Lakers still favorites to repeat

The Morning Column (11/17/20)

When the Lakers created enough cap room to offer a max contract last year, they did so with one player in mind – Kawhi Leonard.

As they waited on Leonard to make a decision, other potential max contract players such as Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker signed elsewhere as did other not-quite-max free agents such as D’Angelo Russell and Nikola Vucevic. By the time Leonard decided to sign with the Clippers, the Lakers had to scramble to piece together a roster around LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma from what was left in free agency.

They signed Danny Green to a two-year, $30 million contract, Avery Bradly to a two-year $9.7 million contract and brought back several players from the previous season such as Rajon Rondo for the veteran’s minimum. They had two of the top five players in the league and a young player who had shown glimpses of being a star but that was it. There wasn’t much long-term planning in terms of the rest of the roster. They had to make the best of what was available within hours of Leonard’s decision.

That’s not the case going into next season.

Last season’s roster produced the Lakers’ first championship in a decade but vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka has already started to make moves towards improving the Lakers before Wednesday’s NBA draft. The Lakers will send their first-round pick (28th overall) and Green to the Oklahoma City Thunder for guard Dennis Schroder, who finished second to Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell for the NBA Sixth Man Award and ahead of Lou Williams, George Hill and Goran Dragic.

Schroder, 27, averaged 18.9 points, 4.0 assists and 3.6 rebounds last season backing up Chris Paul and averaged 19.4 points and 6.2 assists just two years ago when he was in Atlanta. Schroder’s role next season with the Lakers isn’t entirely clear yet but he will make an impact as either the team’s starting point guard or one of the best sixth men in the league. That depends on what Rondo and Bradley decide. Rondo declined the player option on the second year his deal. Bradley is undecided but is considering doing the same. If one of them returns (Bradley would be the most likely of the two), Schroder would presumably be the backup but on the floor to close out most games.  

Green was a solid pick-up at the time given what was available. He was a two-time NBA champion and an all-defensive second team player who knows his role. His value in the locker room, especially during last season, can’t be understated but he was inconsistent with the Lakers and there are other players who can step in and average 8.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game for less than $15 million.   

Wesley Matthews, who became a free agent after declining his option with the Milwaukee Bucks, is expected to draw interest from the Lakers to replace Green. Matthews’ father, Wes, was on the Lakers’ back-to-back championship teams in 1987 and 1988, but Matthews decided to play basketball because of his mother.

Despite all the movement and rumors in the NBA this week, the Lakers are still the favorites to repeat, according to the oddsmakers. The WestGate Las Vegas SuperBook currently has the Lakers at 7/2 favorites. They are followed by the Milwaukee Bucks at 5/1, the Clippers and Brooklyn Nets at 6/1 and the Golden State Warriors at 8/1.

It was universally expected that Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, both Klutch Sports clients, would decline the final year of their respective deals to become free agents. It is also universally expected that both players will return to the Lakers.

The big question for the Lakers heading into free agency is who they will sign with their mid-level exception. If they can stay below the luxury tax, their mid-level exception would be $9.3 million and enable them to make a run at Tristan Thompson or Serge Ibaka. The Lakers interest in signing a big man would certainly increase if they were to lose Dwight Howard and/or JaVale McGee. Howard is a free agent while McGee has yet to decide on his player option for this upcoming season.

Kyle Kuzma, who was reportedly dangled as a trade piece as the Lakers tried to put together a package worthy of landing a third star, deactivated his Twitter after tweeting out, “Ight enough disrespect on my name. Y'all will be reminded.”

It’s probably for the best for Kuzma, who just turned 25 and has the potential to become the Lakers’ third option behind James and Davis. It wasn’t like the Lakers were looking to give him away for nothing He was reportedly part of proposed trade packages for Jrue Holiday and DeMar DeRozan, which were both declined.

When the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis last year, there were many people who thought the Lakers gave up too much for the seven-time all-star who is generally regarded as one of the top five players in basketball. In order to get Davis, the Lakers traded Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, three first-round draft picks and two draft pick swaps to New Orleans.

The trade looked great last month when Davis helped the Lakers win their first title since 2010 and looks even better now after seeing the Milwaukee Bucks trade Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-round draft picks and two draft pick swaps to New Orleans for Jrue Holiday.

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There has been a lot of talk about when the Lakers will have a parade or rally to celebrate winning the franchise’s 17th championship. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the ship on a proper celebration has sailed off into the sunset.

Not only will the Lakers look different than the team that won the championship when the season starts next month but the City of Los Angeles likely won’t be in a position to hold anything resembling the massive parades and rallies Lakers fans are accustomed to until a year from now, which would be before the 2021-2022 season. While the Lakers will raise the championship banner and have a ring ceremony, it doesn’t make much sense to have a parade or rally for a championship you won two seasons earlier with likely over half the roster gone by that time.

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