May 29, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) and San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) look for a rebound during the second half in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Lakers: Star-Driven Approach Will Continue

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The Los Angeles Lakers have made their intentions perfectly clear with their actions this offseason: the focus for their immediate and long-term future will be stars.

Not that this comes to any surprise, because it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. It doesn’t feel right watching Laker basketball that is void of the glitz, glamor, and excitement that stars bring (not to mention quality play).

Still, despite missing on Carmelo Anthony and others, the Lakers structured their payroll to be big time players for the stars that enter free agency going forward. For the next two years, minimum, the Lakers will have the chance to offer the top free agent on the market a max contract.

This type of flexibility is genius; it keeps fans engaged even when the product is not all that engaging.

So, armed with that flexibility, the Lakers are free to forgo building a team through the draft (they would have a tough time with that even if they tried), and will attempt follow the blueprint they always have.

Looking forward it’s not a bad plan. There are elite players who are expected to make themselves available each summer. With the proper development of Julius Randle, and continued preservation of the cap money, the Lakers could be looking at a turnaround much sooner than later.

Spending Power & Selling Power

By acquiring expiring contracts (Jeremy Lin), and signing other free agents strategically (Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly) the Lakers will have necessary cap room to acquire big names in the coming years.

According to Basketball Insiders, the Lakers will have $35 million on the books for next summer, and assuming the cap nears the projected $63 million, they could be looking at $18 million in room next season.

Of course, for the next year they will free up another $25 million as Kobe Bryant rides off into the sunset, so they will have a little less than $10 million on the books as of right now (assuming they exercise Julius Randle’s option, which is a good bet).

So, good spending power in 2015, and nearly unlimited in 2016 if they are unable to land a star the year prior; but that’s just part of the equation.

How do you get star free agents to leave their teams, that can pay them more, to play for a team that likely will be stripped down to bare bones?

The first answer is obviously the glamor of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. This will appeal to some stars, and the weather should appeal to almost every basketball player that is human (jury is out on Kevin Durant and LeBron James in this case).

Second, the stars will get to help shape the team from nearly every perspective.

Want to pick your teammates? They have the money to be competitive in that regard.

Want to pick your coach? There’s a reason it’s nearly August and one has not been named.

If that is the strategy it takes to get a star in this era of the NBA, you can bet the Lakers will try it. Anything to help the turnaround of this franchise go a little faster than the norm.

The last selling point that I want to point out is the development of Julius Randle. This is the key cog to bringing star talent to Los Angeles.

Let’s assume that Randle doesn’t fall flat on his face, and look like Anthony Bennett did last season. Let’s also assume that he doesn’t set the world on fire and look like a superstar in the making (I strongly believe in this scenario than the prior one). To paint a more vivid picture, I am looking at a player around the value of a David Lee, maybe a little lower, maybe a little higher.

In that hypothetical scenario, that’s a starter, and a pretty good player. This player is on a sub-$4 million contract for the 2016-17 season. This gives the Lakers flexibility to add championship talent to a solid, young player who is dirt cheap. If Julius Randle develops, it’s a strong selling point for the Lakers. If he looks like a star, it’s at the top of the list for pitching star free agents.

Now, let’s take a brief look at who the Lakers could be targeting in the next two off-seasons.

Rajon Rondo, Unrestricted Free Agent 2015

The writing seems to be on the wall for Rondo in Boston after the drafting of Marcus Smart, and the youth movement that has taken place there. If they are unable to land Kevin Love, I get the feeling that Rondo will be dealt or will leave as a free agent following next season.

Why should the Lakers pursue a Boston Celtic?

He can run a team, period. He’s one of the best passers in the game, is a great defender, and is a championship player. Sure, he can’t shoot, and might be a tough guy to get along with at times, but he’s got the will to win and Laker fans will appreciate him.

Would I pay Rondo the max? No. Will he get max offers? Almost undoubtedly.

However, if he wants to help build a contender, I’d feel comfortable landing him in the $12-18 million dollar per range. I’m not sure he should get more than that if the Lakers are focused on grabbing multiple stars.

Kawhi Leonard, Restricted Free Agent 2015

I do not expect the reigning Finals MVP to leave San Antonio. In fact, I expect them to agree to an extension sooner rather than later.

Stranger things have happened, and that’s why he gets a mention on this list.

In doing their due diligence, Leonard should garner a max offer from every team  (around $16 million with the current cap). The Lakers need to be one of them.

Those who watched the Finals know why Leonard deserves to get paid, and having him in the fold would be a big win for any team that would be able to pry Kawhi away from Gregg Popvich and company.

Leonard went to school at San Diego State, but is a quiet guy; I am not sure how excited he would be to become the centerpiece for the Los Angeles Lakers. Still, he’s a guy they will pursue if he’s available.

Kevin Love, Early Termination Option 2015

By all accounts, Love will not remain in Minnesota much longer. He also seems to be on his way to Cleveland, if not the Warriors or Bulls.

If he makes it to the free agent pool in 2015, he will most likely be on the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

Lakers

Jan 4, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) hugs Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love (42) after the game at Target Center. The Thunder won 115-111. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been rumored for ages that this pairing would happen, and Love seems to really want the spotlight of a big market. He’s got big time offensive skills, but is questionable defensively, and has never appeared in a playoff game.

Personally, I question how Love fits with Julius Randle, but if he’s willing to come, the Lakers will sign him and figure out the details later.

He will likely only consider maximum contract offers.

Marc Gasol, Unrestricted Free Agent 2015

Pau’s brother was drafted by the Lakers, and will be near the top of their list as they try to build their new star studded roster.

He fits perfectly with nearly any pairing in the front court, and has many of the same skills that Laker fans loved in Pau’s game.

The concern here is that he’s a bit old (he’ll be 30) for a team that will be a blank slate, but the Lakers are always in win-now mode, and would obviously love to have a player of Marc’s caliber. His game should age gracefully.

Gasol will get a max contract if he wants one, though I think it will be hard to steal him away from Memphis like Pau before him.

Kevin Durant, Unrestricted Free Agent 2016

This is the guy who the Lakers are all-in on. He’ll get the full court press, and then some. And I expect he’ll listen.

Kobe Bryant will have likely moved on from basketball when Durant is a free agent. He’ll have the opportunity to succeed Bryant as the face of the Los Angeles Lakers. He may also have the opportunity to play with his buddy Kevin Love, or wait a year and reunite with his BFF Russell Westbrook in LA in 2017; these are certainly possible pitches the Lakers will make.

To be clear, I think as it stands today Durant wants to stay in Oklahoma City. He seems like the type of guy that values loyalty. However, Tim Duncan listened to the Orlando Magic, Kobe Bryant listened to the Los Angeles Clippers, and LeBron James bolted for the Miami Heat; the Lakers should have a chance if he indeed decides to test the market.

Note: LaMarcus Aldridge was omitted from this list as it seems nearly a lock he will be with Portland. If he were to seriously consider other offers, he would be found on this list as well. LeBron James was omitted from this list because the Earth will implode if he leaves Cleveland a second time.

Cautious Optimism For The Lakers

Of course, as we know, none of these guys are locks to come to Los Angeles. Their current teams can offer them the most money, and other teams can probably guarantee more competitive rosters.

However, the Lakers have landed big fish before, and can very well do so again.

So, for every Jeremy Lin turnover or every Kobe Bryant scowl this upcoming season, the franchise is not without a plan. There are possibilities looming, and it’s going to be a hell of a ride trying to figure out how the plan pans out.

Until then, the Lakers will be gazing at stars, hoping to build a team full of them.

 

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