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Salary Series: Evolution of LeBron's Supporting Cast is Inevitable

Updated: Jun 2, 2019



Welcome back to the Business Casual Basketball "Salary Series."

In these weekly posts, we will take a look at a particular player or team with an interesting salary structure.

For example, certain contracts around the league have with interesting incentives, rare escalating, or declining dollar amounts, or vary significantly from typical market value.

When it comes to teams, there will be a deep dive on their spending habits, how they got to their current position, and what they can do to take advantage of their spending power. Conversely, if they are deep into luxury tax territory, we will look at what they can do to mitigate the damage as much as possible, both short-term and long-term.

Down the stretch of this season, the world famous Lakers are quickly sinking into a hole of disappointment that traces back to the very beginning of free agency. How is this proud franchise once again on the cusp of missing out on the postseason for the 6th season in a row? The answer lies in how upper management allocated their very plentiful resources.

Let us begin...

You just gotta love the city of Los Angeles. It's widely known as The City of Angels. Where stars are born. Where dreams are realized.

Or thrown into a coffin, nailed shut and left to die.

Paints a pretty bleak picture, doesn't it? Well that's how dire the situation has become in this famed city. Behold, the 2018-2019 season for their team in a nutshell.

As of today, March 4th, the Lakers are inconceivably 30-33 on the season and 3-7 in their last 10 games. The website FiveThirtyEight only gives a measly 7% chance of reaching the postseason after this miserable stretch that included losses to the Grizzlies and Suns. For context, those two Western Conference bottom feeders bring in a record of 38-91 combined.

At the very least, the Laker fanbase had aspirations of a top five playoff seed and a competitive stay once they got there, even though their obvious flaws keep them a tier or two below Golden State.

What has transpired in the months since the shining light of hope reigned supreme has been nothing short of gut-wrenching. Now, a light of a slightly different makeup has exposed the faulty construction of this squad. With a force of nature like LeBron James on your side, you can't afford to get cute with the players you put around him. Especially since he's not getting any older at an advanced 34 years of age. Even the King will reach his Mount Everest sized limits, eventually. As a matter of fact, he might already be sliding off the summit. He hasn't looked quite the same after his groin injury that he sustained on Christmas Day. According to Basketball Reference, many of his advanced stats are among the lowest of his career. Sure his raw numbers are still jaw dropping, but he is slowly and surely, getting rough around the edges.

These alarming developments should have created an immense sense of urgency for the front office when they were scheming and plotting in anticipation for the arrival of one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace the earth. We can make assumptions and say that this was their train of thought in the war room this Summer, but the results bear out a different course of action, entirely.

Just take a glance at some of the players that Rob Pelinka scooped up last July. You would think he went digging in the bargin bin at your local Wal-Mart after seeing who showed up in the Training Facility in September.

Lance Stephenson. Oh boy.

Rajon Rondo. Come on now.

Michael Beasley. Yikes.

Granted, other pickups like JaVale McGee in FA and Bullock/Muscala in trades have been better fits, but they're still finding their way with this team since they're so new to this system.

James thrives as a point forward who quickly and efficiently runs the offense for his team. This means he must have the ball in his hands more often than not. His usage rate over the years makes that abundantly clear. He has ranked in the 96th percentile or higher in usage rate each and every year of his career, per Cleaning the Glass. The next logical conclusion from there is that his teammates have to surrender their touches substantially to him when they're on the floor with him. This is easier said than done, but the process is much easier when you surround LeBron with players who can thrive without the ball in their hands.

Josh Hart and KCP come closest to capturing this type of player, but even they are not ideal. They have been on and off this season defensively and far below average in three point shooting (33% and 34% respectively).

So those are the facts. Although LeBron has not been at his best this season regularly chilling on defense and lacking a bit of explosiveness when attacking the basket, Magic and Pelinka have not done him any favors when assembling this roster.

As we've seen from the New York Knicks franchise, a big market + cap space is a recipe for disaster. I mean, they signed over the hill talents like Allen Houston and Amar'e Stoudemire tens of millions of dollars and suffered massive negative repercussions almost immediately after.

Unfortunately, it seems as though LA has fallen victim to the "big name curse" once again. They got so caught up in reputation and past production, that they have failed to realize that those big personalities had no hop of gelling with LeBron. If you have any doubts about this, just take a look at who they've been targeting all season as a waiver wire pickup.

