Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka put his hands around president of basketball operations Magic Johnson’s shoulders as the two sauntered across the Lakers’ practice court. Just a few hours removed from another trade that helped them unravel the previous regime’s pricey entanglements, they could help but smile and laugh.
Their actions roared Thursday.
Their trade, made only hours before the deadline, told the rest of the NBA that they still firmly believe they can bring two star players to the Lakers. Now they have the salary cap space to earnestly chase them.
“Wouldn’t have made the move if I wasn’t confident,” Johnson said. "… I wouldn’t have made the move. We have got to take the next step.”
The Lakers traded Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers for point guard Isaiah Thomas, veteran big man Channing Frye and a 2018 first-round pick three hours before the NBA trading deadline. Thomas and Frye are each in the final year of their contract, adding no salary cap burden for the 2018-19 season. Before making the trade, the Lakers had no first-round draft pick, and while this one is protected in the top three, Cleveland has only a negligible chance of getting such a high lottery pick.
Now the Lakers control their own fate. With a few more moves, and without help from other teams, they would have the salary cap space to sign two players to maximum contracts this summer when stars such as LeBron James and Paul George could become free agents.
“We now have real 100% space to do two max players if that is what we decide to do, or one in 2018 and then following it up with another one in 2019,” Pelinka said. “So the flexibility is really amazing and if you break it down and study the cap, we feel like we are the most strongly situated franchise in the NBA in terms of where our cap stands.”
The Lakers could have up to $70 million in cap space this summer if they renounce their rights to Julius Randle, who will be a restricted free agent July 1, as well as waive and then stretch the salary cap hit of Luol Deng, who is making $18 million a year and has not played since the season opener. Maximum contracts can range from $25.5 million to $35.7 million per year depending on a player’s experience.
It’s not certain that they will part ways with Randle or Deng, though, especially if they don’t need the salary cap space immediately.
Clarkson was owed about $26 million over the next two years from a four-year, $50-million contract the Lakers gave him in the summer of 2016. That summer the Lakers also signed Deng to a four-year, $72-million contract and Timofey Mozgov to a four-year, $64-million contract.
In the weeks before the deadline, the Lakers checked in on what was available for Deng. But Johnson laughed when asked if he’d had any substantial conversations that would have allowed the Lakers to move on from Deng’s contract.
“We wish, huh?” Johnson said.
Intent on getting a first-round pick and expiring contracts, the Lakers entered the days leading into Thursday’s trade deadline perfectly comfortable to do nothing if those two elements didn’t materialize. Most of their players were available, with the exception of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram.
Rumors swirled about Randle’s departure, but the Lakers didn’t go far in talks to trade him. Teams around the league were hesitant to give up very much for a player set to hit the market this summer as a restricted free agent.
Not many teams had cap space now or in the future to make such a deal. The Cavaliers were among only a handful of teams interested in acquiring players and contracts. They traded away nearly half their roster, getting younger and more athletic in hopes of winning a championship with James this year.
Neither Nance nor Clarkson was at the Lakers practice facility when the trade happened. Shootaround was set to start about an hour later.
Clarkson, who has been with the team since the start of his NBA career in 2014, heard the news during a joint phone call from Johnson and Pelinka. They wished him luck and stressed that he would have the opportunity to make a playoff run. In a phone interview with The Times, Clarkson called the prospect of a championship run “real exciting.” Having spent the last year as the subject of trade rumors, Clarkson was relieved that his future was decided.
“Some of the stuff you don’t know if it’s true or real,” he said. “Just knowing that I’m going to be there is real cool.”
Nance, a late first-round draft pick in 2015, stopped by the facility after hearing of the trade to say goodbye to his teammates and others he worked with there.
“You get close with these guys,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “JC and Larry were a huge part of what we’ve been doing here in the short time that we’ve been here. … They’ve been great teammates taking different roles. We’re going to miss them.”
Pelinka and Johnson acknowledged the bittersweet nature of the move, saying it was difficult for them and for controlling owner Jeanie Buss.
“Jeanie loves her Lakers and she becomes fond of all the guys and so she’s just like her father,” Johnson said. “She never wants to trade any of her guys because they’re more to her than just players that wear the purple and gold. She got on board and we had a great conference that said, hey, we have to do this deal, for the future of the Lakers, for now and the future.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli
7:55 p.m.: This article has been updated with new quotes from Lakers officials and players.
3:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with more details of the trade and quotes from Lakers officials.
This article was originally published at 9:35 a.m.