With LeBron James expected to return, the Lakers must provide him with meaningful roster upgrades

The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2024 offseason is off to an encouraging start.

They hired a terrific young coach in JJ Redick. They acquired top-10 prospect Dalton Knecht with the No. 17 pick in the 2024 NBA Draft. They made history by pairing LeBron James with his eldest son, Bronny James, with their No. 55 selection. D’Angelo Russell, perhaps the biggest domino of their offseason, fell in, giving them a medium-sized expiring contract to potentially trade.

Then, on Saturday, about five hours before the 5 p.m. (ET) deadline, LeBron James opted out of his contract with the intention of re-signing with the Lakers, according to the report. AthleticShams Charania. Athletic It was previously reported that the Lakers want James back and are willing to offer him any kind of contract.

James’ exit is another win for the Lakers, allowing them to save at least $1.5 million on their cap sheet by not exercising his $51.4 million player option for next season. (The trade-off for James is that he is eligible to add a no-trade clause to his contract, which would allow him to control his future.)

According to Bleacher Report, James might be willing to take an even bigger pay cut than that if it allows the Lakers to open up the non-taxpayer midlevel exception (worth about $12.9 million) for the right kind of players. James’ agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, told ESPN that his client would only be willing to take the exemption for an “impactful player,” listing names like James Harden, Klay Thompson and Jonas Valančiūnas who would fit the bill. The non-taxpayer midlevel exception would be a significant pay cut for Harden and Thompson in particular.

However, there is mutual interest between the Lakers and Thompson, because Athletic’Charania and Anthony Slater first reported it.

Thompson, a Southern California native, is the son of Michael Thompson, who played for the Showtime Lakers from 1987 to 1991 and is the team’s current radio color commentator. The younger Thompson, 34, is a four-time NBA champion and one of the greatest shooters of all time. Thompson spent his 13 pro seasons with the Golden State Warriors, but the relationship has fractured to the point that Thompson is likely to leave. The Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers are all trying to acquire him.

If James takes a waiver for the Lakers to reach their full non-taxpayer midlevel exception, the Lakers would be hard-capped at the first apron of $178.7 million. That means James would have to take a $16-plus million waiver with his starting salary for the 2024-25 season, which is roughly $33 million. According to league sources, the most likely salary cut scenario would be that James takes a two-year deal with a player option for 2025-26, allowing him to opt out in 2025 and re-sign for more money. The Lakers could also make a small salary-dump trade (or two) for more financial flexibility and allow James to take a small reduction.

According to ESPN, James will sign at the max amount if the Lakers don’t find a star or high-level starter with their non-taxpayer midlevel exception. If LeBron re-signs at his max amount for 2024-25 (about $49.9 million), the Lakers will have about $182.3 million in committed salary. That puts them less than $8 million under the second apron ($189.5 million). James wants to resolve his contract before he begins practices at the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball minicamp in Las Vegas on July 6.

Regardless of what happens with James, the Lakers are in a good position to upgrade their roster if they want. What happens the rest of this offseason is in their court.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka tempered expectations twice earlier in the week, saying it’s harder to do business under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement. At first glance, that’s true, given the new punitive sanctions of the first and second aprons.

Plus, the trade activity of the past week, particularly near the top of the Western Conference, presents a different reality. In that time, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for defensive ace Alex Caruso, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for No. 8 pick Rob Dillingham, the Denver Nuggets traded for DeRon Holmes II and moved Reggie Jackson off salary in an attempt to keep Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Dallas Mavericks moved Tim Hardaway Jr. off salary so they could keep starter Derrick Jones Jr. (or sign Thompson) and the New Orleans Pelicans made a shrewd deal for former Lakers target Dejounte Murray.

The rest of the West is looking for ways to make deals that improve their rosters or serve as a precursor to other moves. Now the onus is on the Lakers to do the same.

They have the assets to make a significant trade. Russell’s $18.7 million contract gives them a level of flexibility in terms of the type of players they can pursue. Add one or both of their future first-round picks, three pick swaps and the medium-sized salaries of Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and/or Gabe Vincent, and the Lakers could be in the negotiations for almost any non-star (and even some lower-tier stars). This, again, is without taking into account the potential addition of Thompson or another high-impact player for their non-taxpayer mid-level exception.

As far as a trade goes, it appears impossible for the Lakers to get a third star in a deal, barring an unexpected star secretly becoming available. Donovan Mitchell is reportedly likely to sign a contract extension with Cleveland, which would rule him out. Trae Young’s move from Klutch Sports to CAA also makes a trade unlikely for the Lakers, as Athletic Previously reported. Murray is now in New Orleans and off the board. Maybe Darius Garland becomes available, but he’s clearly a step below stars in the Mitchell and Young class.

Still, there are potentially good options out there. Wings like Portland’s Jerami Grant, former Lakers player Kyle Kuzma and the Nets’ duo of Dorian Finney-Smith and Cam Johnson are expected to be available on the trade market, according to league sources. They’re not the biggest needle-movers, but any one of those four players could bolster the Lakers’ perimeter defense, frontcourt size and/or floor spacing. Grant, for his part, would check all of those boxes; he has quietly shot 40-plus percent on 3s in back-to-back seasons in Portland.

The Lakers roster, as currently constructed, is not good enough to come out of the Western Conference. They can win round one and maybe even round two if the bracket breaks in their favor, but they have a lot of holes compared to the rest of the top West, especially on the wing. Their perimeter size, defense and overall speed and athleticism are lacking compared to their opponents. James and Davis have recently made it known that they believe this roster needs an upgrade.

The Timberwolves, Thunder, Mavericks and Pelicans all have better rosters than the teams that finished last season. Denver’s situation could change if it loses Caldwell-Pope in free agency and the Clippers would likely fall if they lost Paul George, but the bigger issue is that the rest of the West is improving, which could potentially put even more distance between them and the Lakers. If the Lakers are as serious about competing for championships with James and Davis as they claim, they must strengthen this supporting cast.

The most immediate complication of this endeavor is the roster shortage the Lakers face. Assuming LeBron James re-signs, they will have 14 players under contract after adding Russell, Christian Wood, Jaxson Hayes and Cam Reddish, and drafting Knecht and Bronny James. That’s without taking into account their other free agents (Max Christie, Taurean Prince and Spencer Dinwiddie) or any potential free agents.

Team sources have confirmed that the Lakers have extended a qualifying offer to Christie, officially making him a restricted free agent. Athletic. According to sources, the front office would like to retain Christie and see him as a rotation player next season. However, the Lakers would need additional money and roster spots to sign Christie and another player with the non-taxpayer midlevel exception.

Had Russell opted out, the Lakers would have had fewer options in the trade market. But with him added, James interested in taking a pay cut for the right free agent and the Lakers armed with several medium-sized salaries, two first-round picks and multiple pick swaps to trade, there’s no excuse for Los Angeles not to dramatically improve its roster by making one or two big moves in the next few days.

(Top photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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