In a trade that was starting to feel more and more inevitable, Pelicans in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three future first-round picks, including the No. 4 overall selection in this week’s draft, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.from the
From a PR standpoint, this is a win for the Lakers, who desperately needed to reset their narrative as an organization crumbling from within. At first glance, this restores some faith in a maligned front office now headed by Rob Pelinka, who has at least bought himself some equity with an impatient, star-seeking fanbase and the hoards of critics convinced he’s unfit for his job.
We’ll see what he does with it.
After all, a splash move is one thing. It grabs headlines, recharges a fanbase and pairs up two of the best players in the world. But that’s not enough. The Lakers fooled themselves into thinking LeBron James was going to immediately make them a title contender, but after a barrage of ill-advised roster moves around him, they found out it’s a thin line between being on the fringe of championship contention and not even making the playoffs.
But now the Lakers have two stars, and two is exponentially better than one in star-player math, and indeed you’re going to start hearing people throw around the Lakers as an impulse title favorite. In fact, Vegas already says they are the favorite.
From 37 wins to the title favorite with the addition of one great player and the subtraction of three pretty good ones? That seems like a bit much. Yes, the Lakers are going to be really good assuming LeBron and Davis stay healthy, but that’s no sure thing. Beyond that, we need to talk about all they gave up and what moves they might still be able to make to truly turn this team into a championship contender.
Talk to a cross-section of people around the league, and you’ll get a wide swath of opinions as it pertains to Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Some scouts like one but not the other. One GM told CBS Sports he’s “never loved Ingram,” while others believe he’s a star waiting to pop. Has Lonzo been a disappointment or just misused as a largely off-ball player? I think the Pelicans are getting a really good player in Ball.
But next to LeBron neither Ball nor Ingram was going to fully develop, and in that sense, the trade — at least before you try to weigh the value of the future draft picks — looks good for the current players involved on both sides. That said, we just saw a Warriors team with four All-NBA level players fall short of a title due in large part to a severe lack of depth. Four stars weren’t enough for them once a bit of bad luck kicked in. Two stars won’t be enough for the Lakers to win a title. The league has gotten too good.
Of course, the Lakers aren’t done acquiring players.
This is where this gets interesting.
Here’s the gist of these details, which are confusing a lot of people right now: Had the Lakers and Pelicans agreed to wait 30 days from the start of free agency (July 1) to make this deal official, the Lakers could’ve had their full salary cap room of $32.5M available to them in pursuing other free agents, because Davis’s money wouldn’t technically be on the team yet.
By making the deal official on July 6th, which is the end of the moratorium and thus the first day any free agent can officially sign with any team (even if the deal is agreed to before then), Davis’ money goes on the Lakers’ books right away and leaves them with only $27.7M in room. Davis also has a $4 million trade bonus, and if he doesn’t agree to waive that, the Lakers will also eat that on their books and thus their cap room will go down to $23.7M.
The difference between $32.5M and $23.7M is significant. Per Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Lakers plan to pursue Kemba Walker as their main free agent target. Walker’s first-year salary on a max deal would be $32.7 million. More or less, the same would be true for any max free agent with less than 10 years experience — which would include Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving, among others.
In other words, even if Davis were to waive his trade bonus, the $27.7 million in cap room the Lakers would have would require a max free agent to take a $5 million pay cut. If, on the other hand, Davis doesn’t waive his trade bonus, those max free agents would have to be willing to take a $9 million cut to come to the Lakers. Kemba Walker, just for one example, would already be leaving just under $50 million of guaranteed money on the table by leaving the Hornets in the first place.
Do you really see him giving up more? Maybe. It wouldn’t be crazy with the possibility of playing for what would arguably be the best team in the league as a pretty shiny lure, but it’s a hurdle.
So that’s where the Lakers are at in terms of being able to land a max free agent to pair with Davis: They either have to beg one of them to take less money, or they have to beg the Pelicans to postpone making the deal official for 30 days. There are rumors that this has already been agreed to — which is to say, if the Lakers secure a commitment from a max free agent prior to July 6, the Pelicans will push the official deal back. But there is no official report stating that, obviously.
For now, we’ll assume there is no such handshake agreement, in which case if the Lakers need that date pushed back to have the cap space to sign a max guy, the Pels would be in position to either tell the them to kick rocks or rob them for even more assets than they already got. I texted this to a league executive, and he replied back very succinctly: “Exactly.”
With a smiley face.
So this is where Pelinka will earn his money. The Lakers’ name and location landed them LeBron. Rich Paul and LeBron and pretty much every meaningful future asset they owned landed them Davis. Pelinka will have to do his work in either selling max free agents on taking less money — or, probably more likely, on the margins, using somewhere between $23.7M and $27.7M to sign the type of supporting cast that could take the Lakers from surface-level two-headed team to a legitimate contender.
They need shooting, first and foremost. Think about J.J. Redick on a short deal. Think about Pacers free agent Bojan Bogdanovic. Think about Rudy Gay as a mid-level exception or small-deal player. Whoever they get, unlike the guys they signed last summer, they have to fit next to LeBron, and now Davis.
Along these “fit” lines, the fact that the Lakers kept Kyle Kuzma is no small thing. He’s not the best player of the former young Lakers’ core (I think Lonzo and Ingram are both better, and maybe even Hart), but he probably fits the best next to LeBron as a capable and confident shooter with microwavable scoring abilities, and more importantly, as a willing and instinctual cutter and improvisational player who can provide offense without creating it. We saw Kuzma really mesh with LeBron as a cutter last year.
Again, you’re going to see rave Lakers reviews for this trade on name value alone. But slow down. We have to see what they do from here. Remember, there was a time when Carmelo Anthony forced the Knicks to trade basically all their depth and most of their future when he could’ve just gone to them a few months later as a free agent. This isn’t exactly the same. Davis would have to wait a full year to go to the Lakers as a free agent next summer, and LeBron is in place whereas the Knicks had nothing left to put alongside Anthony.
Still, until we see the Lakers do something big with whatever cap space they end up having, it’s just Davis and LeBron, and the latter of those two only has two guaranteed years left in Los Angeles. After that, Davis could be left alone on a team that he forced to give up everything to get him. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But it could. And it’s the job of everyone in the Lakers’ organization to not let it.