With the salary cap likely to remain flat for next season, it’s going to take creative cap management for the Lakers to re-sign all five of their core free agents and still be able to sign other free agents to upgrade their roster.
While the Lakers would like another reliable scorer, capable playmaker, elite wing defender, or stretch big, they also need to re-sign their own five top free agents to maintain their continuity and win another NBA championship. While Davis is a lock to re-sign a $32.7 million max contract, the Lakers will face a challenge re-signing Caldwell-Pope, Rondo, Morris, and Howard, all of whom will be highly coveted free agents deserving of pay raises.
Since the Lakers are over the cap but below the tax threshold, they will not have cap space to spend on free agents and will have to rely on salary cap exceptions to re-sign their own free agents plus other teams’ free agents. That means the Lakers will be forced to choose between two options with different advantages and disadvantages to sign free agents this offseason. For simplicity, we’ll call the two options the soft cap and hard cap.
If the Lakers choose the soft cap, they can use their Bird rights to re-sign AD, KCP, and Rondo and give them maximum raises but will only have $5.7 million to re-sign Morris and Howard as well as other teams’ free agents. This means the Lakers can pay AD or KCP as much as $32.7 million and Rondo as much as $10.1 million but will only have $5.7 million left to keep Morris and Howard and upgrade their roster with other free agents.
The soft cap is the conservative option since it would allow the Lakers to go over the cap to pay Davis and Caldwell-Pope whatever they need to up to $32.7 million and pay Rondo as much as $10.1 million for the next season. While the Lakers would have no problem paying AD the $32.7 million max salary, they only need to give KCP a raise to $11 million, and Rondo a raise to $6 million to pay them more than what competing teams will likely offer.
That means the Lakers should be able to limit the raises they give AD, KCP, and Rondo to $3.9 million, $2.5 million, and $3.3 million respectively for a total of $9.7 million, which is not enough to justify choosing the soft cap. More problematic is the $5.6 million taxpayer MLE is not enough to re-sign Morris and Howard and upgrade the roster with a key free agent, which means not being able to field a better team to defend their championship.
But if the Lakers choose the hard cap, they’ll have up to $12.9 million to sign Morris, Howard, and other free agents but will be limited to a hard cap limit of $138.9 million for all their player salaries, including AD, KCP, and Rondo. With $119.5 million in current salaries, the Lakers will have $19.4 million available, which by coincidence will leave $9.7 million for Morris, Howard, and other free agents after $9.7 million in raises for AD, KCP, and Rondo.
The Lakers can still make another roster move to increase the $9.7 million for Morris, Howard, and other free agents to $12.4 million by waiving and stretching the guaranteed $1 million of Quinn Cook’s $3 million contract. That will get them close to being able to utilize the full $12.9 million that is available in the form of the $9.3 million non-taxpayer MLE and the $3.6 million BAE allowable to teams who choose the hard cap option.
That $12.4 million should enable the Lakers to keep Morris and Howard in addition to AD, KCP, and Rondo as well as being able to add one or two key free agents from other teams to significantly upgrade next season’s roster. The other advantage the hard cap allows is sign-and-trades, which could enable the Lakers to pursue free agents like Fred VanVleet, Christian Wood, and Maurice Harkless who will demand higher offers than the MLE.
Unless the NBA surprises everybody and raises the salary cap, the Lakers will be forced to become hard capped if they want to re-sign their key free agents and build a better team to defend their championship next season.