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Panic for the Los Angeles Lakers Next Season?

The Los Angeles Lakers have not had a great 2021-22 NBA season, but is there anything they can do to improve for the next one? Or is it time to panic?

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Los Angeles Lakers LeBron James Anthony Davis Russell Westbrook
Not too many smiles for the Los Angeles Lakers.

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers have not been very good this season. When you add in the element of expectation, well, they absolutely stink. But is it time to panic about next season already?

The supposed “Big Three” of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook has not quite worked out well, for whatever reason. The overriding theme for their deficiency has been, appropriately, three-fold:

1) it’s Westbrook’s fault because he just stat-stuffs
2) it’s LeBron’s fault because he put this team together as the de facto GM
3) it’s AD’s fault because he can’t stay healthy

Regardless of which of the above is more valid relative to each other, it’s time to look forward and possibly live in a world where the Lakers’ woes are rewarded with an early end to their season. Los Angeles (31-47) is currently two games behind the San Antonio Spurs (33-45) for the final play-in tournament playoff spot. The Lakers’ final four games are @PHO, @GS, OKC, and @DEN. The Spurs’ final four games are @DEN, @MIN, GS, and @DAL. San Antonio has a slightly easier schedule, but more importantly, they own the tie-breaker against Los Angeles.

So, what can the Lakers do for the 2022-23 NBA season?

Los Angeles Lakers FINANCIALS AND FREE AGENCY

First, we have to look at what we know – who’s under contract with the team next season:

LeBron James – $44,474,988
Anthony Davis – $37,980,720
Talen Horton-Tucker – $10,260,000
Austin Reaves – $1,563,518

That’s it for guaranteed contracts. Just four players, totaling $94,279,226 of the reported $122,000,000 NBA salary cap for 2022-23. But, then we have to add in Westbrook’s player option, which he will surely opt into, of $47,063,478 and that brings the Lakers to $141,342,704. Luckily for Los Angeles, the luxury tax increases next year from $136.6 million to $149 million, so even with the Big Three’s salaries, they’ll be below the luxury tax threshold, but that’s only for five players total.

Kendrick Nunn has a player option of $5,250,000, but could test free agency as a 26-year-old guard looking for a multi-year contract for financial security purposes. Stanley Johnson has a team option of $2,351,521, which they’ll likely pick-up as he’s been productive during the times he’s been on the court. The Lakers have Cap Holds/Qualifying Offers of $1,576,305 on Mason Jones and $1,669,178 on Avery Bradley.

Here are the Non-Bird Rights players that Los Angeles can re-sign in free agency at 120% of their currently salary:

D.J. Augustin – $1,796,667
Carmelo Anthony – $1,766,970
Trevor Ariza – $1,766,970
Kent Bazemore – $1,766,970
Wayne Ellington – $1,766,970
Dwight Howard – $1,766,970
Malik Monk – $1,766,970
Dion Waiters – $1,766,970

And that’s all the players the Lakers have any financial ties to, real and potential.

One good thing for next season is that Luol Deng’s buyout hit is done, the final $5 million being paid this season, which doesn’t mean as much considering the Lakers are over the cap. They’ll have $6,339,000 of the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exemption to work with, as well as two Trade Exemptions: $2,692, 991 (expires 8/29/22) and $1,669,178 (expires 1/3/23).

Los Angeles Lakers DRAFT CAPITAL

As can be seen above, the Lakers will be handcuffed in terms of trying to sign an impactful free agent, so let’s turn to building a better team through the NBA Draft. What does Los Angeles have available, to either use to choose a player and/or use picks as part of a trade?

2022:
First round pick – Owed to New Orleans Pelicans (1-10) or Memphis Grizzlies (11-30)
Second round pick – Owed to Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, or Sacramento Kings dependent on final standings

2023:
First round pick – Pelicans own the option to swap picks
Second round pick – Lakers’ own pick; Chicago Bulls’ pick

2024:
First round pick – Pelicans can choose to take this pick or 2025’s first round pick
Second round pick – Owed to Grizzlies; the worst of the Grizzlies’ or Washington Wizards’ pick

2025:
First round pick – Pelicans can choose to take this pick or 2024’s first round pick
Second round pick – Lakers’ own pick

2026:
First round pick – Lakers’ own pick
Second round pick – Owed to the Cleveland Cavaliers

2027:
First round pick – Lakers’ own pick
Second round pick – Lakers’ own pick

2028:
First round pick – Lakers’ own pick
Second round pick – Lakers’ own pick; Washington Wizards’ pick

2029:
First round pick – Lakers’ own pick
Second round pick – Lakers’ own pick

So, considering the Stepien Rule that doesn’t allow an NBA team to go consecutive years without a first round pick, the first year that the Lakers can trade a first round pick is 2027. They would have a good amount of second-round picks to trade – eight in total between 2023 to 2029, but how much weight does that hold, especially compared to first rounders, to other GMs?

It’s safe to say, only a very far-future thinking GM would agree to take a draft pick five years from now in a trade. Of course, considering the volatility of any position in professional sports, there won’t be many GMs who would take that chance. So, the Lakers are in a limited position when it comes to draft capital to include in a trade.

THE ANSWER IS…

… MAYBE the Lakers and their fans should panic about next season. One thing to watch for in the offseason in order to reassess the panic level (and possibly bring the answer to “YES, PANIC!”) is whether or not LeBron signs an extension as he is eligible for one. If James doesn’t, he’s as good as gone after the season. And, if he pulls a James Harden, he’ll escape during the season if the Lakers can’t get it together.

Obviously, Los Angeles will try to pawn off Westbrook – but his salary, the Lakers obvious desire to trade him, and their lack of immediate draft help will not bring a good return if they’re successful in moving him. Could the Lakers trade AD or, dare I suggest, LeBron? Try spinning that with the Lakers Faithful, unless LeBron is the one to ask the organization to trade Davis or even himself. For the sake of continuity (and possibly a brighter future, but definitely a more manageable one), they should listen to the King if he asks.

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