Nothing will be easy for the Lakers this offseason

Many things can be true about the Los Angeles Lakers’ ensuing offseason and their various outcomes. They can bring back Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, and the Lakers, by all accounts, plan to match any rival offer sheet for the two playoff standouts. They can bring back D’Angelo Russell. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka hinted as much during his end-of-season media availability on Tuesday following Los Angeles’ 4-0 Western Conference finals loss to Denver.

“I would say this resoundingly clear: Our intentions are to keep our core of young guys together,” Pelinka told reporters. “We saw incredible growth and achievement by Rui, Austin — I could go down the list — [Jarred Vanderbilt], [Russell]. We have a lot of great young players and we want to do our best to fit the puzzle together. … Again, without talking specific players, we’ll do our best to keep this group intact and growing and getting better each year.”

It’s just going to be expensive, as any contending roster is in today’s NBA, and there will be plenty of wonky cap gymnastics to tackle by Pelinka’s front office. Avoiding the second tax apron under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement will be a key concern. All while LeBron James’ first flirtation with retirement came as a surprise to many Los Angeles staffers, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Alas, there’s widespread skepticism that James will truly hang up his signature sneakers before a two-year, $97 million contract extension has yet to begin. There have been no shortage of theories about why James uttered his contemplative message in Monday night’s postgame availability, but for the sake of sifting through the Lakers’ summer scenarios, let’s work under the assumption one of the game’s greatest ever — who posted 40 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists in the Game 4 loss to the Nuggets — is coming back for the 2023-24 season, before his long-stated goal of playing with or against his son, Bronny, can be possible in 2024-25.

Many teams, including the Lakers, will show some of their offseason cards at the NBA Draft, which takes place exactly one week before Los Angeles has to make critical decisions June 29 regarding Malik Beasley’s $16.5 million team option for next year, and whether to guarantee the contracts of Mo Bamba and Jarred Vanderbilt. With only $4.6 million owed his way, it would be a surprise if the Lakers don’t pick up Vanderbilt’s salary, unless Los Angeles plans to renounce much of the remaining roster and play with $30 million in cap room. That’s a tricky dance, though. Bamba has $10.3 million non-guaranteed for 2023-24. Combine that with Beasley’s salary, and the Lakers could feasibly find a trade amid the draft night chaos that bolsters their supporting cast for James and Anthony Davis — without sacrificing the depth they fought so hard to acquire midseason.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Austin Reaves (15) scores past Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) in the first half of Game 3 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Austin Reaves was a revelation for the Lakers this season, but his services next year won't come cheap. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Beasley’s name was discussed plenty ahead of the February trade deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports, as Utah tried drumming up its greatest possible return for a handful of veterans, Vanderbilt included. The Hawks registered interest, sources said, and explored a package of Beasley and Vanderbilt for John Collins. The Knicks were another team that called about Beasley, sources said, attempting to land Beasley and Vanderbilt in a deal that would have sent out Evan Fournier. New York also eyed Beasley in 2020, when he was a restricted free agent, and that was before Gersson Rosas, then the Timberwolves president who awarded Beasley a four-year, $60 million contract, joined the Knicks as a senior basketball adviser. Perhaps Cleveland, in search of wing shooting, would be keen on discussing a deal for Beasley. Portland had shown interest in Beasley as well, sources said.

Austin Reaves headshot
Austin Reaves
SG - LAL - #15
2022 - 2023 season

From there, Reaves’ restricted free agency stands as the Lakers’ biggest swing point, numbers-wise. It would be a true shock to see him or Hachimura land elsewhere. Finding young players with proven postseason value is a rarity in this league, and the Lakers don’t seem to be taking Reaves or Hachimura for granted. Both are considered high-character locker-room presences in addition to their on-court effectiveness through the team’s run to the Western Conference finals.

In an ideal world for Los Angeles, they sign the undrafted combo guard to the four-year deal north of $50 million its limited to offering, which would allow the Lakers to still have access to the $12.2 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception and the bi-annual exception worth roughly $4.5 million, and then fill out the rest of the roster with veteran minimums in addition to re-signing Hachimura and Russell with Bird rights. If another team swoops in and offers Reaves above that threshold, it will hamstring Los Angeles’ efforts to not just bring this group back, but add to it while remaining under the second apron.

“All it takes is one team who wants to f*** the Lakers,” one cap strategist told Yahoo Sports. A suitor could just outright value Reaves at a number past $20 million in annual salary as well. An obvious candidate: the Rockets, holding upward of $60 million in cap space with the goal of competing next season and the potential need of alternative plans should James Harden ultimately spurn a Houston homecoming.

