What moves can and should the Lakers make in the offseason?

The Los Angeles Lakers are in a position that many teams would envy: a core nucleus of young players combined with cap flexibility for the foreseeable future.

Now eliminated from the postseason, let’s look ahead to the free agency, draft and trade decisions facing the Lakers this offseason.

Sell the basketball product

The Lakers have learned the cruel reality of free agency. Playing and living in Los Angeles has limited appeal if there is not a competitive team on the court.

While the Lakers will miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season, there is finally a foundation in place to sell to free agents. Now comes the hard part. Getting an All-NBA (or two) player to commit.

So, what should the pitch be on July 1 if they meet with LeBron James, Paul George or another star? For starters, the Lakers’ front office needs to keep it simple (and honest).
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The presentation has to be broken into two parts: Now, and the future.

The now part focuses on the current players under contract, including restricted free agent Julius Randle, draft assets, what other free agents can be added and the different ways to create cap space.

The future part is a breakdown of what type of flexibility the roster has to add players via either trade or free agency in 2019.

Each free-agent recruit will need to consider whether Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and possibly Randle are a foundation strong enough not just to compete for a playoff spot, but also to challenge the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets for the foreseeable future.

The one thing that management cannot do is present the downside and flaws of a star returning to his incumbent team. If they do, the Lakers will have a long 12 months of figuring out what went wrong.

The future of Julius Randle

Randle is likely going to be a casualty of circumstances this summer.

Put the restricted free agent in the summer of 2016 and his price tag likely starts north of $18 million. Now after achieving a career best season on the court, Randle will be in a holding pattern on July 1 as the Lakers explore options on how to use their cap space.

Randle will have meetings with other teams starting on July 1. However, given the spending the past two summers and the majority of teams with cap space focused on rebuilding, he could face a market that will fall short of his contract value.

While the Lakers won’t make Randle an offer on the first day of free agency, he may not be taken for granted just because there is a familiarity from the past four seasons.

Because cap space is fluid with different contingency plans, there needs to be a high priority not only to meet with Randle on July 1 but also have a dialogue with his agent Aaron Mintz on the structure of a possible contract.

The one thing the Lakers can ill afford is to miss out on the max free agents only to be handed a Randle offer sheet on July 6 with salary terms that have exceeded what the Lakers would have proposed themselves.

Have a Plan B

Not since the Miami Heat in 2010 has a team transformed their roster by signing two All-NBA players.

The rare feat is the reason why the Lakers’ front office will be operating from two sets of free agent lists this summer.

Besides the wish list of players like LeBron James, Paul George and possibly DeAndre Jordan, GM Rob Pelinka will have a set of names at his disposal if the main targets elect to remain with their current teams or sign elsewhere.

Because cap flexibility is a priority in 2019, the Plan B list includes players who would sign in Los Angeles to a one-year contract, including their own free agents in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Isaiah Thomas and Brook Lopez. The Lakers will have $46 million to use in signing one-year contracts, and they will be an attractive destination because of the lack of teams with room. For a player like Thomas, who likely will see offers in the $8 million range, the prospect of re-signing at a larger one-year salary will likely be more appealing than a two-year, $16 million deal with another team. Of course, that’s if the Lakers’ medical staff feels that Thomas can recover from hip surgery in March.

Signing their own players to one-year contracts does come with consequences. Each player would have veto power when it comes to a trade.

The cost of trading Luol Deng

The Deng contract is considered toxic but tradeable. But at what cost?

Like the balancing act in free agency, expect the Lakers to have a contingency plan when it comes to Deng.

Though not an appealing option, Los Angeles will need to have trade partners with cap space lined up if there is a need to move the remaining $37 million left on Deng’s contract. This scenario would pop up if there is a commitment from George and James and L.A. wants to bring back Randle.

For a team like Atlanta, which can absorb the $18 million salary in 2018-19, the cost associated is likely multiple first-round picks in 2019 and 2021 or a future unprotected first in 2023. The latter is the first year when James and George would not be on the Lakers’ roster if they sign a long-term max. Keep in mind that the Hawks received one first-round pick in July to incur the $13 million cap hit of Jamal Crawford.

No team has more options when it comes to building their roster than the Lakers. They can choose one of four different paths:

1. Create two maximum salary slots but at the expense of Randle while also stretching the $37 million owed to Deng.

2. Create two maximum salary slots, retain Randle but deplete draft assets by trading Deng.

3. Sign one max player, retain Randle and roll over cap space until 2019.

4. Sign free agents or acquire players on one-year contracts, retain flexibility and wait until 2019.

If Randle does not receive an offer sheet from a new team or contract of his liking from the Lakers, he could sign the $5.6 million qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. That would happen in mid-July and not when the moratorium is lifted on July 6. The one-year contract would still leave L.A. with Randle’s Bird rights in 2019 and allow the Lakers to have close to $70 million in cap space. Randle’s $10.9 million free agent hold would allow the team to use cap space and exceed the cap to re-sign him.

Dates to watch

It’s more of a formality, but Randle will receive a $5.6 million qualifying offer before the June 29 deadline, making him a restricted free agent. The Lakers also have to decide whether to give Travis Wear and Andre Ingram a $1.7 million qualifying offer.

The Lakers can create an additional $1.5 million in room if they elect to waive Ivica Zubac, Tyler Ennis and Thomas Bryant. All three players are on non-guaranteed contracts, with Zubac’s $1.5 million salary becoming guaranteed on June 30, Ennis’ $1.65 million on July 5 and Bryant’s $1.4 million by 8 p.m. ET on July 5.

Even with $4.1 million coming off the cap, Los Angeles would be hit with a roster charge resulting in a final savings of $1.5 million.

Extension eligible candidates

The Lakers have only two players, Luol Deng and Ivica Zubac, that are extension eligible.

However, extensions aren’t expected for either and both players could be roster casualties with the potential turnover.

The draft assets
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Here’s how ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz have Los Angeles picking in the 2018 draft:

No. 25 (via Cleveland): De’Anthony Melton | PG/SG | USC

No. 47 (via Denver): Moritz Wagner | C | Michigan

For the first time since the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades, the Lakers have control over all their own first-round picks starting in 2019.