The clock will eventually hit 3pm PT on Friday and all the back-channel conversations, prediction models and speculation will converge into action.
The teams will change. Players will move. Money will be spent. Dream lists are being built. Hope will sprout.
It is difficult to know exactly how the cases will proceed. Separating rumor from fact this time of year is almost as difficult as building a championship team. And things can change in an instant (ie James Harden). But we have an informed idea of how things could end up looking for the Lakers as they try to build on their appearance in the Western Conference Finals.
Here are the big questions:
Will the Lakers use the full mid-level exception? This idea began to take off over the last week or so as the team explored post-draft options. Since the Lakers couldn’t find a deal they liked with Malik Beasley and/or Mo Bamba’s contracts on draft night, they operated as a team with access to the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception. That plan solidified Thursday when the team waived Bamba before his $10.3 million contract was guaranteed and declined the team option on Beasley for next season. Those moves sent the clearest signal yet that the Lakers are likely to use the MLE and put themselves under a hard cap hit of $172 million.
That $12.4 million exception could get the Lakers a seat at the table with some free agents — Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, Denver’s Bruce Brown and Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo are all options for teams with the mid-level exception.
The other option for the Lakers would be to cut that $12.4 million and target a large group of players that could include Dennis Schroder, Georges Niang, Jevon Carter, Eric Gordon, Taurean Prince, Joe Ingles, Yuta Watanabe, Trey Lyles and Seth Curry.
Schroder, the only pending Lakers free agent on this list, is expected to draw a lot of interest after being one of the NBA’s biggest offers last season. A reunion with Billy Donovan in Chicago is a possibility that would prevent him from returning to the Lakers.
But to answer the question, yes, it looks like that mid-level will be used.
Is there a team that will test the Lakers on Austin Reaves or Rui Hachimura? You don’t have to be so cynical to see why the Lakers have been so effusive in their praise for Reaves and Hachimura. On one hand, Reaves became the Lakers’ third-best player in a run that stretched into his first postseason, and Hachimura flourished in the playoff spotlight. On the other hand, by telling everyone they plan to match the offer presented to one of the restricted free agents, the Lakers may have suppressed the markets on both.
The big mystery lies with Reaves, who will play for Team USA this summer and has probably graduated from underdog history to NBA starter. He’s certainly worth more than the $52 million or so the Lakers can offer over four years (a three-year deal with a player option looks like it could be the playoff here). But due to restricted free agency rules, for Reaves to get more, another team has to offer it.
Houston has long been rumored to have interest in Reaves, and now with Harden headed toward a trade, the Rockets may be putting the Lakers to the test. A more frequently mentioned destination is San Antonio as the Spurs begin to build their team around No. 1 choice Victor Wembanyama.
Those teams, in addition to their evaluation of Reaves, must weigh the downsides of signing him to an offer sheet they know the Lakers will match, which has been modest so far. It’s very much up in the air whether that kind of offer will materialize despite Reaves’ play in his second NBA season.
What are the arguments for keeping D’Angelo Russell? Russell‘s free agency is certainly more bizarre than Reaves’ or Hachimura’s, with the 27-year-old guard coming out of his second stint with the Lakers, which resulted in two things. First, he helped a team to the Western Conference Finals. Second, he did little to answer some of the biggest questions about him.
His durability down the stretch, especially as Schroder played through multiple ankle injuries, was a concern in the locker room. While he had plenty of highlights during the Lakers’ playoff run, his lows were loud — and ended with him moving to the bench in Game 4 against Denver.
But what exactly are the alternatives? For both parties?
“You look at it [point guard] class,” wrote one Eastern Conference executive, “that’s pretty s—.”
There is probably not a team with as high ambitions as the Lakers that needs Russell, and there is probably not a point guard on the market for the Lakers who also shoots and creates plays. And if the market is as soft on Russell as it appears to be Thursday afternoon, the Lakers might get a good deal.
It’s not the most romantic love story ever, but practicality also has its place in society.
The Lakers crushed it on the minimum market last year. Can they do it again? It’s going to be tough. The Phoenix Suns will make sure of that.
Locked into limited flexibility after trading Bradley Beal, they’re going to fill their roster with plenty of players on minimum requirements. The Suns also offer a good recruiting field – play for a candidate for a season, get a lot of opportunities and live somewhere warm.
As for the Lakers, Tristan Thompson, Wenyen Gabriel and Troy Brown could all be candidates to return. The team could look to fv LeBron James teammate Kevin Love. (Wow, is this really the first mention of James? No one thinks he’s retiring, FYI.)
Cam Reddish, who the Lakers kicked around last year before the trade deadline, is also likely to be a target. Of course, maybe the Lakers get lucky and someone from the upper roster sees their market dry up and LA gets a trade like they did with Schroder a year ago.
But replicating the success of the NBA’s cheapest free-agent contracts is quite difficult.
So what about the West? The Lakers have done a good job of presenting a plan that isn’t too reactionary to their competition in the West.
Having just suffered through a season-plus with an unbalanced roster thanks to three massive contracts, the Lakers haven’t been blindly chasing stars to keep up with the Suns, to catch the Nuggets or even keep up with the possible future home. James Harden, Clippers.
The team and vice president of basketball operations/general manager Rob Pelinka seem united on that front, despite the siren song every time an ill-fitting NBA player hits the market. So far, they’ve resisted — both because of the past and because of self-consciousness about how little they can offer.
Pelinka has said the Lakers are targeting players who can succeed in coach Darvin Ham’s system, meaning you can expect them to emphasize defenders and shooters (ideally both) as they go through last season’s roster, which was full of players who succeeded in Ham’s system.
The Lakers haven’t made any major headlines this summer, but they don’t matter much. The commitment to improvement, however modest, seems to be their guiding principle.
Staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.