For the fourth summer in a row, the Lakers are looking for a solution at point guard.
Since the 2020 championship, when then-35-year-old LeBron James and then-33-year-old Rajon Rondo excelled as the Lakers’ leading ball handlers, Los Angeles has used a revolving door of point guards. James’ advanced age and growing injuries, as well as an internal recognition that he should play the ball more, have created a need for more complementary ball handling, playmaking and shot creation within Los Angeles’ offense. That’s why the Lakers have fallen in love with the possibility of adding elite scoring guards like Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving over the years.
They have taken some major swings to fill this gap. The Lakers traded Danny Green and a 2020 first-round pick for Dennis Schröder prior to the 2020–21 season. They flipped Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and a 2021 first-round pick to Washington in exchange for Russell Westbrook in a five-team mega-deal the following summer. They, of course, moved Westbrook for D’Angelo Russell (among others) in a three-team trade at the 2023 trade deadline, to mixed results. Russell, Schröder (twice) and even Westbrook had productive moments, but none have delivered exactly what the Lakers have been looking for for the title.
The Lakers are at a crossroads again this summer. Russell and Schröder are unrestricted free agents, opening the possibility that one or both may not return, and the Lakers will again have to cycle through new options at point guard. After priorities No. 1 (re-signing free agent Austin Reaves) and No. 2 (re-signing restricted free agent Rui Hachimura), the Lakers’ next priority is to address their point guard uncertainty.
With the key spots in their rotation largely decided if they keep Reaves and Hachimura, the Lakers’ offseason hinges on their decision at point guard. They have various options, from running it back (re-signing Russell and Schröder) to chasing an expensive upgrade via free agency or trade (Irving, Fred VanVleet, Trae Young), or splitting the difference (plus signing the potentially available Chris Paul to keep Russell and/or Schröder).
The Lakers’ need at point guard will be determined in part by how they fill out the rest of their roster, but one of the constant demands has been a player who can competently run the offense when James is off the floor, develop strong pick and roll chemistry with Anthony Davis, do well off the ball as a catch-and-shoot threat and cutter and at least hold his own in the team’s defensive scheme. Russell, Schröder and Westbrook each checked several of those boxes, but none checked them all.
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The most likely way forward is to re-sign Russell and Schröder (possibly with the exception of the taxpayer mid-level, worth a projected $6.5 million), who Athletics previously reported.
Russell’s stock has never been lower after a disappointing Western Conference Finals against the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets. He was significantly better in the first two rounds, but still didn’t perform quite well enough to be the third option on a title-contending team — the level where the Lakers will pay him to play if he’s retained. Russell is certainly a utility player who is good on more nights than not. But a player who earns at least $20 million per season, should not be played from the floor in high-stakes playoff games.
Given Russell’s inconsistent playoff performance and the lack of league-wide interest in him, the Lakers should have the upper hand in contract negotiations. One framework the Lakers have discussed internally, according to multiple team sources who were not authorized to speak publicly, is to sign Russell to a front-loaded two-year deal — either with an option in the second year or a straight two-year contract — that both give him the salary he wants and keep him on the same timeline as James (player option in 2024) and Davis (has an early termination option in 2024 and is eligible for a contract extension in August).
Although the three-team deadline deal was more about getting rid of Westbrook than the players acquired, the Lakers don’t want to lose Russell in free agency for nothing. Their preference is to find a superior player by either signing and trading Russell elsewhere in July or, more likely at this point, re-signing him and then potentially trading him later in the season for a better player or fit.
There may not be many realistic and attractive alternatives to re-signing Russell. It’s unclear what, if anything, he would give them on the sign-and-trade front. The theoretical alternatives range from unrealistic (Irving, VanVleet) to even more unrealistic (Young, Lillard).
Acquiring Irving or VanVleet would almost certainly require a sign-and-trade, which would severely limit the Lakers at $169.0 million. The Lakers can create between $30 and $35 million in cap space, but that would cost them several rotation players, likely including Hachimura. Even then, Irving and VanVleet might want more than the $35 million the Lakers can offer — Irving’s max contract would start at around $47 million and VanVleet’s max starts at $40.2 million. Young and Lillard have been discussed internally, but appear to be little more than a pipe dream given the current asking prices for stars on the trade market.
That leaves Paul as the most realistic potential upgrade at point guard. If Paul is waived or extended by the Suns, the Lakers would have strong interest in signing him, according to multiple team sources not authorized to speak publicly.
Athletics reported that the Suns were working Paul through a number of options for next season, including a trade or a release. He is slated to make $30.8 million next season, but only $15.8 million of that is guaranteed if he is waived before June 28.
