July 19, 2024

With LeBron James expected to return, Lakers must provide him meaningful roster upgrades


The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2024 offseason is off to an encouraging start.

They hired a bright young coach in JJ Redick. They landed top-10 prospect Dalton Knecht with the No. 17 pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. They made history by uniting LeBron James with his eldest son, Bronny James, with their No. 55 selection. D’Angelo Russell, possibly the biggest domino of their offseason, opted in, giving them a mid-sized expiring contract to potentially trade.

Then, on Saturday, nearly five hours ahead of a 5 p.m. (ET) deadline, LeBron James opted out of his contract with the intention of re-signing with the Lakers, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. The Athletic previously reported the Lakers want James to return and were open to offering him whatever type of contract he prefers.

James opting out is another win for the Lakers, which could save at least $1.5 million on their cap sheet by him not exercising his $51.4 million player option for next season. (The trade-off for James is he’s eligible to add a no-trade clause to his contract, which would allow him to control his future.)

James might be willing to take an even steeper pay cut on top of that if it allows the Lakers to open up the non-taxpayer midlevel exception (worth approximately $12.9 million) for the right types of players, according to Bleacher Report. James’ agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, told ESPN his client would only be willing to take a discount for an “impact player,” with James Harden, Klay Thompson and Jonas Valančiūnas as reported names who’d fit the bill. The non-taxpayer midlevel exception would be a significant pay cut for Harden and Thompson, in particular.

However, there is mutual interest between the Lakers and Thompson, as The Athletic’s Charania and Anthony Slater first reported.

Thompson, a Southern California native, is the son of Mychal Thompson, who played for the Showtime Lakers from 1987 through 1991 and is the team’s current radio color commentator. The younger Thompson, 34, is a four-time NBA champion and one of the greatest shooters of all time. Thompson has spent his 13 pro seasons with the Golden State Warriors, but the relationship has fractured to the point where Thompson is likely to leave. The Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers are all pursuing him.

If James takes a discount for the Lakers to access their full non-taxpayer midlevel exception, the Lakers will be hard-capped at the first apron of $178.7 million. That means James would have to take a $16-plus million discount with his starting salary at about just over $33 million for the 2024-25 season. The most likely pay cut scenario would be James signing a two-year deal with a player option for 2025-26, allowing him to opt out in 2025 and re-sign for more money, according to league sources. The Lakers also could perform a smaller salary-dump trade (or two) to create more financial wiggle room and allow James to take a smaller decrease.

If the Lakers don’t land a star or high-level starter with their non-taxpayer midlevel exception, James will sign the max, according to ESPN. If LeBron re-signs at his max for 2024-25 (approximately $49.9 million), the Lakers will have roughly $182.3 million in committed salary. That puts them less than $8 million under the second apron ($189.5 million). James also wants to have his contract resolved before he starts practicing at the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball minicamp on July 6 in Las Vegas.

Regardless of what happens with James, the Lakers are well-positioned to upgrade their roster if they so choose. The proverbial ball is in their court regarding how the rest of this offseason unfolds.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka tempered expectations earlier in the week — twice — by saying trades are harder to execute under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement. At face value, that’s true, considering the new punitive restrictions of the first and second aprons.

At the same time, the trade activity over the past week, especially near the top of the Western Conference, paints a different reality. In that time, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for defensive ace Alex Caruso, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for No. 8 pick Rob Dillingham, the Denver Nuggets traded up for DaRon Holmes II and salary-dumped Reggie Jackson to try to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Dallas Mavericks salary-dumped Tim Hardaway Jr. so they can keep starter Derrick Jones Jr. (or sign Thompson) and the New Orleans Pelicans made a shrewd deal for former Lakers target Dejounte Murray.

The rest of the West is finding ways to make trades that improve their rosters or act as precursors to other moves. It’s now on the Lakers to do the same.

They have the assets to make a notable trade. Russell’s $18.7 million contract offers them a level of flexibility in terms of the types of players they can pursue. Add in one or both of their future first-round picks, as many as three pick swaps and the mid-sized salaries of Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and/or Gabe Vincent, and the Lakers can get in the conversation for just about any non-star (and even some lower-end stars). That is, again, before factoring in the potential addition of Thompson or another high-impact player for their non-taxpayer midlevel exception.

As far as trades go, the Lakers landing a third star in a deal appears unlikely, barring an unforeseen one secretly becoming available. Donovan Mitchell is reportedly likely to sign a contract extension with Cleveland, which would rule him out. Trae Young’s switch from Klutch Sports to CAA also makes a trade to the Lakers less likely, as The Athletic previously reported. Murray is now in New Orleans and off the board. Perhaps Darius Garland becomes available, but he’s a clear step down from the Mitchell and Young tier of stars.

Still, there are good options potentially out there. Wings such as Portland’s Jerami Grant, former Lakers player Kyle Kuzma and the Nets’ duo of Dorian Finney-Smith and Cam Johnson are expected to be available on the trade market, according to league sources. They aren’t the biggest needle-movers, but any of those four players would enhance the Lakers’ perimeter defense, frontcourt size and/or floor spacing. Grant, for his part, would check each of those boxes; he’s quietly shot 40-plus percent on 3s in back-to-back seasons in Portland.

The Lakers roster, as currently constructed, is not good enough to come out of the Western Conference. They can win a round and maybe even two if the bracket breaks in their favor, but they have too many holes compared to the rest of the top of the West, especially on the wing. Their perimeter size, defense and overall speed and athleticism are lacking compared to their competition. James and Davis made it known recently they believe this roster needs upgrades.

The Timberwolves, Thunder, Mavericks and Pelicans all have better rosters than the ones they finished last season. Denver’s standing could change if it loses Caldwell-Pope in free agency and the Clippers will likely fall off if they lose Paul George, but the larger point is the rest of the West is revamping, potentially creating even more distance between them and the Lakers. If the Lakers are as serious about competing for championships with James and Davis as they claim to be, they must bolster this supporting cast.

The most immediate complication to this effort is the roster crunch the Lakers are facing. Assuming LeBron James re-signs, they will have 14 players under contract after Russell, Christian Wood, Jaxson Hayes and Cam Reddish opted in and they drafted Knecht and Bronny James. That’s before factoring in their other free agents (Max Christie, Taurean Prince and Spencer Dinwiddie) or any prospective free agents.

The Lakers tendered a qualifying offer to Christie to officially make him a restricted free agent, team sources confirmed to The Athletic. The front office would like to retain Christie and envision him as a rotation player next season, according to those sources. However, the Lakers would need to clear additional money and a roster spot to sign both Christie and another player with the non-taxpayer midlevel exception.

Had Russell opted out, the Lakers would have had less optionality on the trade market. But with him opting in, James interested in taking a pay cut for the right free agent and the Lakers armed with multiple mid-sized salaries, two first-round picks and multiple pick swaps to trade, there is no excuse for Los Angeles to not dramatically improve its roster with a big move or two over the next few days.

(Top photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)



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