How the Lakers won free agency

Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Time will tell if the Lakers are able to win an 18th championship this season but they already won this offseason and free agency.

Well before NBA free agency began, the Lakers already outlined their priorities.

They wanted to retain most of their key rotation players. They wanted to enhance their backcourt depth. They wanted to add another backup center.

It’s one thing for the Lakers to outline their vision ahead of time. All 30 NBA teams spend the entire year managing their salary cap, evaluating their current roster and brainstorming future possibilities.

It’s quite another thing, however, to execute that plan in real time. Sometimes, a team’s own free agents receive other offers that become too lucrative to pass up. Sometimes, the other teams’ free agents accept another deal before they can even make their pitch. Sometimes, blockbuster trades happen that create a ripple effect across the league.

Even with those dynamics in play, the Lakers still reached all of their goals through the first two days of free agency.

They kept two increasingly dependable role players (Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura). They secured Reaves (four years, $56 million) with the highest amount they could offer before other teams could have presented bigger deals that would’ve prompted the Lakers to match. They retained Hachimura (three years, $51 million) by finding the appropriate balance between granting a generous offer while still ensuring a team-friendly deal before he considered any outside interest. They kept a point guard that became valuable for his playmaking (D’Angelo Russell) on another team-friendly deal (two years, $33 million) both to trim salary and to safeguard against his inconsistent shooting.

They couldn’t keep guard Dennis Schroder, who joined the Toronto Raptors on a much more lucrative deal (two years, $26 million) than the Lakers could have been offered amid salary-cap related spending restrictions. But that’s okay. The Lakers shored up their backcourt depth in other ways. They added an emerging shooter and defender that helped the eighth-seeded Miami Heat advance to the NBA Finals (Gabe Vincent; three years, $33 million). They landed another player that can enhance their outside shooting (Taurean Prince; one year, $4.5 million). And they added another wing that can defend multiple positions (Cam Reddish, two years; $4.5 million).

To make these moves happen, the Lakers waived Mo Bamba ($10.3 million player option) and Shaquille Harrison while also declining Malik Beasley’s $16.5 million team option. That allowed the Lakers to have a non taxpayer mid-level exception to pursue Vincent, who also received interest from Miami and Toronto, according to a person familiar with the situation. The Heat remained strapped financially because they have also exceeded the luxury tax threshold. The Raptors wanted Vincent, but they still prioritized trying to retain point guard Fred VanVleet before he ultimately accepted a three-year, $130 million deal with the Houston Rockets. Because the Lakers lacked a backup center after waiving Bamba, they found a quality alternative on a veteran’s minimum deal (Jaxson Hayes).

The Lakers have two more full-time roster slots open that they can fill with players on veteran’s minimum contracts. But their 13-player roster already has a unique identity.

No doubt, it starts with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. During their four-year run, the Lakers have won an NBA championship (2020), lost in the first round (2021), missed the playoffs entirely (2022) and advanced to the Western Conference Finals (2023). Through the Lakers’ success and turbulence, it all mostly hinged on two variables. How healthy could James and Davis stay? How consistently dominant would James and Davis play? Even with the 38-year-old James entering his 21st season, he appears more likely to play next season feeling more refreshed. Even with Davis nursing an extensive injury history, he appears more likely to stay durable.

The reasons? Both players have had time to recharge this offseason. James will have healed a right foot injury that sidelined him for 13 consecutive games late in the season and limited him through the playoffs. Davis hasn’t suffered a major ailment since missing 26 games from late December through late January with an injured right foot. And both players won’t carry as much of a workload as they did last season when the Lakers struggled before the trade deadline with Russell Westbrook’s poor fit and exhausted their energy in almost every game after the trade deadline just to make the Play-In tournament.  

As much as the Lakers’ success depends on their star players, it also has depended on the quality of depth around them. The Lakers have plenty.

They have maintained continuity by keeping the correct pieces.  

After posting career-highs his second season in points (13), shooting (52.9%) and assists (3.4), Reaves will likely build off of his game even more. He has continued to bulk up. He has forged strong chemistry with both the Lakers’ stars and role players. While he thrives on making the hustle plays, Reaves also hasn’t shied away from making the big plays.

Neither has Hachimura, whose career-lows in points (9.6) doesn’t capture his unique value. After showing inconsistency through four seasons in Washington with his play and aggressiveness, Hachimura doesn’t have the same pressure to produce with the Lakers. In front of a demanding James, Davis and Lakers organization, however, Hachimura has felt the pressure to perform. He has met the Lakers’ expectations with his perimeter defense, his athleticism and his occasional scoring outbursts. By committing to Hachimura with a generous deal, the Lakers are also further committing toward developing him into an even greater player.

Perhaps Russell has already reached his ceiling through seven NBA seasons. That’s mostly a good thing, though. Yes, it’s not ideal that Russell shot inconsistently during the playoffs. Yes, it’s more concerning that Russell’s numbers fared worse between the first round against Memphis (43.5%; 37.2% from 3), the second round against Golden State (45.6%, 31.0% from 3) and the Western Conference Finals against Denver (32.3%, 13.3% from 3). But the Lakers only would have hesitated with keeping him on a bigger salary. Partly because of Russell’s inconsistent shooting, he didn’t have a robust market. Nonetheless, the Lakers recognized that Russell’s playmaking played a significant factor in the Lakers’ offense running more smoothly after the trade deadline. Whether he makes or misses shots, Russell will always play at a poised and controlled pace to ensure a fluid offense.

Besides, the Lakers added new role players to bolster their outside shooting needs. Vincent became dependable from 3-point range both during the regular season (33.4%) and the Heat’s playoff run (37.8%). Prince has stayed dependable from outside for most of his 8-year NBA career (37.2%). Reddish has not shot as consistently, but he has still offered value as a wing defender. The Lakers’ new draft picks at No. 17 (Indiana freshman guard Julian-Hood Schifino) and at No. 40 (Pepperdine sophomore forward Maxwell Lewis) may help the team’s outside shooting and perimeter defense, too.

That mix should already bolster a Lakers defense that ranked first in the NBA after the trade deadline. Not only did that hinge on Davis’ health and aggressiveness. They also added a key interior defender and rebounder (Jarred Vanderbilt), whom the Lakers kept on a $4.7 million team option. Hayes should give Davis and Vanderbilt additional frontcourt depth as well as relief in case Davis experiences other ailments.

No wonder Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager, likened the post trade deadline as “pre-agency.” During that time, Pelinka evaluated which new players meshed well with James, Davis and Reaves. Pelinka also determined which players to keep once they became free agents.

Focusing on those small details might not seem glamourous for a franchise fixated on stars. The Lakers didn’t need to go that route, though. With James and Davis, the Lakers didn’t need to hit a home run. They just needed to make timely singles and doubles. By making contact on every swing, the Lakers handled the free-agency sweepstakes perfectly. More importantly, the Lakers put themselves in serious contention to surpass the hated Boston Celtics next season for most NBA titles (18).

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

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments