How LeBron and the Lakers can become title contenders


LeBron James is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers, with or without another superstar alongside him.

The timing of James’ announcement that he has agreed to a four-year, maximum deal with the Lakers — including a player option in the final year — a day after Paul George and Chris Paul reportedly agreed to re-sign with their current teams (and before, as far as we know, the Lakers have made any serious headway on a deal with the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard) suggests that this decision wasn’t necessarily about the players he’ll join in L.A.

With James electing to sign a long-term deal rather than playing year to year, as he did after returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers four years ago, it further indicates that he is in this for the long haul rather than focused on challenging the Golden State Warriors right away.

Still, the whole purpose of signing James is building the Lakers back into a championship contender. And, though James seems largely impervious to the effects of aging, at 33 there is urgency for the Lakers to get there sooner rather than later. So how can they do that?

Lakers continue building 2018-19 roster

After James’ announcement on Sunday afternoon, the Lakers moved quickly to begin filling out their roster. In a flurry of moves, they reportedly agreed to one-year deals with shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($12 million), wing Lance Stephenson ($4.4 million) and center JaVale McGee (veteran’s minimum).

The moves signal that the Lakers aren’t likely to sign another high-priced free agent this summer, instead focusing on maintaining flexibility for the summer of 2019. If the Lakers retain the rights to restricted free agent Julius Randle, signing LeBron and Caldwell-Pope would leave them only a sliver of cap space available: about $2 million, so similar to the veteran’s minimum for experienced players like McGee. The Lakers could then use their room midlevel exception to sign Stephenson and add McGee and other players making the minimum to fill out the roster.

There are still scenarios where the Lakers could create more cap space. Renouncing the rights to Randle and waiving forward Luol Deng while stretching the remaining two years on his contract would get the Lakers to nearly $25 million in cap room. However, stretching Deng doesn’t seem worth it if the Lakers are merely signing players to one-year deals. In that case, it’s better to keep Deng’s salary on the books in case it can be cleared more easily via trade next summer as an expiring contract.

Most likely, the Lakers will either look to re-sign Randle for a lucrative one-year contract — they can offer up to his maximum salary of $25.5 million, which would still leave them plenty of buffer to avoid the luxury tax — or use the $12.4 million Randle counts against the cap on another one-year free agent.

After all, the Lakers have to weigh any multi-year offers against what they might be able to do in free agency this time next year.

Will the Lakers add another star in 2019?

The scenario I’ve outlined where the Lakers sign nothing but one-year deals this summer would leave L.A. with something like $25 million in cap space in 2019 with Deng on the books.

Waiving and stretching Deng then would get the Lakers to about $37 million in projected space, more than enough to make a max offer to players with seven to nine years of experience. Conveniently, next summer’s free-agent class includes a number of stars in this market, starting with Leonard but also including Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker.

Leonard has made it clear he intends to sign with the Lakers, and the way things have unfolded has reduced their urgency to trade for him now. The Lakers would have had to acquire Leonard via trade to fit him in at the max had they signed two max free agents (that is, James and George) to multiyear contracts. Dealing for Leonard at this point also was imperative if it was necessary to land James. With those scenarios seemingly off the table, the Lakers can afford to be more patient.

There’s still a downside to waiting on Kawhi, of course — that being the possibility that he gets traded to a new team and decides to re-sign there, just as George did in Oklahoma City. There’s value in the certainty of having Leonard in hand now, but that must be weighed against the players and picks the Lakers would have to give up to acquire him. I’d probably rather take my chances, particularly with the Lakers unlikely to win a championship this season even if they dealt for Leonard.

After all, Leonard isn’t the only option for the Lakers. Back when Butler was a restricted free agent with the Chicago Bulls, he expressed interest in signing an offer sheet with the Lakers, per Adrian Wojnarowski. And Thompson, whose father, Mychal, played for the Lakers and is now their color analyst for radio, would be a natural fit if he elects to leave the Warriors.

Adding a max free agent next summer is no certainty for the Lakers, but doing so while retaining their young talent either to develop alongside James or for additional trades remains their best chance of building a championship-caliber team.

How good will the Lakers be this season?

Let’s take an early stab at what we can expect from the Lakers with LeBron utilizing projections based on the multi-year, predictive version of ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM). Here’s how their rotation might look if they bring back Randle, considering only veteran players.

This model projects the Lakers to have an offensive rating 4.0 points better per 100 possessions than league average — identical to last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, unlike the Cavaliers during the regular season, the Lakers project to have an average defense.

Typically, a team with the Lakers’ projected offensive and defensive ratings would win about 52 games, which would figure to put them in the mix for third in the Western Conference. That projection is tempered by the tendency for teams who add a superstar like LeBron to underachieve in their first season as they build chemistry. However, the Lakers can still improve as they fill out their roster by signing minimum-salary players who are better than replacement level.

The Lakers don’t likely have a path to challenging the Warriors next season, even with James. But after five seasons in the lottery, L.A. should again challenge to win a playoff series or two while building something bigger and better for future seasons.


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