The three free agency paths the Lakers can take this offseason

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Thursday, June 1, 2023

Back in February, D'Angelo Russell spoke to reporters about a fresh start on the Los Angeles Lakers, nearly six years after last suiting up for the purple and gold. He exuded confidence about the player he had become since starting with the Lakers after being selected as the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA draft as a teenager.

As he reflected on his memories of teaming up with Kobe Bryant, pivoted from his experience with the Minnesota Timberwolves and looked ahead to playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Russell said something meant to be boastful that can be interpreted much differently now that the Lakers season is over.

"I know I'm dangerous on the floor," Russell said Feb. 10 at the Lakers' practice facility.

Three months later, Russell's production tanked when L.A. needed him most on the floor in the Western Conference finals.

He averaged just 6.3 points on 32% from the field (13.3% from 3) and 3.5 assists in the four-game sweep to the Denver Nuggets.

In the third quarter of Game 3, with the Lakers back home and facing an 0-2 deficit, he shot 0-for-4 with two turnovers -- one because of an off-target crosscourt pass he threw that was intercepted by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It ignited a fast break for Denver, prompting Lakers coach Darvin Ham to call timeout and sub Russell out.

He lost his starting spot in Game 4 -- the only game he came off the bench in the 34 games (regular season, play-in and playoffs) he played for L.A. after the three-team trade to acquire him -- and had his minutes cut to 15 in the loss.

"It was tough to agree with it, obviously," Russell said of the benching. "But in the short period of time, [it was important] to not become a distraction to your teammates and to everybody else that's preparing just like you to get the one goal done, which is win. I knew that was where you have to be professional."

To judge Russell's impact on the Lakers off those four games against the Nuggets would be shortsighted. The four games he had in Games 1 and 6 in both the Memphis and Golden State series -- 22 points on 51.5% shooting and 4.5 assists in four wins -- were major contributions in getting L.A. to the conference finals.

Russell is eligible to sign a two-year, $67.5 million extension by June 30, which the Lakers will not pursue at the max number, sources familiar with the situation told ESPN.

And the market could be flat for the 27-year-old Russell, as the teams with that type of cap space this summer -- Houston, San Antonio, Utah, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Detroit and Indiana -- are either still in rebuild mode or already filled at the position.

Beyond James' retirement decision -- which could be a nonissue, with a source close to James telling ESPN on Thursday that he believes the Lakers star will indeed be back for season No. 21 and fulfill his contract -- the biggest question facing the Lakers this offseason is figuring out what to do at point guard.

After L.A. spent 1 seasons reeling from its 2021 trade to acquire Russell Westbrook, the need to get the position right should be fresh on the minds of the front office.

Here are the three directions the Lakers can take this summer to address their point guard situation, while rounding out the roster to try to compete, once again, for a championship next season:

1. Run it back

"I would say this resoundingly clear: Our intentions are to keep our core of young guys together," Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said Tuesday before exit interviews.

This would include making an extension offer to Russell -- perhaps in the $18 million to $23 million annual compensation range depending on the contract length -- picking up the team option on Jarred Vanderbilt ($4.6 million) and re-signing restricted free agents Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura(for both, L.A. can match any outside offers that might come to retain them).

The Lakers' 18-8 record in the regular season after the trade deadline would be an argument to stay the course and consider the Denver series -- against a team with far more continuity and familiarity from the last several years -- part of the growth process.

"I think that team, there's not really a lot of holes in their system,"Russell said of the Nuggets. "It also shows the league what a year of chemistry can do for an organization and for a team and coaching staff."

This would also allow L.A. to see how the group looks to start next season and figure out if it recaptures the magic it had to finish out 2022-23, and then have a larger sample size to make decisions off of.

2. Shake it up

L.A. could decide to let Russell walk as a free agent and replace him via trade. The Lakers have an option on Malik Beasley ($16.5 million), and Mo Bamba's $10.3 million for next season becomes guaranteed if the Lakers don't waive him by June 29. Their deals, combined with Vanderbilt's contract and some assortment of the Lakers' upcoming draft picks -- they have Nos. 17 and 47 this year, and either their 2029 or 2030 first-rounders should hold a lot of value for their post-LeBron era potential -- can make them players on the market.

Could that be enough to have Dallas cut bait on the Kyrie Irving-Luka Doncic experiment and try to restock some of the depth it gave up to acquire Irving in the first place? Would Toronto accommodate a sign-and-trade with Fred VanVleet if he doesn't pick up his $22.8 million player option for next season rather than seeing him potentially leave for nothing as an unrestricted free agent? While not a prototypical point guard, could the Lakers target a trade for Atlanta's Dejounte Murray for his defensive prowess -- hoping his addition could get the team out in transition more often where a traditional point guard with half-court sets sensibilities is less needed?

3. Split the difference

There's also the option to still prioritize re-signing Reaves and Hachimura, pick up the other contract options on the table and free up the full non-taxpayer midlevel exception (worth $12.2 million) to try to keep Dennis Schroder -- who outperformed his veteran minimum contract this past season.

Or perhaps they would even be able to give Schroder the bulk of the MLE and save some of it to give a role player such as Troy Brown Jr. or Wenyen Gabriel -- two reserves who kept L.A. moving in the right direction despite the team's rocky start -- a raise beyond another minimum deal.

It's one giant puzzle the Lakers will try to figure out between now and the June 22 draft when teams look to make deals leading up to the start of free agency June 30.

The franchise has momentum for the time being, but how it manages decisions over the next six weeks could very well determine if that momentum carries over into training camp in the fall.

Related Video