As the NBA braces for a busy weekend of quickly crafted free-agent deals, one regular participant will be sitting back and letting it all unfold.
They aren’t planning to get involved in this year’s free agency at a high level. Their front office, led by President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, has its eye on the future.
“Of course in free agency we will be very, very strategic to keep the cap space in July 2018,” Pelinka said. “We are going to be very sacred about that. We worked hard to get in that position and so we will be smart in free agency but add the right players to make sure our young guys are developed the right way and not too much too soon.”
The Lakers aren’t planning to commit to any multi-year deals. At best they’ll extend one-year offers with team options. They’ll focus on veteran, backup guards who can help their young players’ development and who come with bargain price tags.
Their conduct this weekend will be in service of the 2018 free-agency period, when the Lakers hope to be in position to land two stars, during a summer when Paul George, LeBron James and reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook could be available.
According to people not authorized to speak publicly, George, a Palmdale native, is still telling friends that he intends to be a Laker in 2018. Because of that, he knows the Lakers have little incentive to trade for him now.
Although George’s feelings could change, especially if he is traded to a team he likes, the Lakers aren’t willing to part with too much to trade for him. Second-year forward Brandon Ingram, a favorite of the Lakers’ coaching staff, has caught Indiana’s eye, but is off limits. Without the help of a third team, the Lakers weren’t willing to part with the No. 2 overall pick before the draft — the pick they used to take former UCLA star Lonzo Ball.
That will remain true in free agency. The Lakers don’t have many slots available on their roster. They have 10 players under contract for next season, including David Nwaba, whose $1.3-million option they picked up this week. Add to that four draft picks, and that leaves the Lakers one shy of the NBA’s 15-player limit.
Right now, the Lakers don’t have a true backup point guard, but they are leaning toward re-signing Tyler Ennis, who joined the team via trade last season.
They’ll take a look at guards in general during free agency, with a premium on shooting and defense.
It’s a markedly different approach than the Lakers took last season, when Jim Buss was the executive vice president of basketball operations and Mitch Kupchak was the general manager. They signed a pair of expensive free agents — who didn’t quite fit with a long-term vision — right at the start of free agency last year.
Timofey Mozgov got a four-year deal worth $64 million and Luol Deng got a four-year deal worth $72 million. The length of the deals surprised many as much as the money did. That meant the Lakers were poised to have room for only one maximum contract between the free-agency periods of 2017 and 2018.
Now, having traded Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets, the Lakers are poised to have room for two maximum contracts next summer. This front office does not seem inclined to jeopardize that prospect.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli