So, LeBron James just agreed to a reported four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers, shaking the landscape of the NBA, locking himself in long-term and setting off an inevitable chain reaction of transactions around the league. James reportedly has a fourth-year opt-out, but the implications of his contract are clear: This is where I’m going, everyone else can follow me. And while Paul George took himself off the board last night by committing long-term to the Thunder, there are still a ton of dominos that have already started to fall.
What now for the Lakers? Well, the immediate, unsexy answer is “sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope,” who shortly after the James news agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal to rejoin the Lakers, per Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports. Uncoincidentally, Caldwell-Pope was with L.A. on a one-year, $17.7 million deal last season, and he and James share an agent, Rich Paul. Los Angeles has already been tied to free-agent center Nerlens Noel, who is also repped by… Rich Paul. They also have reportedly agreed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal with longtime James nemesis Lance Stephenson and to a minimum contract with erstwhile Warriors center JaVale McGee. Let’s discuss.
Creating Cap Space
The Lakers have already found LeBron some rotation-ready help. Factoring in the new deals for Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson and McGee, the Lakers can create about $2.2 million in cap room, and have the ability to add $11.6 million more if they were to renounce restricted free agent Julius Randle’s cap hold. They can also go over the salary cap to sign Randle, since they have his bird rights. Stephenson will slot into the room mid-level exception, and McGee’s minimum deal slots in cleanly. If nobody else in the league is willing to absorb the remaining two years and $36.8 million on Luol Deng’s contract (in trade packages that would have to include draft considerations at minimum), the Lakers could waive him using the stretch provision, which spreads out the remaining salary evenly over each of the next five seasons. Trading him would be optimal, but if they stretch him, it would free up about $9.8 million in additional cap room. As it stands, they’re still a couple moves away from having space to sign another major free agent.
Searching for Kawhi
Starting with the high-profile moves left on the board, expect the Lakers to press more seriously for unsettled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, who is due nearly $20.1 million this season and has a player option for 2019-20 that gives his camp some leverage to try and force a move. San Antonio will continue to drive a hard bargain, and LeBron committing may put some added pressure on Los Angeles to bring Leonard in now, as opposed to waiting until the trade deadline or just signing him to a big contract next summer. According to reports, Leonard is intent on joining the Lakers.
The Lakers can offer a mix of young players that includes Brandon Ingram (likely their best trade piece), Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, plus future draft considerations, as they presently own all of their future first-rounders. With L.A. moving into a competitive mode, the projected value of those firsts is a bit more uncertain given it’ll likely land somewhere in the 20s for the duration of James’s stay. They’re assets nonetheless. First-round pick Moritz Wagner signed his deal earlier on Sunday and thus can’t be traded for 30 days. The Lakers can also offer the draft rights to two second-rounders: Isaac Bonga, a point forward from Germany, and Kansas shooting specialist Svi Mykhailiuk, both of whom can still be stashed overseas next season and have not signed contracts. Los Angeles would presumably love to shed Deng’s contract to preserve cap space in any Leonard deal, but the Spurs would have to be properly incentivized to do so.
Whether or not the Spurs will budge and send Leonard to a conference rival is still up in the air, and the Lakers can always decide to pursue other options while preparing to sign him next summer. But at least there’s a pathway to what we can sensibly describe as Plan A.
The Lakers reportedly spoke to Pelicans free-agent center DeMarcus Cousins on the phone at the outset of free agency. Cousins is the most talented free agent left on the market, but he’s also a thickly built 6’11”, 270-pound big man entering his age-28 season coming off of a torn left Achilles, and is recovering from surgery in late January. He’d still be a splashy signing, and a one-year max offer could get it done if the Lakers can clear a little bit more cap space. But it’s far less clear how much immediate help Cousins would be able to provide, and there’s some private skepticism around the league as to how soon he’ll be available to play in games, wherever he signs next season. Coming off of a serious injury, it’s also fair to wonder whether Cousins would even want to risk taking a large short-term offer if he can get financial security elsewhere. Staying with the Pelicans could be more lucrative. Cousins would grab headlines and spark superteam talk, but he wouldn’t necessarily spur a championship pathway in the next 11 months.
According to reports, the Lakers also met with Rockets restricted free agent Clint Capela on Sunday. Just 24 years old and coming off a career year, he would be another interesting option in the middle, but it would most likely take a large long-term offer sheet to successfully pry him from Houston, which holds the right to match any deal. Capela is an athletic rim-runner who could thrive alongside James, but committing long-term money would jeopardize the Lakers’ future flexibility in free agency. Paying him would help, but wouldn’t push Los Angeles over the top without more talent in place. There are other young restricted free agents like Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine, but all would require a similarly large investment for a team that has its eyes set on higher-end talent.
Who could come back?
