren't particularly enamored of this year's set of draft prospects, first-round picks are still more valuable than ever in 2016. With the salary cap set to jump by nearly a third this summer when the NBA's new national television contracts kick in, rookie salaries -- fixed as part of the league's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) -- won't keep pace.
Consider that Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 overall pick in the first year of the current CBA, made $23.2 million over the life of his four-year rookie contract. This year's No. 1 pick will make a maximum of $26.2 million, 15 percent more than Irving. (This maximum reflects 120 percent of the fixed scale for each pick, which is the most teams are allowed to pay first-round picks. Nearly every team does pay 120 percent.)
Meanwhile, the projected 2016-17 salary cap of $92 million per team is nearly 60 percent higher than it was during Irving's rookie season ($58 million). And further growth is expected in future seasons, pushing the cap higher than $100 million per team.
All told, Irving's salary took up about 10 percent of the Cavaliers' salary cap during his rookie contract. Whoever is taken No. 1 this year will make an even lower 6.5 percent of his team's cap over the same period if the NBA's current estimates are correct.
Even under the old model, top picks provided far more value than their salary on average, and that's truer than ever now. Whether the Philadelphia 76ers draft Ingram or Simmons, the other will provide the Lakers plenty of surplus value.
Based on their translated college statistics, age and position near the top of Chad Ford's big board, I estimate that Simmons will be worth more than $64 million to his team during his rookie contract and Ingram nearly $55 million -- both more than twice the $24 million they would be paid as the No. 2 pick.
The case for a trade: Many stars underpaid too
The value of rookie-scale contracts alone doesn't necessarily rule out the possibility of a trade being a good move. After all, the same rising cap also boosts the value of stars who are already on contracts that pay them the old maximum salary.
Take Sacramento Kings star DeMarcus Cousins. During 2014-15, the first year of his four-year rookie extension, Cousins' $13.7 million salary took up about 23 percent of the salary cap. Even with annual raises, Cousins' $18.1 million salary for 2017-18 is about 17 percent of the projected cap. Entering this summer's free agency, 22 players are already guaranteed more money than Cousins next season, including Tobias Harris, Enes Kanter and Wesley Matthews.
As a result, I estimate Cousins' net value (the value of the production he provides minus his salary) at nearly $51 million over the two seasons remaining on his current contract, making him far more valuable as a trade chip than Simmons ($37 million) or Ingram ($28 million).
The same is true of other stars locked into long-term max deals such as Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls ($48 million net value), Paul George of the Indiana Pacers ($40 million) and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers ($45 million).
In fact, the Lakers would surely have to include one of their young prospects with the No. 2 pick to make such a deal viable.
The case against: Trading for a fairly paid veteran would cost Lakers pick and cap space
While Lakers fans dream of trading for a star in his prime, odds are no such player will be available. Kings GM Vlade Divac dismissed the possibility of trading Cousins at the news conference introducing Dave Joerger as the team's new head coach last week, Butler will represent the Bulls at the lottery, the Pacers have never offered any suggestion of trading George and Love seems to have found his place in the Cleveland offense during the playoffs.
That might leave the Lakers looking at a lower tier of trade candidates. Because of their higher salaries and lower on-court value as they age, older players such as Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets (minus-$1 million net value) and Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks (minus-$19 million after factoring in his 15 percent trade kicker) don't provide the same kind of value.
The big problem with acquiring a player like Anthony is the Lakers would be giving up not only their pick but also forgoing the opportunity to sign a free agent (or multiple free agents) using the extra cap space they're spending on Anthony's salary ($22.3 million more than the No. 1 pick will make in 2016-17 with the trade kicker). That would help the Lakers in the short term, particularly given the limited number of impact free agents available this summer, but not down the road.
By 2018-19, my projections suggest Simmons could be expected to be more valuable on the court than Anthony and Ingram nearly as valuable -- while making $26.3 million less as the No. 2 pick.
The verdict: Keep the pick unless the right player comes available
If they keep their pick, the Lakers would be foolish to rule out trading it for the right player. There's too much value to be had in potentially adding a star in his prime whose salary is small enough that the Lakers could still add top free agents who would be interested in playing with him.
The danger comes if the Lakers expand that list of targets too far to players who don't provide the same kind of value above their salary as a top-three pick will during his rookie contract, particularly if that move is made in the hopes of trying to win as many games as possible now at the expense of building a contender a few years down the road.
Fortunately, GM Mitch Kupchak didn't sound inclined to short-cut the rebuilding process when discussing his expectations for 2016-17 in a recent interview with Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
"I do want to get to the point where we feel our team is good to watch, exciting to watch," Kupchak said, "and people say, 'You know something? That team is going to be even better next year.' "