Given that Paul’s next contract would outweigh the amount he’s guaranteed for this season, signing anything more than the veteran’s minimum doesn’t really make sense, as that would only hinder his new team. The Lakers could then sign Paul to a veteran’s minimum contract and retain access to other salary cap exceptions to use for other players to bolster their depth.
Paul is coming off a season in which he averaged 13.9 points per game. game (on a 55.5 true shooting percentage), 4.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists and 1.5 steals. He’s far from the player he was a few years ago, but he remains a quality starter as a plus shooter and passer. His biggest problem, as has been the case for several years, is durability. He has suffered an injury in three straight postseasons and six of his nine trips to the playoffs, indicating that the Lakers will likely have to carry his workload through the entire 2023-24 season.
If the Lakers replace Russell with Paul on a minimum contract, they could easily keep Reaves and Hachimura and have the option to use their non-taxpayer mid-level exception (worth about $12.5 million annually) on Schröder, another player, or both . Another option the Lakers have discussed is signing Paul and keeping Russell to further bolster their point guard position, according to these team sources. Paul would be the favorite to start in that scenario.
Each other was Paul vs. Russell never a conversation until last season, and Paul still rates better in virtually every advanced metric. He is the best mid-range shooter, passer, rebounder and more of a defensive playmaker. That said, Russell is younger, nearly matched Paul as a mid-range shooter last season and is the better 3-point shooter in both percentage and volume. Russell’s 6-foot-10 wingspan also allows him to defend bigger players and add length to the Lakers’ scheme in a way the 38-year-old Paul never could.
Paul’s ability to command an offense would be appealing to a Lakers team that has lacked that type of traditional floor general. James has always played that role, of course, to some degree, but Paul is one of the few players in the league that he would fully rely on to help co-pilot the offense. Also, signing Paul in this scenario would be a minimal one-year investment from the Lakers.
There are other reasons for a Paul-Laker reunion. Paul’s family remains in Los Angeles. Paul and James have a long-standing friendship. They have imagined what it would be like to play together over the years. Paul was famously traded to the Lakers in 2011 before the deal was nixed by former commissioner David Stern for “basketball reasons.”
If the Lakers sign Paul, let Russell go and keep Schröder, a Paul-Schröder backcourt tandem would still allow Paul to play just 24 to 26 minutes per night in the regular season before ramping up to a bigger role in the playoffs. Paul and Schröder played together in Oklahoma City during the 2019–20 season; Thunder lineups outscored opponents by 15.6 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and 5.3 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs with the duo on the floor, according to NBA.com.
However, Schröder is quietly one of the top point guard options realistically available this summer, and he’ll command deals that could be higher than the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception (about $12.5 million starting salary) . The Lakers only have non-Bird rights on him, meaning they’ll likely have to use the mid-level exception to meet his market.
The Lakers have other options. They could still re-sign Schröder and promote him to starting point guard, preserving wing and big-man depth by keeping Malik Beasley ($16.5 million team option) and Mo Bamba ($10.3 million non-guaranteed contract) over Russell. They could technically sign all three Russell, Paul and Schröder, with Russell and Schröder sliding up to shooting guard in smaller bench backcourts. They could also give ball-handling keys to Reaves and add a player in the Caldwell-Pope/Danny Green mold next to him to form a bigger backcourt, but it’s unclear if they’re willing to do that just yet.
Looking at the free agent market, if the Lakers were to use one of their exceptions, there aren’t many — if any — options that would be a legitimate upgrade over Schröder, let alone Russell. the athletics’s John Hollinger’s free-agency point guard rankings have Russell and Schröder at No. 3 and No. 6, respectively. Aside from Irving and VanVleet, Miami’s Gabe Vincent — more of a combo guard than a traditional floor general — is the only appealing alternative, at least to Schröder.
Most realistically, the Lakers will re-sign Russell and Schröder, preserving flexibility for next season with the ability to improve the lineup with an in-season trade. There’s also the growing possibility that they could make a move in the 2023 draft and flip their pick (No. 17) along with Bamba and/or Beasley for a starting-level upgrade.
The Lakers have longed for continuity for years and have a chance to finally create a picture of it by running it back with most of their current group. That begins with the point guard position, which will determine who fills the fifth spot around Davis, James, Hachimura and Reaves in the final lineups.
Los Angeles has a one-to-two-year championship window with James (38) and Davis (30). This might be its best opportunity to address arguably the team’s biggest need and help address some of the offensive hiatus from the playoffs, especially in the conference finals.
There are several ways the Lakers’ offseason could play out. But assuming they stay true to their intent by keeping Reaves and Hachimura, nothing is more important to the Lakers than their future at point guard.
(Top photo: Cary Edmondson / USA Today)