All these things factored in, James making a long-term commitment without another star attached is a strong indication that he won’t pressure the Lakers into an immediate, drastic addition if it doesn’t favor the team’s best interest in all facets. It’s possible that if there’s no clean pathway to adding another star, they stand pat for now. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are quality long-term prospects, and Kuzma proved his scoring chops as a rookie and also has some value. All three are useful trade chips, but would also enjoy the natural benefits of playing alongside James if they are indeed Lakers in the fall. Improved performance could theoretically lead to increased value on the trade market, as well. How James feels about the optics of playing alongside Ball and co-existing with his family circus is yet to be seen.
Remember that the Lakers also have a restricted free agent of their own in Julius Randle, who took a step forward last season and could stay in L.A. by betting on himself (and a LeBron teammate value bump) by choosing to sign a qualifying offer, or finding a feasible long-term route. He could also be tempted away by another team, but given the way teams with available cap space have already spent their dollars, staying put for one more year and hitting unrestricted free agency next summer could be mutually attractive, as opposed to say, taking a full mid-level exception somewhere else. It seems unlikely the Lakers would retain Isaiah Thomas after he struggled to co-exist with James last year in Cleveland. They also have the opportunity to re-sign Brook Lopez, but as long as they keep Randle’s cap hold in place, he’d likely have to take a minimum contract, and McGee’s signing might indicate that scenario has sailed.
The Rest of the Market
Signing Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson and McGee to one-year deals appears to be charting a sensible pathway to 2019 free agency. The Lakers are paying out for available veterans they love for one season, and will re-evaluate the roster in a year’s time. As short-term targets go, placing J.J. Redick, one of the league’s elite shooters, alongside James would be dangerous. Redick took a one-year deal with the 76ers last summer and could in theory do the same in L.A. There are names like Derrick Favors, Tyreke Evans and Avery Bradley who could have some appeal, but may prefer long-term security.
The next tier of veterans includes Wayne Ellington, Luc Mbah a Moute, former James running mates Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green, noted James favorite Shabazz Napier and others. While players have consistently taken less to play with LeBron in past locations, the options are not particularly sexy and don’t offer a direct route to toppling the Warriors’ hegemony over the Western Conference, and to a lesser extent the potent Rockets.
Poor Cleveland. With James’s departure all but official, the Cavs move out of the luxury tax for the first time since he returned in 2014, which is a welcome relief on some level for Dan Gilbert’s pocketbook. They still have the $8.6 million room mid-level exception and $3.4 million biannual exception to court free agents, but their roster was built around James and is now in essence a dated car without an engine. They have rookie point guard Collin Sexton (the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft) in the fold and bird rights to re-sign restricted free agent Rodney Hood, but will face an uphill climb to reach the playoffs again.
The Cavs bring back a group of veterans led by Kevin Love, who has an opt-out after next season but could conceivably be dangled as trade bait. There is also the motley crew of George Hill, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver, all of whom are getting paid through 2019–20 and shouldn’t command a whole lot on the trade market. As one might expect, there’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up in James’s wake. Plus, they owe the Hawks a top-10 protected first-rounder in 2019, which certainly creates some incentive to bottom out before moving forward. For Cleveland, title-minded ownership and all, there’s no sensible path upward before moving down.
Side note here: James already has two homes in the Los Angeles area, one of which he bought in December, and his oldest son, Bronny, is 13 years old and about to be a freshman in high school. Of all people, Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton let it slip recently that James’s son was committed to attend the Sierra Canyon school next year, a school that routinely enrolls famous kids (Jenners among them). While the school denied Payton’s claim, it would seem like a logical destination, boasting a high-profile basketball program that once housed Marvin Bagley III, and will feature the teenage sons of Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin next year plus a five-star recruit, Cassius Stanley.
Wherever James’s three children end up going to school, the quality of education coupled with the stability of his own contract ensures his family can feel stable, which he has spoken about publicly. And, while this is still a stretch, with the one-and-done rule on the way out, it’s possible Bronny, who to this point has been regarded as a legitimate Division I prospect, could end up good enough to enter the draft and join his father in the league four years from now, whether in Los Angeles or elsewhere.
The Rest of the League
Should the Lakers be considered immediate threats to overthrow the Warriors? Probably not. Are they on a pathway to contention? Presumably, but not without a lot more work. We can assume Los Angeles has shifted into full-on winning mode, regardless. The specter of navigating James in the Western Conference is an immediate shot across the bow of every team besides Golden State and Houston, who won’t and shouldn’t be panicking.
While the West just got a lot more interesting, one thing James definitely didn’t do is balance the league. Consider the Eastern Conference wide open, with the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors all set to immediately capitalize on their widening windows of opportunity. Could this inch Adam Silver closer to abolishing conference-based playoff seeding? It’s too soon to call, but there will be a wide range of ripple effects that impact the league on the business end as well, given its best player just changed teams. Like it or not, LeBron in a major, historic basketball market is the NBA’s new reality. For at least the next three or four years, we’re living in it.