The struggling Lakers (5-24) have a long list of issues to resolve before the 2016-17 season.
Among the top items will be the impending free agency of guard Jordan Clarkson, who is currently second on the team in scoring to veteran Kobe Bryant, at 14.9 points a game.
Clarkson is starting for the team at point guard, but in the long term, he will presumably slide over to shooting guard, once rookie D’Angelo Russell acclimates to the NBA.
That’s assuming Clarkson does indeed return, and to that end, the Lakers hold a strategic advantage in negotiations. Clarkson will be a restricted free agent, subject to the so-called Gilbert Arenas rule.
After Clarkson’s second season in the league, the Lakers will hold his early bird rights, which enable the team to spend up to $6 million, and $26.7 million over four seasons, to retain him.
That figure is presumably below Clarkson’s market value, but because he is restricted and the Lakers only hold his early bird rights, the Arenas rule applies -- limiting what other teams can offer Clarkson to just $5.6 million for the 2016-17 season.
While another franchise can pay him up to $5.9 million in the second year, his salary for the third and fourth seasons could jump significantly to $22.7 million and $23.6 million for a total of $57.8 million -- or $14.5 million on average.
The Lakers would have the right to match such an offer, which would result in Clarkson back at a sizable discount in the first two years, followed by a pair at a massive maximum salary.
It may actually be better for the Lakers to match a Clarkson offer sheet, which would give the team increased spending power over the next two summers, despite the hefty price tag down the line.
The Lakers can otherwise use their cap space to offer Clarkson more than the $6 million afforded by their early bird rights. He would be eligible for a maximum of roughly $21 million this summer, but why would the Lakers pay anything close to that when the most a team can offer is $5.6 million?
Instead, the Lakers may choose to pay Clarkson closer to the $14.5 million on average he could seek in free agency, with a four-year deal starting at roughly $13 million.
If so, the team would need to earmark that amount in cap space this summer, and Clarkson would take up $14 million of the team’s cap room for the 2017-18 season.
Depending on the timing, if the Lakers matched another team’s offer sheet, Clarkson would take up between $2.8 million and $5.6 million in cap space in 2016 and $5.9 million in 2017.
The first step in the negotiations is a qualifying offer from the Lakers to Clarkson this June. As of Thursday, that number would be $1.2 million, but once Clarkson starts 41 games or plays 2,000 minutes this season, he will reach “starter criteria,” which will raise his qualifying offer, and the team’s cap hold to $2.8 million.
Clarkson can accept the Lakers’ one year qualifying offer for what is likely $2.8 million but he’d end up restricted once again in 2017 -- although the Arenas rule would no longer be applicable.
As long as the Lakers slot out $2.8 million for Clarkson, the team can use cap room to sign free agents, and then either bring back Clarkson with their early bird rights at the $6-million figure, or match another team’s offer sheet.
The Lakers would have three days to decide, if and once Clarkson signs with another team.
While the Lakers can begin negotiating with free agents on July 1, deals cannot be signed until the end of the NBA’s annual moratorium on July 12, which is the earliest Clarkson can sign an offer sheet.
Players can commit to sign during the moratorium, but deals cannot be executed until it is lifted.
The NBA currently projects the salary cap to jump from this season’s $70 million to $89 million for 2016-17 and to $109 million for 2017-18.
Before the Clarkson question is answered, the Lakers need to decide by Jan. 10 if they want to lock in the non-guaranteed salaries of Metta World Peace ($1.5 million), Tarik Black ($845,059) and Marcelo Huertas ($525,093) for the rest of the current season.
The Lakers will also be mindful of the Feb. 18 NBA trade deadline, in case an opportunity to improve the team in the long term arises over the next couple of months.
On May 17, the league will hold its annual draft lottery, which will likely determine if the Lakers keep their 2016 first-round pick.
If the Lakers finish the year with the second-worst record, ahead of just the Philadelphia 76ers, they’ll have a 55.8% chance of getting through the lottery with a top three selection -- otherwise that pick will go to the Sixers to complete the Steve Nash trade.
Presuming the team lands the second-overall selection, the Lakers can near $56.5 million in cap space in July, although that would entail renouncing the rights to Kobe Bryant, Roy Hibbert and any other impending free agents (except Clarkson). That also assumes that Brandon Bass opts out of the second year of his contract at $3.1 million.
The maximum salary for a player such as forward Kevin Durant, whose contract expires after the season, projects to start at $25 million. The Lakers would still have room to sign another maximum-salaried player.
Other top free agents include Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan, Nicolas Batum, Andre Drummond (restricted), Harrison Barnes (restricted) and Bradley Beal (restricted). LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol can also become free agents if they opt out of their respective contracts.
Should the Lakers choose to pay Clarkson with their cap space at roughly $13 million, that would eat into the money they have otherwise available this summer.
In theory, the Lakers could sign two maximum players and still have almost $20 million in spending power the following summer, provided they match Clarkson on an offer sheet -- more if they trade away players such as Nick Young or Lou Williams to open up additional space.
That number would shrink to about $5.5 million in 2017 cap space, if the Lakers add two high-salaried players in 2016 and sign Clarkson to a standard $58-million, four-year contract instead of matching an offer sheet.
The most difficult task ahead for the Lakers is getting a marquee free agent to actually choose the Lakers. There’s no reason to expect a player such as Durant to leave the contending Oklahoma City Thunder -- but then player movement can be unpredictable.
Regardless, Clarkson is eligible for a sizable raise over the $845,059 he’s making this season.
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