If there’s one thing that Lakers fans have learned over the last four seasons, it’s that their team has become very effective at tanking. Since Dwight Howard left in the summer of 2013, Los Angeles has gone 86-234 (26.88-win percentage), which includes the two worst seasons in franchise history. To put it in perspective, the Warriors have fewer losses in that timeframe (69) than the Lakers have wins (86).
It’s certainly been an unfamiliar experience for the fan base, but with Magic Johnson now on board in place of the incompetent Jim Buss, a growing sense of optimism finally exists again for the franchise. After executing another superb tanking job this season, the Lakers can look forward to their high draft pick in what’s supposedly the best draft class in recent memory. That is unless they don’t actually keep their pick.
Quick recap: because of the Steve Nash trade way back when, the Lakers will only get their first round pick if it falls in the top 3 (currently a 55.8% chance of happening). If it does, they keep their pick for this year AND in 2019, while their 2018 first rounder goes to Philadelphia. This outcome allows an ecstatic Magic Johnson to acquire a potential superstar (most likely Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, or Josh Jackson) to build the team around, and also retain their pick in another loaded class in 2019.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s also a strong possibility that they fall outside of the top 3. In this case, their 2017 pick goes to Philadelphia AND their 2019 pick goes to Orlando as a result of the Dwight Howard trade. They will get their 2018 first rounder, but thus far, the 2018 class projects to be quite underwhelming compared to the other two drafts surrounding it.
So, what do the Lakers do if the latter takes place?
For one, it makes the jobs of Magic and new GM Rob Pelinka more difficult since they’ll have nothing to show for this terrible season. The franchise has been on a mission for a new superstar since Kobe retired, and this series of events won’t make that any easier.
With most of the top-tier free agents expected to re-sign with their current teams, LA isn’t likely to land that marquee player in 2017. Their best course of action is to wait for Paul George to hit free agency the following summer. Around the trade deadline, he allegedly told a reporter that he’s “hell-bent” on joining the Lakers and, if that were actually the case, he’d be the only star to express that level of interest in a long time.
As long as he doesn’t get traded to a rival team like the Celtics, George should be the team’s top target heading into the summer of 2018. However, before they can sign him, LA needs enough cap space to offer him a max contract, which starts at roughly $30 million in the first year. According to NBC Sports, the projected salary cap figure for the 2018-2019 seasons now sits at $103 million as a result of the newly renegotiated CBA.
If they don’t add any new salary, the Lakers would have close to $40 million in cap space in 2018. However, that number doesn’t include the salary of their first round pick from either 2017 or 2018. It also doesn’t factor in Julius Randle’s pending free agency in 2018, as he’ll have a cap hold worth $12.48 million to work around. That means they’ll either be forced to re-sign him to a new contract before free agency, keep that cap hold on the books and hope that he doesn’t sign an offer sheet from another team, or let him walk. It’ll be tricky to maneuver through this, but luckily, they still have some time to make that decision.
Meanwhile, the objective of this summer should be avoiding multi-year contracts that will further complicate their sticky cap situation. The Lakers need to target players looking to rejuvenate their deteriorated value through one-year deals. Potential options could include Tyreke Evans, Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Michael Carter-Williams, and Trey Burke. Regardless of how mundane these names are, the summer of 2017 will be deemed a success as long as they don’t add future salary after next season.
It will be imperative that the team stays frugal with its cap situation, regardless of what happens with their draft pick. Even if George decides not to come, it still provides the team with flexibility to add a star with the extra cap space, either via free agency or trades. The future won’t look as bright for the Lakers if they lose their pick this season in a talented draft, but they still have a chance to expedite the rebuilding process if they learn from their recent mistakes.