Basketball

Lakers make move for big-name signings

Magic Johnson's franchise free up S$62m-S$93m of cap space ahead of LeBron James' free agency

Following a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lakers president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka like their chances of bringing two superstars to Los Angeles in the coming year, when the likes of LeBron James would be available.

“I wouldn’t have made the move if I wasn’t confident,” Johnson told reporters hours after sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a protected 2018 first-round draft pick.

“Still the same (confidence). We have got to take the next step.”

With Clarkson and Nance off the books and Thomas’ and Frye’s contracts set to expire after the season, the Lakers could have between US$47 million (S$62m) and US$70 million (S$93m) in cap space this summer, depending on what they do with Luol Deng and restricted free agent Julius Randle. Deng could be a candidate to be released via the “stretch provision”, with the remaining money owed paid off over an extended period.

Pelinka expects the Lakers to be the NBA’s most financially flexible team in free agency this summer, when LeBron James and Paul George, among others, might hit the market.

“There are so many ways you can use that (money), and, of course, the obvious way is in July of 2018 and July of 2019,” he said. “We now have real 100 per cent 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. So the flexibility is really amazing.

“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.”

Johnson said he has been impressed with the team’s recent progress – the Lakers have won seven of their past nine and 11 of 15 – and plans to add to the young group of talent to create a contender moving forward.

“I like our core,” he said. “I love the way Julius (Randle) is playing; this is the best I have seen him play. ... But again, we are still on the outside looking in. No matter how good we have been playing, we are not in the play-offs, we are not one of the top eight teams in the West. So I don’t want to stay in this position. I want to have us be in the play-offs, and the only path to that is to add to the roster that we already have. ...

“We have to take another step, right? So this move allows us to position ourselves to hopefully take that next step.”

Johnson and Pelinka both made it clear that Thomas, who has struggled to regain his 2016-17 form in his return from a hip injury, will not be a buyout candidate. He is expected to play frequently, especially while rookie point guard Lonzo Ball remains out with a knee injury, and the team hopes he will mentor the 20-year-old Ball as well.

“We talked to him, he’s so excited,” Johnson said of Thomas. “He said his father was born and raised in Inglewood so he’s really excited, and also right now Zo’s hurt. We need a point guard.

“So especially with that type of experience and the fact that he can score the basketball and pass it, we want to get him in here fast. ... We need somebody to come in there and lead our troops.”

Thomas averaged 14.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in 15 appearances in Cleveland while shooting 36.1 per cent from the field, including 25.3 per cent from three-point range.

Ball, who remains the team’s starting point guard, is averaging 10.2 points, 7.1 assists and 7.1 rebounds as a rookie, though he hasn’t played since sustaining a knee injury Jan 13. – REUTERS

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