Lakers recalibrating focus to 2019 free-agent class

ByRamona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 6, 2018

As the Los Angeles Lakers become more realistic about the franchise's chances of snaring superstars in the free-agent class of 2018, the front office is increasingly looking through a longer lens in its team building process, league sources told ESPN.

The Lakers aren't abandoning a summer pursuit of stars, but rather they are recalibrating their focus on a 2019 class that could include San Antonio'sKawhi Leonard, Golden State'sKlay Thompson and Minnesota'sJimmy Butler, league sources told ESPN.

The belief has been that the Lakers were cutting an unapologetic path to salary-cap freedom for two maximum contract slots this July, clearing the way toward a pursuit of superstars like Cleveland'sLeBron James, Oklahoma City'sPaul George and New Orleans'DeMarcus Cousins. Now, Cousins has a torn Achilles tendon, George has suggested to ESPN's Rachel Nichols that the Thunder have an advantage in re-signing him, and James is believed to have a reluctance toward signing with the Lakers without an established star immediately joining him.

Pushing back a year on big-game hunting in free agency could serve two purposes: It could alleviate the urgency to unload contracts at Thursday's trade deadline and around the June NBA draft that could require the Lakers to attach future draft assets as incentives, and it could allow the Lakers' talented young core -- including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart -- to further develop and become more attractive for veteran stars to join.

The Lakers have won 10 of their past 14 games -- the team's best stretch since 2013 -- including a rousing 108-104 win over the Thunder on Sunday that concluded a five-game, 11-day road trip. And for most of that stretch, they've done it without Ball, who has missed the past 10 games with a knee injury.

While the team's midseason surge isn't the main reason for the Lakers' new line of thinking on free agency, it has played a part, as two of the players most often mentioned in trade discussions, former lottery pick Julius Randle and reserve guard Jordan Clarkson, have played key roles of late.

Both had their best months of the season in January, with Clarkson averaging 15.9 points on 46 percent shooting from the field, while Randle averaged 15.3 points and nine rebounds after moving back into the starting lineup.

Randle will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Clarkson is owed $25.9 million over the next two seasons.

The Lakers have listened to offers or explored trades for both players that included first- or second-round picks, but sources indicate that none of those deals would save significant cap space for the future, thereby negating the initial reason for exploring trades for those players.

While the Lakers could still move either or both players before Thursday's trade deadline, one league source put the chances of a meaningful trade at "50-50 at best."

If the Lakers were to move Clarkson or Randle now or at the draft, and find a resolution to the $36.8 million remaining on Luol Deng's albatross contract -- likely via the waive-and-stretch provision -- the Lakers could create $60 million in salary cap space in July 2019. Nevertheless, if the Lakers sit out free agency this summer, they'll try to use their salary cap space to accommodate teams looking to dump bad contracts -- and willing to send draft picks to sweeten the deal, sources said.

ESPN Front Office Insider Bobby Marks contributed to this report.

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