There wasn’t exactly a consensus about how the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers’ season would end, but it’s probably safe to say that nobody foresaw this.
On Tuesday night, the Lakers saw their bleak playoff hopes reduced to zero when the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Denver Nuggets, and immediately thereafter — and rightfully so — Frank Vogel, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook were all in the news.
In the end, there’s no single reason the Lakers turned in one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history — there’s enough blame to go around.
What Rob Pelinka needs to figure out is how to fix it.
The answer, ironically, would probably be to start thinking small.
This past season, the team managed to find some serviceable pieces to augment the star-studded core, but only Davis, James, Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves are under contract next season. The Lakers hold a team option on Stanley Johnson and Westbrook and Kendrick Nunn both have player options they are likely to pick up.
The official 2021-22 Kendrick Nunn highlight reel 🎥 pic.twitter.com/wDPehJyqpN— Lakers Lead (@LakersLead) March 30, 2022
Combined — thanks in large part to the commitments to Westbrook, James and Davis — the Lakers are in line to have about $148 million on their 2022-23 ledger, which is already about $26 million over the projected salary cap.
Said differently, outside of offloading one of Westbrook, James or Davis without taking much salary back in return, the team wouldn’t be able to manufacture enough cap space to have a competent opportunity of improving via free agency. Obviously, the club could go the route it went this past season and hand out one-year, minimum salary contracts to aging veterans, but the players who could actually make a difference for the Lakers won’t exactly be lining up to sign on the dotted line given the performance of this year’s team.
To make matters even worse, the Lakers don’t own a pick in this year’s draft. Their first rounder was sent to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis trade, while their second-round pick is owned by the Spurs.
So how does a team with no cap space and no draft picks improve?
Simple: by thinking small.
Ask the Brooklyn Nets, and look toward the Miami Heat.
A historically frugal franchise, Miami has never necessarily found itself in the kind of salary cap hell the Lakers are in at the moment. Part of the reason why is because one of the constants during Pat Riley’s tenure has been investing heavily in scouting and player development. The same rings true of most successful small market franchises.
Players like LeBron James and Anthony Davis may win you the championship, but throughout history, it’s always been players like Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who get you there in the first place.
Contenders invariably unearth valuable and sometimes unknown role players and maximize those role players' talent. For example, this year's Miami team has enjoyed the combination of Tyler Herro, Max Strus and Omer Yurtseven combining to earn only about $7 million. That's about $3 million less than Talen Horton-Tucker alone. Strus and Yurtseven are far from household names, but Miami wouldn’t be entering play on April 6 as the first seed out East without them, especially considering the injuries the team has dealt with this season.
Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn also go on a list that features the likes of Bam Adebayo, Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem as players drafted and developed by the staff in Miami.