Continuity Wins: By avoiding the stars, the Lakers have won the offseason

Just because it is Los Angeles, doesn’t mean star chasing is a necessity. The Lakers just proved that with their latest free agent approach, electing for continuity and depth rather than one big splash.

With several paths in front of them, the Lakers chose the smartest one: Retaining their best free agents and making sensible upgrades that’ll give them a chance for banner No. 18 next season.

Fewer than 24 hours into NBA free agency, the Lakers executed their stated plan of running back last season’s core with marginal upgrades and cemented themselves as one of the offseason’s big early winners.

Los Angeles locked in continuity for next season and rounded out its roster on the second day of free agency, agreeing to retain the starting backcourt of Austin Reaves (four years, approximately $56 million with a fourth-year player option) and D’Angelo Russell (two years, $37 million with a player option on the second year), while adding a backup center in Jaxson Hayes for two years at the veteran’s minimum, with a player option on the second year. Those moves came one day after the Lakers agreed to terms with Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish while retaining Rui Hachimura.

Reaves, Russell and Hachimura were the organization’s top three priorities to retain. Given how the free-agency market played out, Los Angeles ended up firmly in the driver’s seat for each free agent, which is reflected in the value of each of the contracts they agreed to.

The biggest move, by far, was retaining Reaves, at dare I say below market value?

The Lakers succeeded in scaring off the rest of the market for the restricted free agent, most notably the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. No team with cap space was willing to offer Reaves a four-year max contract at around $102 million if the Lakers were going to match anyway.

Instead, the Lakers will pay Reaves almost half of that price over the four years. The first two seasons of Reaves’ deal would have been for the same dollar figure regardless of the deal he signed, but the last two would’ve been backloaded had the Lakers been forced to match another team’s maximum offer, which would’ve affected how the Lakers built their roster in 2025-26 and 2026-27. The trade-off is Reaves got a player option on the fourth year and can enter free agency in 2026, when he’ll be 28.

Had Reaves been an unrestricted free agent, he likely would’ve agreed to a contract worth well north of $100 million this offseason. The 6-foot-5 guard just turned 25 and was the third-best player on a team that made the Western Conference finals. Over the final 10 games of the regular season, when Reaves became a full-time starter, he averaged 18.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game while shooting 57.1 percent from the field, 48.6 percent from 3 and 89.8 percent from the free-throw line.

Reaves continued his stellar play into the playoffs, averaging 16.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists on 46.4 percent from the field and 44.3 from 3 as a starter over the Lakers’ 16 games. The only players to hit those marks last postseason were Nikola Jokić, Devin Booker and Kawhi Leonard (though Leonard only played in two postseason games).

The Lakers plan on running more of their offense through Reaves next season, unlocking the point guard skills he’s flashed through his first two years in the league. The Lakers targeted in onReaves as not only a win now move, but the beginning of a long term building process.

The Lakers also secured Russell, their projected starting point guard, at a fair price after he helped them get to the Western Conference finals but struggled once there. The 27-year-old was one of the top unrestricted free agents guards in free agency, as the one-time All-Star possesses an elite combination of 3-point shooting (41.1 percent in the regular season since joining the Lakers in February) and playmaking (6.1 assists per game in the regular season for Los Angeles).

He was a better player and fit than Russell Westbrook, the player he essentially replaced. But the market for Russell was cold. His postseason struggles and defensive limitations make him a difficult fit as a top option for a team with title aspirations.

Going forward his role isn’t set in stone with the Lakers with the influx of new talent like Vincent, rookie guard Hood-Schifino, and the emergence of Reaves as a franchise building block. But Russell has immense value for this roster.

He’s a guy who can close out games with or without LeBron and Davis on the court. His marksmanship makes him vital in shootouts and general floor spacing. He and Davis appear to have a good connection in the pick and roll game as well.

In their second low-stakes gamble of the offseason (the other being Reddish), the Lakers signed the 23-year-old Hayes, formerly of the New Orleans Pelicans. With Hayes (the No. 8 pick in 2019), Hachimura (the No. 9 pick) and Reddish (the No. 10 pick) on the roster, the Lakers have the entire middle of the 2019 NBA Draft lottery.

