In 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers traded away the huge contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets with the sweetener of former number two overall pick in D’Angelo Russell.
It was a move that returned the expiring contract of Brook Lopez and a first-round pick (used to select Kyle Kuzma) to clear cap space for a max free agent. At the time, Mozgov was making approximately $16 million a season for four seasons. Arguably one of the worst contracts handed out in the 2016 free agency madness.
Russell was only 21 at the time, but in his short stint with the Lakers, he hadn’t given the team much hope: he failed to shoot the ball efficiently and wasn’t his teammates’ favourite player after the Swaggy P/ Iggy Azalea snapchat scandal. Former President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson even kicked the point guard on his way out the door with his public comments.
Ironically, it may be the cap space cleared in his trade that the Lakers use sign Russell to this coming free agency period.
Following the Anthony Davis trade, the Lakers have the ability to clear enough cap space to sign a veteran max free agent this summer (approximately $32.5 million). But since Russell hasn’t spent the required years in the league to warrant a contract that high, his max is around the value of $27 million annually.
And simple numbers tell me that 27 is smaller than 32.
This is all possible if Kyrie Irving signs with the Nets, something that seems almost a certainty and that the Lakers are “rooting for” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
If Kyrie heads to Brooklyn, they’ll likely decline Russell’s qualifying offer and make him an unrestricted free agent and free to roam the NBA’s market. It’s quite an unusual situation to be in for Russell as good players coming off their rookie contracts rarely get to test the market.
This time last season, Russell filled a hole for the injured Brooklyn backcourt, averaged over 21 points on a playoff team and made his first All-Star team.
He seems like a natural fit next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis in LA. LeBron has previously had success with a ball-dominant guard in Kyrie Irving (ironically) in Cleveland and Russell found success with his big-men in Brooklyn, similar rim-runners to Davis (clearly not at the same ability).
Russell also jumped to seven assists a game this season and was second in the league in assist percentage, behind only Russell Westbrook. Taking the role of a facilitator would further his fit with the star-studded Lakers.
On the Lakers side of things, due to his lower max contract, the team will have a little more wiggle room to sign role players around this core. Currently, there are only six players under contract on this team and will need to work some magic on the fringes of free agency.
With the Golden State Warriors hampered by injuries and potential free agents leaving and the Rockets’ inner-fighting, the Western conference seems wide open for the taking. Can a big-three of Russell, LeBron and Davis take that and run to the Finals?
In a perfect world, Kyrie Irving will sign with Brooklyn on day one of free agency and they’ll let Russell walk. That way, the Lakers can (hopefully) sign Russell and have the rest of the period open to sign role players.
However, if the rumours are true and the Nets have a concern about Kyrie, the Lakers run the risk of either loosing Russell to one of the many teams interested in him (such as Indiana, Minnesota, Phoenix or even Brooklyn) or signing him later on when some of the available role players have already signed on different teams.
These are the risks in free agency, especially when you’re signing big names. All we can do is sit back and enjoy the chaos.