The Los Angeles Lakers were essentially two different teams in 2022-23. The first team scuffled to a 2-10 start and was languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference standings at the midway point. The second team was one of the league’s best, going 10 games over .500 across the final 26 games of the season and reaching the Western Conference finals.
Now the Lakers face another offseason full of questions, starting with which kind of team do they want to be?
Offseason guides for every eliminated team
State of the roster
2022-23 record: 43-39
Free agents: Troy Brown Jr., D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley (T), Wenyen Gabriel, Rui Hachimura (R), Austin Reaves (R), Dennis Schroder, Tristan Thompson, Lonnie Walker IV and Scotty Pippen Jr. (R)
General manager Rob Pelinka and the front office have a decision to make. Do they search for a third star again, such as Kyrie Irving, but at the expense of their depth? This is extremely unlikely for two reasons. It would be a repeat of the first half of the season when the Lakers struggled with a top-heavy roster. Also, building a roster to compete for a championship centered on three players earning $130 million is extremely difficult under the new collective bargaining agreement. So did posting the league’s second-best record after the trade deadline (18-8) and reaching the conference finals confirm the Lakers should bypass cap flexibility and focus on retaining their young free agents? This is more likely when considering the Lakers owe a first-round pick to New Orleans in 2024 and then Utah in 2027.
The Lakers could create up to $30.5 million by waiving Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba, not exercising Malik Beasley’s team option and renouncing free agents D’Angelo Russell, Lonnie Walker IV and Rui Hachimura. The cap space would increase to $35 million if they trade Max Christie and their first-round pick. However, the starting number on Irving’s max salary is $47 million. In the scenario that the Lakers do utilize their $30.5 million in room, the resources to build the roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis include restricted free agent Austin Reaves, Christie, the $7.6 million room exception and two draft picks. The rest of the roster would be filled out with players signed to the veteran minimum exception, leaving the Lakers’ depth vulnerable. Davis, Irving and James have all failed to reach the 65-game mark in each of the past three seasons.
The only scenario where the Lakers could keep Hachimura and acquire Irving (unless of course Irving signs for $13 million as a free agent) is in a complicated sign-and-trade, which would require the cooperation of the Mavericks. Because of the $169.5 million hard cap, Irving would have to take a significant discount for the Lakers to retain Hachimura and Reaves. A sign-and-trade also requires the Lakers to send out salary, something they do not have unless the Bamba and Beasley contracts are guaranteed or Russell agrees to be part of the transaction (like he did in 2019, when he was part of a double sign-and-trade that sent him to Golden State and Kevin Durant to Brooklyn). The Lakers ranked first in points per possession allowed on half-court sets, 14th in offensive efficiency and 18th in 3-point field goal percentage after the trade deadline. In order to avoid the luxury tax and repeater penalty (fourth time in five seasons), Bamba would need to be waived and Beasley’s option would need to be declined if the goal is to retain Russell, Walker, Hachimura and Reaves.
The Lakers are over the $134 million salary cap, a result of the $33.6 million in non-guaranteed salary and the free agent holds of Russell ($41.3M), Hachimura ($18.8M) and Reaves ($2.2M). The Lakers have until June 29 to exercise Beasley’s $16.5 million team option and guarantee the contracts of Bamba ($10.3 million) and Vanderbilt ($4.6 million). An area to keep an eye on is the length of contracts the front office is willing to commit past this season. James and Davis could become free agents in 2024 and the Lakers have no salary on their books in 2025-26. The Lakers have non-Bird rights on Walker and can sign him to a contract up to $7.8 million. The Lakers would still have access to their $12.2 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception, but using more than $5 million likely puts them in the tax and also hard caps them. They could also elect not to sign Russell and instead use the full non-tax midlevel exception on one or two players.
Top front office priority
Reaves and Hachimura are priorities. In the final 11 games of the regular season, Reaves averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 assists on 58/46/90 shooting splits. When he shared the floor with James and Davis during the regular season, the Lakers outscored their opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions. Reaves averaged 16.9 points and shot 44.2% on 3-pointers in the postseason. He ranked third on the team in scoring in the postseason, only behind James and Davis. Reaves is a restricted free agent, and because he signed a two-year contract, the maximum the Lakers can sign him is to a four-year, $53 million contract. Because of the Arenas provision, the Lakers can match any offer sheet even if a team backloads the contract with cap space. The minimum length of an early-Bird contract is two years, not including an option in the last year.
The Lakers are expected to extend Hachimura a $7.7 million qualifying offer by June 29, making the forward a restricted free agent. In the playoffs, Hachimura shot 58.8% from the field, 52.8% on 3-pointers and ranked second (only behind Boston Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon) in points scored off the bench.
Building the roster in free agency is not the only decision the Lakers have this offseason. Davis is eligible to sign a three-year, $167.5 million max extension starting on Aug. 4. Davis averaged 25 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 55% shooting from the field from Feb. 11 through the end of the regular season. Davis has an early termination option in 2023-24 and could be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Russell is eligible to sign up to a two-year, $67.6 million extension prior to June 30. Considering their short- and long-term financial outlook, the $30 million per year price tag is a nonstarter for the Lakers. In the first three losses to Denver, Russell averaged only 7 points, while shooting 29.% from the field and 14.3% on 3-pointers.
Other extension candidates: Malik Beasley (thru 6/30 if team option is declined) and Jarred Vanderbilt
Team needs: Depth and shooting.
Draft picks in June: Nos. 17, 47
Future draft assets: Despite owing New Orleans an unprotected first in 2024, the Lakers are allowed to trade their 2023 first-round pick starting the night of the draft. The Pelicans have the right to defer the 2024 first rounder until 2025. The Lakers will send Utah a 2027 top-four protected first. The only future first they can trade is in 2029. Los Angeles has three second-round picks available.