How the Lakers might manage their free agents

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Can the Lakers win a title by returning a team swept in the West Finals? The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina looks at their options.

Historically, the Lakers’ championship success has often hinged on acquiring a super-star free agent. This offseason, though, the Lakers will have a different philosophy.  

“It’s a high priority to keep our core players together,” said Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager.

Not only do the Lakers already have two stars (LeBron James, Anthony Davis). The Lakers are mindful that their appearance in the Western Conference Finals partly stemmed from their trade deadline moves that produced a more balanced offense and more consistent defense. Add in the spending restrictions stemmed from salary cap rules, and the Lakers seem more inclined to keep their current roster than to make drastic changes.

How will that philosophy play out in real time when the NBA free-agency period begins on Friday (3 pm PT)? Will the Lakers retain everyone they want on their roster? Or will they have to become selective based on market interest? Will the Lakers pivot toward a possible trade should an opportunity arise? Or will the Lakers stick to their core principles?

Given the free-agency fluidity, anything can happen. With James, Davis and Max Christie as the lone players guaranteed to be under contract next season, below is an early sense on what to expect with their 11 other players that could hit the open market.

Austin Reaves, shooting guard

Contract status: Lakers extended a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent. That allows the Lakers to match any offer he receives from any other team.

Analysis: Either way, Austin Reaves will secure a much more lucrative contract than his current deal. The Lakers appear willing to spend to retain Reaves after  the undrafted guard posted career-highs in points (13.0), shooting percentage (52.9%), 3-point shooting (39.8%) and assists (3.4) during his second NBA season. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising if  the Lakers match any outside offers. Rivers has become that valuable as a developing scorer, playmaker and defender. Aside from the Laker fans that greeted him with M-V-P chants at the free-throw line, Reaves isn’t necessarily a star. But with his work ethic and skillset, Reaves shouldn’t put a ceiling on his trajectory.

If nothing else, Reaves has offered a key ingredient with ensuring the Lakers’ chemistry hums along. Though the Lakers’ success revolves obviously around a healthy and effective James and Davis, Reaves has become a key bridge between making life easier both for his star and role-playing teammates. It’s hard to put a price tag on that. Technically, the market will find that price. Practically, the Lakers don’t have salary cap limitations because of Reaves’ contract status. And philosophically, the Lakers will view this move as the necessary cost of doing business.  

Rui Hachimura, small forward

Contract status: Lakers extended a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent. That allows the Lakers to match any offer he receives from any other team.

Analysis: Just like with Reaves, the Lakers love Hachimura’s upside and how he has fit in with both the Lakers’ stars and other role players. Just like with Reaves, the Lakers appear willing to match any offer he receives from other teams. Hachimura met the Lakers’ expectations after they acquired him from Washington shortly before the trade deadline. He bolstered the Lakers’ wing needs with mostly consistent perimeter defense and scoring. He showed enough positional versatility to defend both bigger and smaller defenders. And though he underachieved during his first four seasons in Washington, Hachimura thrived under better structure with the Lakers among their front office, coaching staff and stars. Hachimura experienced some early growing pains, but it didn’t take him long to initially his stride.

The Lakers are willing to further invest in Hachimura because they believe he has an even bigger level of potential to unlock. Hachimura made the Lakers’ playoff opponents pay any time they ignored him defensively. Assuming he receives more attention next season, the Lakers believe Hachimura has what it takes to elevate his aggressiveness and decision making even further.

D’Angelo Russell, point guard

Contract status: Unrestricted

Analysis: Russell’s free agency could become just as unpredictable as his performances during his second stint with the Lakers. It appeared the Lakers would love to retain Russell on a lucrative long-term deal after he instantly bolstered the Lakers’ offense with better shooting, playmaking and floor spacing following the trade deadline. Then, Russell had several uneven post-season performances that left the Lakers with mixed feelings about his long-term fit. Technically, the Lakers have no spending limit on Russell because they have his Bird Rights, but their interest in him also partly depends on the amount (no where near his previous four-year, $117 million deal). D

Don’t rule out the Lakers exploring sign-and-trade possibilities because of Russell’s inconsistency. But it remains to be seen if teams will show enough interest in Russell that they would also show a willingness to give up additional assets to acquire him. If that doesn’t happen, then the Lakers are at the mercy of Russell fielding offers elsewhere. If his market value stays relatively low, the Lakers could retain him albeit on a discounted rate.  It wouldn’t be catastrophic if the Lakers kept Russell. Despite his shooting struggles and defensive lapses, Russell became a key reason why the Lakers became much more organized following the Russell Westbrook trade. That could give the Lakers additional runway to start the 2023-24 season on much firmer ground than their 2-10 start last season. Russell could play decent enough to attract offers leading into the trade deadline.

