10 Lakers mid-level exception targets if LeBron James indeed takes discount on his next contract



When LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat in 2010, he did so at a salary below his max in order to help the team put a proper roster around him. He was also, at around this time, a leader within the NBPA, and he saw the impact this had on his fellow players. Owners from other teams were able to nudge their own stars towards taking discounts because, hey, if LeBron James isn’t earning the max, why should you? When he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, he vowed to make the max from that point. He has done so ever since, and the Los Angeles Lakers have reportedly been willing to pay him max money this offseason if he wants it.

However, a new report from Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes suggests that James, for the first time in a decade, might be willing to take less if it helps the Lakers unlock the full mid-level exception to use on certain free agent targets. Doing so, in financial terms for James, would be costly. 

Any team that uses the full mid-level exception hard caps itself at the first apron. That figure is projected to come in at $178,655,000. As of this moment, the Lakers have $127,338,024 committed to 11 players: Anthony Davis, D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves, Gabe Vincent, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jalen Hood-Schifino, Christian Wood, Jaxson Hayes, Cam Reddish and Maxwell Lewis. We then add $3,830,280 as 120% of the scale amount for No. 17 overall pick Dalton Knecht (the industry standard is for rookies to make 120% of their scale figure, but technically they can go as low as 80%). We then add another $1,160,544, which is the projected rookie minimum for Bronny James. Finally, we throw in $12,859,000, the most recent projection for the non-taxpayer mid-level amount, which would go to whoever the Lakers are targeting. 

Under this scenario, the Lakers would be able to pay James $33,467,152 next season, which would be roughly an $18 million pay cut from what his player option could have paid him. In reality, the Lakers would probably be paying him slightly less than that to maintain a little bit of flexibility for things like 10-day contracts and possible trades, to say nothing of re-signing Max Christie. Now, it’s worth noting that many of these figures are projections and could change. The Lakers could also trade out a bit of salary to help pay James a bit more, though, to be honest, if he is willing to take a significant pay cut, he would probably rather they use any excess salary in trades for a significant upgrade. However you slice it, though, James would have to take a meaningful pay cut for this plan to be feasible.

So let’s attempt to figure out what the Lakers could do with that extra flexibility. Here are a handful of options potentially at their disposal if James grants them the right to use the full mid-level exception.

We’ll start with the most obvious candidate on the board. The New Orleans Pelicans have a gaping hole at center right now after trading Larry Nance Jr., but they also have roughly $168 million in committed salary at the moment. That’s nearly at the luxury tax line already. Keeping Valanciunas for mid-level money would take them above the first apron, which, depending on the final structure of the Dejounte Murray trade, they may not even legally be allowed to do. This isn’t a team known for spending. It’s far likelier that they trade Brandon Ingram to get a replacement center and that Valanciunas hits the open market.

That would likely suit Anthony Davis in particular just fine. He’s played center primarily the past few seasons, but the Lakers won a championship with him at power forward, and adding a burlier big man would help protect him from some of the more physically taxing center matchups of the regular season. Playing two big men together would compromise the team’s spacing to an extent, but Valanciunas is a career 34.8% 3-point shooter and has averaged 1.6 attempts per game as a Pelican. That number needs to go up a tick, but he’s at least willing to fire when open. That’s a start.

In the playoffs, Valanciunas has struggled to defend in space. That isn’t an issue for Davis. If Valanciunas can get Davis through the regular season healthy and then effectively spell him as the backup in the postseason, that’s more than enough. That he also brings some valuable interior scoring and rebounding to the table is a bit of a bonus. The Lakers would be able to maintain their identity as one of the NBA’s bigger, bullying teams if they sign him, but he is not so expensive or accomplished that they would have to commit to being a full-time two-big team. That makes him a nice compromise at the center position.

We all know the Lakers love their stars, and they have strong connections to two of them that don’t have obvious homes right now. Klay Thompson’s negotiations with the Golden State Warriors have seemingly reached an impasse. He is widely expected to leave the only team he has ever played for. His father, Mychal Thompson, was a champion playing for the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. DeMar DeRozan grew up in Los Angeles. He nearly joined the Lakers in 2021 before they landed on Russell Westbrook. The Bulls traded for Josh Giddey, whom they plan to entrust the offense to moving forward, and that doesn’t leave DeRozan an obvious role anymore, especially since Coby White isn’t going anywhere and Zach LaVine is looking increasingly untradable.

Both players likely entered this process expecting to earn more than mid-level money. They have both earned more than $250 million in their careers, though, so even if neither wants to take a pay cut, they are positioned to do it for the right situation. LeBron James is doing his part by taking the pay cut, after all. If either of these two wants to be in Los Angeles, they have to do theirs as well.

