As the Lakers enter their first championship window in a decade, we examine how they can optimize it.
Rob Pelinka has good reason to be pleased with himself. In the three years since he took over from Mitch Kupchak as General Manager of the Lakers the team has turned over the roster, shed two albatross contracts, added two transcendent talents, hired a new coach, and moved from the cellar of the league to the title conversation.
In spite of that meteoric rise, it has seemed all year as though the front office still has something to prove. The failure to get Kawhi Leonard in free agency after they had seemed certain to do so was a serious blow to Pelinka’s image in the press. Ivica Zubac was traded for what amounted to a bottle of snake oil. Even the coverage of the Anthony Davis trade – a major coup – was tainted by the suggestion that Pelinka had overpaid.
The real test of Rob Pelinka as a General Manager will come in the next two years. The task is a formidable one: re-sign Davis, maximize the current team around him and LeBron James, then find a younger star to pair with him as James continues to age (or perhaps goes elsewhere to play with his son). The next two off-seasons are crucial. After the summer of 2021, the Lakers’ title window will either close for several years or continue to open wider.
The first important decision to be made after the 2020 season will be made by Anthony Davis. It was conventional wisdom coming into the season that he would decline his player option for next year, sign a two-year contract for a better salary, and then get the largest possible bag after completing his 10th year in the league.
The salary cap implications of the season shutdown have changed that calculation, both for Davis and the team. The team may not be able to afford giving Davis a substantial raise. For the purpose of building the best possible team, he may not necessarily demand one. Simply opting-in to the last year of his contract would postpone a financial decision until the position of the cap is more clear, while aligning Davis’ free-agency with that of Giannis Antetokounmpo and James’ own player option.
Both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo also have player options after this year. Rondo is almost certain to take his, as he would otherwise have difficulty finding paid work in the NBA outside of coaching. Caldwell-Pope has significantly increased his value this year and has a chance to do so even farther with a solid playoff performance.
Unfortunately for him, the market for his services will deflate with
the lower salary cap, and he is unlikely to get a better deal on a contending
team than the one he currently has.
The big rotation for next year is set to be similar to this year, with
JaVale McGee still on contract and Dwight Howard and/or DeMarcus Cousins expected to return in unrestricted free agency. Kyle Kuzma will be in the last year of his rookie contract and the Lakers will be able to bring Markieff Morris back with a fairly modest raise, pending his performance in the playoffs.
As for the guard rotation, there is fairly little room to add to it should
Dion Waiters re-sign with the team. They could – and should – take long looks at both Fred VanVleet and Goran Dragic as additional distributors who can also score. Despite their surplus of guards, the Lakers suffer from a chronic lack of ball-handling.
Adding a ball-handling guard has another auxiliary benefit. It creates
several skill-set redundancies at the guard position that are most easily
resolved via trade. Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green , Avery Bradley, and Alex Caruso could be important pieces in a negotiation for a third star, which is a
reflection on their strong play this season.
Regardless of how each of these variables ends up playing out, the broad
goals are clear. Regardless of the outcome of this post-season, the goal will
be to build around the core of James and Davis with shooting, ball-handling,
and versatile defenders. Marginal improvements of this sort helped James win championships in Miami and Cleveland, in both cases immediately after falling short in the Finals.
For both the remainder of this season and next year, the Lakers will be
championship favorites provided their stars are healthy. After that, there is a possibility that both James and Davis will be unrestricted free agents, along with several more of the biggest names in the league. It is then, in the 2021 free agency period, that the Lakers will have to make their move for the long term.
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