Reaves qualifies as an Arenas Rule player, a restricted free agent after two years of service, which would put an estimated maximum of his next contract around four years, $100 million. Similar to when Brooklyn tried to lure Tyler Johnson away from the Miami Heat in 2016 — when the Nets offered Johnson a deal that started around $6 million in each of the first two years and ballooned to roughly $20 million in each of the final two seasons — a rival team could offer Reaves a fat contract that, once the Lakers matched, would begin at around $12 million and then leap well past Johnson’s $20 million salary for the final two seasons.

Hachimura set himself up for a nice payday as well. During extension conversations with the Wizards, sources said, Washington began the negotiations offering Hachimura around $12 million per season, and eventually moved into the $13 million-14 million range. Meanwhile, Hachimura’s side preferred something closer to a four-year, $60 million structure. He seemed destined for that number toward the end of the regular season. Los Angeles doesn’t surrender three second-round picks for Hachimura at the deadline without a rough understanding of his salary wishes. Following a strong playoffs, where the 24-year-old forward played critical closing minutes and started the Lakers’ final outing, that $15 million in average annual value seems like the floor for Hachimura. Josh Hart’s extension talks with New York are expected to approach $18 million annually, sources told Yahoo Sports, and the NBA free-agent marketplace tends to be a comparative economy. For any clues to rival teams that could throw an offer sheet Hachimura’s direction, Indiana and Phoenix were considered strong suitors for him back in February, sources said, and nearly completed deals with the Wizards for him.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura scores against the Denver Nuggets in the second half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series Monday, May 22, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Rui Hachimura's value rose with some stellar playoff performances. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Then there’s the matter of Russell, who was seeking a new deal worth upward of $100 million over four years when he was with the Timberwolves, sources said. After an inconsistent postseason, it’s hard to imagine many bidders for Russell at that price point. That could certainly benefit the Lakers if they intend to retain him. He was the headliner, after all, of Los Angeles’ return from February’s three-team swap that sent out a first-round pick in addition to Russell Westbrook’s expiring salary, and also netted Beasley and Vanderbilt. Russell, though, does not bring the defensive tenacity preferred by head coach Darvin Ham. And the Lakers may be wise in exploring sign-and-trade scenarios that could bring back a player that fits more cohesively with this roster.

But Russell was also viewed as a positive presence around the Lakers, sources said. Even as his time watching from the bench increased, he was still flashing the team’s 3-point celebration when teammates connected from deep. Perhaps a short-term agreement can get Russell closer to the average annual value he was said to be seeking. A two-year deal worth roughly $40 million could give Russell his riches and also leave the Lakers with a movable contract should they desire that type of flexibility.

You can bet Lonnie Walker searches for his own payday following a breakout playoffs, particularly his electric Game 4 effort against the Golden State Warriors. Dennis Schröder won’t be easy to retain, either. If Los Angeles is able to keep its full mid-level available, perhaps it can keep Schroder at that salary slot. If the Lakers can persuade Schröder to instead settle for the $4.5 million bi-annual exception, almost twice his veteran minimum’s salary from this season, Los Angeles could reward him with a four-year, $58 million deal starting in 2024-25, similar to how Nicolas Batum and Bobby Portis stuck around the Clippers and Bucks, respectively — and that would leave the Lakers with a pick of mid-level-caliber free agents.

Yet while Schröder is known to have an affinity for Los Angeles and playing under Ham, it would be hard to fault the veteran from searching for a richer reward elsewhere, especially after two consecutive seasons earning well below his market value. Schröder proved himself to be one of the premier backup point guards in the NBA these playoffs and merged into the Lakers’ starting lineup at various stretches of the campaign. Any salary structure that is at least comparable to Tyus Jones’ recent two-year, $29 million deal in Memphis, with Jones regarded as another elite reserve floor general at worst and quality starter at best, would seem a reasonable starting point for Schröder’s services.

Los Angeles finished the regular season 18-8, second-best in the NBA after the trade deadline. The Lakers became the only Western Conference team to defeat the Warriors under Steve Kerr. A sweep to Denver, just one round shy of the Finals, certainly leaves a sour taste to a season that featured such a remarkable turnaround from a ghastly 2-10 start. For those in Los Angeles’ building who are optimistic about what this revamped roster can accomplish with a full season together, it’s easy to paint a picture for 2023-24 that features largely the same cast of characters and a similar level of success. One massive offer sheet for Reaves or Hachimura, though, makes this puzzle a bit harder to figure out.