July 22, 2024

The Lakers have been quiet so far in free agency. Could DeMar DeRozan change that?

More than 36 hours into free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers have yet to make a meaningful move to improve their roster.

That is somewhat surprising considering that leading into free agency on Sunday, it appeared that several factors were aligning for Los Angeles.

D’Angelo Russell opted into his $18.7 million contract, providing the Lakers an expiring mid-sized contract to use as a matching salary in a trade. LeBron James offered to take a pay cut for a difference-making nontaxpayer mid-level exception signing, including players such as Klay Thompson and Jonas Valančiūnas. And the backdrop entering the free-agency period was that rival teams made notable trades earlier in the week, indicating the trade market could be more active than expected despite the new punitive collective bargaining agreement restrictions.

Thompson, who was atop the wish list for James and the Lakers as far as realistic targets for either the nontaxpayer mid-level exception or in a sign-and-trade, whittled down his list of suitors to the Dallas Mavericks and Lakers, according to league sources. On Monday afternoon, Thompson chose the Mavericks, agreeing to a three-year, $50 million contract in a three-team sign-and-trade between the Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Hornets. Thompson spurned his hometown Lakers despite his longstanding ties to the franchise, including growing up a Lakers and Kobe Bryant fan and his father, Mychal, playing for the Showtime Lakers from 1987 to 1991. Mychal Thompson won two championships with the Lakers and is currently the team’s radio color commentator.

The second half of the Splash Brothers would’ve provided the Lakers with the type of “laser” — one of LeBron’s patented terms — that they’ve needed in the LeBron James-Anthony Davis era. Despite slipping as a scorer and defender after missing two seasons with ACL and Achilles injuries, the former Warrior remains one of the best shooters in the league. When also factoring head coach JJ Redick’s expertise as a shooter and desire to increase Los Angeles’ 3-point volume, Thompson would’ve been a dream fit for the Lakers on offense.

On defense, there certainly would have been questions. Thompson is a long way away from his former self, who earned an All-Defensive second-team nod in 2018-19 (and could’ve made one of the two teams several other years). The 34-year-old wing has become more forward than guard and is no longer capable of slowing down the game’s best perimeter scorers. The Lakers would’ve likely started him at small forward, further complicating their already shaky and limited perimeter defense.

But with Thompson ending up in Dallas, the Lakers officially struck out with all three of the candidates James was reportedly willing to take a pay cut for: Thompson, Valanciunas and James Harden (which always seemed like a stretch and was proven with him signing a contract with the LA Clippers for nearly triple the nontaxpayer mid-level exception). That’s a tough look for a franchise that prides itself on being the league’s premier destination and most star-friendly organization.

After missing out on Thompson, the Lakers quickly turned their attention to another James target: free-agent wing DeMar DeRozan. Similar to Thompson, DeRozan, 34, is both a potential non-taxpayer midlevel exception candidate and a sign-and-trade candidate for Los Angeles, according to league sources. He is another player whom James would be willing to take less for, league sources confirmed and ESPN first reported.

DeRozan is a 15-year veteran and six-time All-Star who appears to likely be leaving his current team, the Chicago Bulls. He has deep Southern California ties as a Los Angeles native and USC alum, and has fondly discussed the potential of playing for the Lakers in recent years. The Lakers pursued him in the summer of 2021 before deciding to trade for Russell Westbrook instead.

DeRozan is an elite midrange scorer, clutch shot-maker and a good passer who would improve the Lakers’ roster and be a good value, particularly if he’s making less than $20 million or so. At the same time, DeRozan is a subpar 3-point shooter and defender, two skills the Lakers need desperately around James and Davis. He hasn’t attempted more than three 3s per game since the 2017-18 season. He’s never shot above league average from deep, and he’s only shot above 30 percent in six of 15 seasons.

It’s not a perfect comparison, as they are different players and positions, but there is some overlap in how DeRozan’s limitations in shooting and defense could hurt the Lakers like Westbrook did. Playing both a high-usage player and non-floor-spacer is rarely a winning combination, especially when James and Davis are clearly better offensive options.

Like Thompson, DeRozan is more forward than guard at this stage of his career. But he’s even worse defensively, theoretically creating more problems for the Lakers on that end of the floor. Los Angeles needs more two-way players on their roster, and DeRozan simply is not one.

If anything, DeRozan would make the most sense in a bench role, though it’s unclear if he would accept such a role and if the Lakers would even want that considering the potential hoops they’ll have to jump through to acquire him. At a minimum, DeRozan would have to adjust to playing off the ball more than he ever has in his career, including shooting more 3s and finding ways to be more effective as a screener and cutter.

Similar to the Thompson sign-and-trade discussions, one of the current hold-ups in a potential DeRozan deal is what the Bulls would be receiving from the Lakers, according to league sources. Outside of DeRozan, it’s unclear which players would reach the threshold of prompting James to take a sizable pay cut. And if the Lakers are unable to add a notable player with their exception, James is expected to sign for the maximum beginning at north of $49 million for 2024-25.

At that point, the Lakers would only be able to make a move by making a trade. (They could also technically salary-dump a player or players and then sign a player to a contract, depending on how much salary is outgoing.) James re-signing for the max seems to be the most likely outcome as of Tuesday morning.

The Lakers entered free agency on Sunday with 13 players under contract after drafting Dalton Knecht with the No. 17 pick and Bronny James with the No. 55 pick. Right before free agency started, they re-signed Max Christie to a four-year, $32 million contract, a bet on the 21-year-old 3-and-D wing’s potential. With James intending to re-sign, the Lakers’ roster is full, limiting their flexibility to enhance the group without a trade.

To sign a player to the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, or even to a minimum contract, the Lakers will have to execute a consolidation trade that creates an empty roster spot. Los Angeles could also acquire a player in a sign-and-trade via two different scenarios: 1) a normal sign-and-trade directly with the player’s team or, 2) creating a trade exception through a separate trade and then adding the player via the exception.

The Lakers are in this difficult position, in part, because of three minimum signings last summer — Christian Wood, Jaxson Hayes and Cam Reddish — that have backfired. They offered all three player options for this season as a way to entice them to sign. But all three players opted in, a clear sign of their lack of a market. One of the bigs will likely be the backup center behind Davis, at least based on the current roster. But at least two of those players will be sitting and collecting dust next season. (Under the new rules, the Lakers can’t include multiple minimum contracts in the same trade.)

It’s too early to write the Lakers off, of course. There’s always a chance they pull a rabbit out of a hat with a trade or signing. They have been active in recent days, discussing potential deals with Portland, Brooklyn and Utah, among other teams, according to league and team sources. Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka tends to operate in the shadows — more so this summer than ever, according to league sources. It’s certainly possible he has a contingency plan that saves the offseason.

But the Lakers are running out of time. Free agents are flying off the board. Teams are making moves that will tie up their cap space and make it harder to trade. James wants to have his contract situation resolved by the start of the Team USA Olympics practice on Saturday in Las Vegas. That’s an unofficial deadline for Los Angeles, at least on the free-agency front.

It’s reaching the point where the Lakers need to do something — and sooner than later.

(Photo of DeMar DeRozan: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)