This has been a staple of the Lakers for years now with Phil Handy on the coaching staff. Bring in once highly sought out prospects, and let him unlock their untapped potential. Look at Lonnie Walker, Malik Monk, the development of Caruso, and the ascension of Reaves and Rui. Handy has the chance to do the same with Reddish and Hayes, both on bargain of deals.

Here is what the Lakers ‘ depth chart currently looks like with their 13 total players.

Lakers’ current depth chart
D’Angelo Russell
Gabe Vincent
Jalen Hood-Schifino
Austin Reaves
Max Christie
Maxwell Lewis
LeBron James
Taurean Prince
Cam Reddish
Rui Hachimura
Jarred Vanderbilt
Anthony Davis
Jaxson Hayes

The projected lineups are fluid. Russell is the early favorite to start at point guard, but Vincent could earn the spot if he outplays him in training camp.

After investing heavily in Hachimura this summer, the Lakers expect him to pick up where he left off in the postseason and remain a starter despite being a bench player during the regular season. The Lakers also have plenty of positional flexibility, with Jarred Vanderbilt, Prince, Max Christie and Reddish each capable of playing at least two positions. We may even see Hayes and Davis play together at times.

Depending on the exact first-year salaries of their new contracts, the Lakers’ payroll will be at around $165 million in guaranteed salary with 13 players. That means they’re roughly $7 million under the $172 million first apron hard-cap line with two empty roster spots available. The Lakers could still offer Malik Beasley or Lonnie Walker IV more than a minimum contract, but it’s unclear where either one would fit into the rotation with Reaves, Russell, Vincent, Prince and Christie already logging minutes at the three perimeter spots.

Assuming the Lakers sign another dependable big, their offseason will conclude as a resounding success. There was a sober stability to their decision-making process that contrasted with some of the splashy mistakes they’ve made in past offseasons pursuing stars and over-the-hill role players with pedigree.

They didn’t sacrifice their supporting cast to chase after Kyrie Irving or Fred VanVleet, as they did in 2021 when trading for Westbrook. Instead, they retained their two most promising younger performers in the playoffs (Reaves and Hachimura), added two sharpshooters who offer above-average defense (Vincent and Prince) to a rotation that needed those types of role players and took two low-risk swings on length and athleticism with top-10 picks Hayes and Reddish. The decision to retain Russell on a short-term deal was a trickier decision, given the legitimate questions about his playoff viability and role on a contending team, but he’s at least a solid regular-season contributor who should have value around the trade deadline as a pseudo-expiring contract.

Among contenders, the Lakers are one of the few teams so far to meaningfully add to their roster since the beginning of free agency. (That could, of course, change in a heartbeat depending on where Damian Lillard and James Harden land.) The Phoenix Suns added Bradley Beal to form one of the league’s best trios and nailed a bunch of their fringe signings but could miss Chris Paul. The Golden State Warriors need to incorporate Paul into their style of play. The Denver Nuggets remain the clear favorite in both the West and the NBA, but they took a hit with the loss of Bruce Brown. The LA Clippers loom as the next super team if they can pull off a Harden mega-trade, but they haven’t yet. The Boston Celtics are, on paper, the most talented team in the league, but the loss of Marcus Smart looms. The Milwaukee Bucks retained Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, extending their championship core’s window, but they haven’t added anyone of note yet. The Miami Heat, fresh off an NBA Finals run, are the overwhelming favorites to land Lillard but lost key role players in Vincent and Max Strus.

The Lakers have elevated themselves, if only slightly, within the mix. They did as well as they could with the resources they had available and kept the core ingredients of a conference finalist that finished 19-8 over their last 27 regular-season games.

This group should only get better with a summer for head coach Darvin Ham and his staff to prepare for the new group and a full training camp.

It’s early but the goal for championship 18 is a realistic one.

Leave a Reply