The fits here aren’t necessarily clean. Perimeter defense was this team’s single biggest weakness last season. Thompson was, at one time, an elite perimeter defender. He’s fallen off significantly since tearing both an ACL and Achilles. DeRozan was never a strong perimeter defender, and he’s likely to continue to decline with age. Both of them are likely to dip offensively as well. Thompson just had the second-worst 3-point shooting season (38.7%) and third-worst scoring season (17.9 points) of his career. DeRozan’s numbers last season were in line with his career averages, but he’s about to turn 35 and his playing style is fairly physically demanding. Without a 3-point shot to fall back on, he stands to regress quite a bit if he continues to rely on low-percentage mid-range jumpers and getting to the foul line. Thompson, at least, would provide valuable shooting. That is going to be a priority for first-year coach JJ Redick, and it has been a weakness for Los Angeles ever since James arrived.

In truth, there are probably better fits out there than Thompson or DeRozan. But think about who James tends to seek out as teammates. He likes playing with stars, even when they aren’t necessarily the best fits available to him (see Russell Westbrook). If he is leaving money on the table, odds are he is looking at the sort of teammates who have enough stature that joining him would mean doing the same. There are players we’ll discuss here that might ultimately help the Lakers more, but the team needs LeBron’s cooperation for this plan to work. Odds are, Thompson and DeRozan are the sort of players he’s thinking about here.

These players are obviously less flashy than Thompson or DeRozan, but they are the kind of role players that most winning teams need a few of. All three come with some sort of concern. For Gary Harris and De’Anthony Melton, it’s injuries. Harris has had several throughout his career. Melton had a back injury last season, and back injuries tend to be among the scariest health issues that players can have. For Martin, fair or not, it’s where he’s coming from. The Lakers have a bit of a disappointing history of signing free agents away from the Heat. Neither Kendrick Nunn nor Gabe Vincent shined after switching coasts, though in fairness, both had injuries.

But all three of these players do the two things every contender needs out of its supporting pieces. They all shoot 3’s: Harris is at 37% for his career, Melton is just below at 36.9%, and Martin is a bit worse at 35.7%. They all defend at least reasonably well, though Harris wasn’t quite as good last season and Martin is more of a supporting defensive piece than a high-impact defender himself.

The Lakers are going to have to find 3-and-D players somehow. They’d probably prefer to do it internally (again, bringing back Max Christie will be a priority) or on the cheap, but these are proven 3-and-D commodities, and nowadays, those tend to be pricey.

Trades

The new CBA tweaked the rules regarding the mid-level exception slightly. In the past, it could only be used to sign free agents. Now, however, it can be used to absorb salaries in trades. It cannot be aggregated, so it’s not as though the Lakers could combine it with another salary to get an expensive player, but they can use it to bring in a player making anything up to that projected $12.859 million figure. Many of these players would require the Lakers to send draft picks back, but here is a list of players below that salary line who would make sense for them:

  • Wendell Carter Jr. — He is, essentially, the perfect Lakers center. He’s shot nearly 35% on 3’s since joining the Magic while attempting 4.2 of them per 36 minutes. He’s a strong defender who has in the past given Nikola Jokic as much trouble as any post defender in the NBA (which is to say not much, but hey, that’s still better than everyone else because it’s the freaking three-time MVP we’re talking about here). He can play with Davis or without. And Orlando is reportedly targeting Isaiah Hartenstein in free agency. If the Magic sign another center and Carter becomes available, he becomes an easy Laker fit. They could try to absorb him with the mid-level exception, or they could send the Magic D’Angelo Russell, whom they have been linked to in the past, and proceed to use the mid-level exception on another perimeter player to replace Russell.
  • Robert Williams III — He’s a major injury risk, but he could probably be had for less than a first-round pick after Portland just drafted Donovan Clingan. He may have won Defensive Player of the Year in 2022 if he hadn’t gotten hurt, and he and Davis would be the most mobile pair of big true big men in all of basketball. Good luck scoring on those two.
  • Larry Nance Jr. — A former Laker who doesn’t give the Lakers the burly center they’d want next to Davis, but would give them a solid backup who could stylistically imitate Davis defensively at least. The Hawks may want to keep Nance, but with Onyeka Okongwu and Clint Capela still in place, they have a center glut right now.
  • Gary Payton II — The Warriors may need to shed some salary to accommodate a splashy star addition (or to potentially re-sign Thompson without breaking the bank). The Lakers have been dying for an Alex Caruso replacement ever since he left. Payton is the league’s closest analog as a lockdown perimeter defender, barely passable shooter and excellent off-ball offensive player in space.
  • Walker Kessler — The Jazz have reportedly been open to moving him, and the Lakers would love to have a second elite defensive big man without having to pay top dollar for one. Kessler still has two years left on his rookie deal, and the Lakers could sweeten any trade offer by removing the top-four protection on the 2027 first-round pick they already owe the Jazz.

Other candidates could pop up. These are just the 10 that make the most sense at this moment. But the Lakers could change the roster somewhat drastically in the coming days, and James possibly leaving money on the table gives them the flexibility to do it in almost any way that they can imagine.





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