LeBron James has already compared his pairing with Anthony Davis to the legendary duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
They were the dominant three-time champions (2000, 2001, 2002), and one of the all-time duos alongside the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone and John Stockton, and Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
However, many – including myself – plea to differ, with the belief that only one year together, one western conference title, and one championship is not enough to call the Lakers’ duo an all-time great just yet.
With increasing competition from a Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving-led Brooklyn Nets squad, a revamped Golden State Warriors seeing the return of the notorious splash brothers, and general rising threats across the league, it is necessary that the Lakers make the right moves if they want to go back-to-back, and reach the Lakers legacy set by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Initially, the Lakers’ vice-president of operations, Rob Pelinka, needs to consider the off-season basics. The Lakers already exceed the salary cap, meaning they have no money to splash on free agents. However, they can sign Davis to an extension.
The Lakers can only spend a US$9.3 million (A$12.8 million) mid-level exception outside resigning their current players who are listed here, and they hold the 28th pick in the 2020 NBA draft. The team desperately needs a third scorer behind James and Davis, a point guard who can shoot from the three, and manage their relevant free agents listed here.
But what about Davis? He has already told the media he is willing to sign an extension. Still, the Lakers’ question is at what amount and for how long to stay competitive.
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Davis’ first option is to sign a two-year deal with a player option on his second year. Becoming a free agent in 2022 will let him earn more money, foreseeing COVID-19 permits the salary cap to rise once again, and fans can re-enter stadiums. Yet Davis could also simply sign a five-year max extension worth approximately US$190 million (A$261 million). This would allow the franchise to build around Davis and become the team’s front face, as James begins to decline and eventually retire, which is likely within the next five years.
But back to the other free agents on the team. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Javale McGee, and Rajon Rondo all hold player options, meaning they can opt in or out of their contract at their own discretion. Avery Bradley has already stated he will be opting into his player option, while it is likely Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be too. He was a pivotal asset for the team in the finals.
Yet the tough dilemma is the Lakers can only afford to bring back one of Dwight Howard, Marcus Morris and Rajon Rondo (if he accepts his player option), or bring in one outside free agent. Following his stellar performance throughout the playoffs, shooting the three ball and running the floor when James wasn’t on the court, the clear player to bring back is Rajon Rondo.
Rondo is a 15-year veteran, flexible with coming off the bench if needed, and is a vocal leader for his team, all of which are factors essential to contributing to a championship-calibre team.
Let’s not forget about that US$9.3 million mid-level exception, however. That could prove crucial in adding a winning piece to their squad.
The Lakers need someone to run the offence outside Rondo and James, and a third scorer, as Kyle Kuzma has proven this season that he is not going to cut it. Hence the perfect target for the team is Jordan Clarkson.
He is a player who understands the Lakers’ culture, having played there in his early career. He experienced being on the same team as Kobe Bryant, all before getting traded to Cleveland in 2018.
Clarkson had an ecstatic 2019-20 season. Clarkson averaged 15.2 points per game, 45 per cent field goal and 36 per cent from the three-point line, proving to be an efficient scorer who could give the Lakers’ bench a spark when in dire need of some points.
Playing with the likes of James and Davis could open the floor for Clarkson and give him the looks he needs to put the ball in the basket.
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Clarkson could be in high demand, however his one-dimensional game could prevent him from getting a big deal. Yet if scoring is all the Lakers need, then there is no reason why the Lakers shouldn’t offer him their full mid-level exception, which could be the money to push Clarkson over the edge in signing. Plus, who doesn’t want to live in Los Angeles?
Another option is DJ Augustine of the Orlando Magic. He is a point guard who can create looks for his teammates and score, especially from downtown. Although he isn’t elite in either of those departments, he can fill the Lakers’ need for a third scorer behind Davis and James. He is a point guard who can shoot from three. He can serve the Lakers’ needs and wants, assuming they don’t expect him to play like Chris Paul or Steph Curry when he’s out on the floor.
Suppose Rob Pelinka really wants to make his team a championship contender. In that case, he will need to engage in the trade market.
They could execute the first potential trade by sending Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and their own 28th pick in the 2020 draft off to Charlotte for Terry Rozier. Through this trade, the Lakers bring in an athletic third option to score and play-make, as he’s showed in his career at Boston and Charlotte. Rozier averaged nearly 20 points per game on 40 per cent three-point shooting and averaged a career-high 4.1 assists per game.
The Lakers could also bring in Detroit’s Derrick Rose in return for Kyle Kuzma, Quinn Cook and the 28th pick. Detroit is clearly in rebuild mode following the trade of Andre Drummond and is looking to shed their other big contracts in turn for young players. The Lakers package suits their timeline perfectly.
In turn, the Lakers cash in on a 12-year veteran who seems to be 80 per cent to 90 per cent in his recovery from his long history of injuries. He is a player who averaged 18.1 points per game on almost 50 per cent field goal and 5.6 assists. Rose has had since March this year to fine-tune his body of injuries and work on his skills to become the best NBA-ready player possible. As a rare bonus, Rose is only on a contract worth US$8 million (A$11 million) per year, an uncommon feature for a player of his high calibre.
The rising competition across the league doesn’t mean the Lakers aren’t a championship-level team with their current roster. We know James and Davis are back for another season, but much of this Lakers squad’s future is in a fog, so it will be an exciting month ahead as free agency opens on November 21.