Lonnie Walker IV, shooting guard

Contract status: Unrestricted

Analysis: The Lakers love everything that Walker represents. He maintains a positive attitude both when he logs heavy minutes or experiences healthy scratches. They love his competitiveness and work habits. And they became encouraged with how Walker can thrive under pressure. No doubt, Walker could plays more consistently. But the Lakers believe he is a winning player. In an ideal world, the Lakers would keep Walker after acquiring him with their mid-level exception ($6.5 million). It seems likely both the Lakers and other teams would show a willingness to offer a slight pay raise. But Walker could attract suitors that could grant a more consistent role than what the Lakers would have available.

Dennis Schroder, point guard

Contract status: Unrestricted

Analysis: Schroder impressed the Lakers with his defense and adaptability to as a starter and reserve during his second stint here in three years. With Schroder missing a combined 15 games with various injuries and showing mixed performances with his shooting, the Lakers could have concerns about his long-term fit. It helps that he signed a veteran’s minimum deal last season in hopes to jumpstart his NBA future. It also helps that he has a strong relationship with Lakers coach Darvin Ham. His market could change this summer, making the Lakers have to decide if they’d rather prioritize continuity or explore potentially less expensive options elsewhere. Should the outside options bear a similar market, Schroder has the incumbent’s edge.

Jarred Vanderbilt, power forward

Contract status: $4.7 million team option

Analysis: ESPN reported that the Lakers plan to exercise Vanderbilt’s team option, a move that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Vanderbilt complemented Davis with additional interior defense and consistent rebounding. He also showed potential with defending smaller perimeter players. Vanderbilt had a limited offensive game, but the Lakers didn’t value him through that lens. They mostly appreciated Vanderbilt’s defensive versatility. It also helps the Lakers don’t  have to worry about significant financial ramifications with keeping him.

Troy Brown Jr., small forward

Contract status: Unrestricted

Analysis: Brown impressed the Lakers with his defensive versatility at the perimeter and occasionally inside. During the regular season, Brown also provided occasional secondary scoring. He fell out of the playoff rotation amid his inconsistency. The Lakers could retain Brown again on another veteran’s minimum deal. But expect the Lakers to explore the market first before committing to him.

Malik Beasley, shooting guard

Contract status: $16.5 million team option

Analysis: The Lakers acquired Beasley from Minnesota with optimism that he would significantly bolster the team’s shooting. It initially appeared that way. Beasley soon lost his starting spot amid overlapping developments with his shooting slump and Reaves’ rising ascension. Beasley didn’t adjust well as a reserve or in limited post-season minutes, either. It seems unlikely the Lakers would retain Beasley, especially given his contract. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Lakers packaged Beasley’s expiring contract in a deal in hopes to maximize flexibility.

Tristan Thompson, center

Contract status: Unrestricted

Analysis: Following a productive nine-year career in Cleveland, Thompson has struggled to find stability after playing on five different teams in the past three years. Thompson showed some flashes of his former self during limited playoff minutes. But the Lakers signed him before the playoffs started mostly to have an additional locker-room veteran and in case of any emergencies. The Lakers could use additional backup center help, but it appears likely they’ll consider other options first.

Wenyen Gabriel, power forward/center

Contract status: Unrestricted

Analysis: Gabriel appeared overwhelmed with defending both the power forward and center spots. He also made the Lakers’ floor spacing clunky with his awkward movement and limited offensive game. Perhaps the Lakers can sign him to a two-way contract for further development.  

Mo Bamba, center

Contract status: $10.3 million player option

Analysis: Bamba failed to offer the additional rim protection the Lakers hoped amid varying injuries. Given that his expiring contract creates more flexibility with a possible trade package, it appears likely the Lakers will explore this possibility.

Mark Medina covers the Clippers & Lakers for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.