LeBron James delivered a championship to the Los Angeles Lakers, which makes his tenure a success, regardless of what happens next, but their first-round playoff exit could mean that success is behind them.
The Lakers can make the argument they would still be playing the Western Conference semifinals if not for Anthony Davis’ groin strain, much less LeBron James’ midseason high ankle sprain, and that will provide some level of comfort to a front office that is once again tasked with fully reshaping the roster around them.
Let this be a warning for the Lakers not to get too comfortable.
James will turn 37 years old in December. He has missed 58 games over the past three seasons, more than he did in the entire decade before, sandwiching a lottery campaign and first-round exit around the title. The Davis injury did not surprise anyone who followed his career on the New Orleans Pelicans. It was practically more surprising that he did not miss a game in last year’s playoffs. It is enough to make you wonder if the 2020 title — complete with a four-month break before the bubble — was the anomaly and not this season.
An anomaly championship is still a championship. But what now?
Dennis Schroder, Wesley Matthews, Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond — a group that includes the top two Sixth Man of the Year candidates in 2019 and a two-time All-Star — were not nearly the collective upgrade they were supposed to be from Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.
All four could walk this summer. They aren’t the only ones. Alex Caruso joins Schroder, Matthews and Drummond as an unrestricted free agent. Talent Horton-Tucker is restricted. Only five players — James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Marc Gasol — are under guaranteed contract for next season. Harrell would make a sixth if he picks up his $9.7 million player option for the 2021-22 season.
Under normal circumstances, that might mean a team is clearing cap space. These are not normal circumstances for the Lakers. James and Davis are slated to make $76.5 million combined next season, a figure that rises to $82 million the following year. Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope are on the hook for $26 million. Gasol is a relative bargain at less than $3 million. Those five players make $4 million less than the NBA’s $109 million salary cap, before the Lakers even begin to consider what to do with their existing free agents.
This is the price of chasing two superstars and failing to land a third when the Lakers had their chance to sign Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2019. Rising salaries only make it hard to build a team around them.
LeBron’s supporting cast did not improve over time in Cleveland and Miami. The ceaseless quest to fill salary cap exceptions with battle-tested veterans ultimately meant churning through a rotating cast of past-their-prime stars, snake-bit bargains and overpaid Klutch Sports clients. It is a process that depreciates over time, and in years past, James jumped ship to another franchise once he saw the writing on the wall.
That is no longer an option. The extension he signed last offseason guarantees him $44.5 million in 2022-23, when he will be approaching 39 years old. He is staying put, although it would be fascinating to see what teams would offer the Lakers for the final two years of his contract, if anything close to equal value.
Damian Lillard is not walking through that door. The dream of landing the Portland Trail Blazers star via trade is exactly that. A dream. As a result of the Davis deal, which cost the Lakers three first-round picks, two pick swaps and three of their four best young players, they do not have a first-round selection to deal until at least 2026. Their best non-LeBron or -Davis asset is probably Kuzma, who might have negative value after averaging 6.3 points on 29/17/67 shooting splits in the first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns.
The Lakers can look to sign-and-trade Schroder for someone like Kyle Lowry, so long as both are amenable and the Toronto Raptors want to meet Schroder’s asking price. He reportedly turned down a four-year, $84 million extension over the past year. It is unclear how willing he will be to help, considering his lone season with the team was met with public commentary from Magic Johnson claiming, “I don’t think he’s a Laker.”
Johnson didn’t make Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s job any easier, which maybe was the point.
Lowry could conceivably be an upgrade, even at 35 years old, but the Raptors reportedly turned down an offer of Schroder, Caldwell-Pope and draft compensation at the trade deadline. Nothing has changed since. Lowry’s former running mate, DeMar DeRozan, is another option to pursue on the sign-and-trade market.
There is a real chance the Lakers have nothing but the midlevel exception ($9.8 million) and veteran minimum (up to $2.6 million) to replace outgoing free agents. Would Spencer Dinwiddie, coming off ACL surgery in January, be open to the midlevel? Otherwise, that list is limited to the likes of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Derrick Rose. The 2021 free-agency class is not a great one. The usual suspects could be available at the minimum (Alec Burks, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, etc.), and a J.J. Redick or Paul Millsap might join them.
I’m just going to guess Chris Paul won’t take a $30 million pay cut next season to play with his friend.
Odds are the next crop of trade options, exceptions and buyouts will be no better than Schroder, Harrell, Gasol and Drummond— two of the best reserves on last year’s market and two bona fide starting centers. And who is to say top free agents even view James and Davis as their best chance at a championship, now that the Brooklyn Nets look like world-beaters and the next generation of superstars is starting to take over.
The Lakers can only hope the next supporting cast coalesces better than the last. You could not have asked for better than the 2020 playoff production they got from Caldwell-Pope and Rondo, and maybe that is all it takes — a couple role players hitting their stride for two months alongside James and Davis. However it shakes out, the Lakers’ title hopes for the next two seasons ride on the maximum production of a 37-year-old James and the oft-injured Davis, which isn’t so much a revelation as it is a harsher reality.
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