So where exactly did it all go wrong? How and why could this team look vastly different very soon? Summer '18 holds the answers we seek.

LeBron shocked the basketball world (again) on July 9, 2018 by signing with the Lakers.

His deal was reported to be a four year max deal worth $153.5 million, but actually sacrificed quite a bit of money to make the cross county move. If he had signed with the Cavaliers instead, he would have made 205 million over five years instead of four. So if we do the quick math here, LeBron surrendered an extra year of security and $51.5 million of earnings by jumping to LA. Although it's certainly a hefty sum of cash, James has already accumulated $269 million in NBA revenue alone over 16 years, so it's not like he was strapped for cash.

Still, when you make substantial sacrifices for the chance to play for an iconic franchise, that franchise should be smart enough to maximize your chance of being competitive over an 82 game schedule.

There were certainly no excuses for Lakers management screwing up their big break last Summer. They were among the most financially flexible teams heading into the 2018 offseason along with Chicago and Philadelphia. Los Angeles was equipped with a healthy $62 million in cap space to work with before LeBron James came on board. They achieved this number by first renouncing the right to Julius Randle. That might have been a misstep in itself, since Randle is having a career year in New Orleans. However, it's easy to forget that LeBron was actually the 2nd offseason signing for them. Rondo came first on July 6th, just three days prior to LBJ signing.

Strike one.

First of all, it probably was not wise to start using up cap space anyone before LeBron signed on. Secondly, They got mighty generous when signing Rondo and gave him $9 million to come on board. This doesn't seem like much on paper, but this is a $6 million raise over his 2017-2018 salary, which was slightly more than a veteran's minimum at only $3 million. Rondo is a 32 year old point guard with very limited shooting ability. Although he had an impressive showing in the 2018 playoffs where he helped knock off the Blazers in a clean sweep, he was not worthy of this kind of contract. In a vacuum, it was a sketchy move, but the fact he's not a good fit with LeBron is even more damning. Oh, and he can't function with Lonzo either. Their pass-first, shoot last profile are a 99% overlap. The offense would completely fall off. He's worth a few million max as a mentor for the polarizing Lonzo Ball. That's about all he's contributed this season...when he's been healthy. He's missed about two thirds of the season to boot.

So after signing Rondo and LeBron in the first week of Free Agency, they still had a nice $17 million to work with. Obviously, the decision making did not get much better in the days that followed.

Lance Stephenson came next on July 10th. He was given a one year deal worth $4.4 million, almost exactly half of Rondo's salary. Off the bat, this was bad signing due to his offensive profile. Remember the kind of players that function best next to LeBron? Well Lance is pretty much the complete opposite. He's pretty much useless off the ball and what he does provide to the team can only be extracted if he has control off the ball. The frustrations that arise when he's making plays featured on Shaqtin' a Fool are not worth suffering through for a few And-One mixtape moments. No, not even for $4 million. That money could have been better spent elsewhere.

Strike two.

Michael Beasley AKA B-Easy was the third in the trio to be signed back on July 23rd. He also grabbed a one year deal at $2.2 million. This signing actually wasn't terrible at the time since Beasley was coming off a healthy scoring season at 13.2 points per game. The problem is his advanced stats have been quite weak and calls into question his impact on the game. His usage rates have also been pretty high, which means he also needs the ball in his hands too frequently for the players he shares the floor with. Of course, it's not just LeBron that demands the ball on a regular basis. Young talents like Kuzma and Ingram are also score first players and Beasley threatened to take away from their development.

So ultimately, Beasley was an extremely one-dimensional pickup who couldn't really contribute to the on-court cohesion and chemistry of the team. He also had a history of off-court issues which made him even more of a volatile presence. These factors all probably contributed to his trade to the Clippers near the trade deadline last month. Before he was traded, he averaged 7 points per game on average efficiency. Not really a difference maker for a LeBron led squad.

The lack of cohesion has been very detrimental for this team desperate for a playoff appearance after five long years.

Strike three?

Maybe, maybe not. Although the playoff door has quickly shut on this campaign, there is still hope for the future.

As mentioned earlier, JaVale McGee has emerged as a legitimate rim protecting force for the Lakers. According to Cleaning the Glass, opponents shoot 3% worse at the rim when he's in the game than when he is out of the game. He has also cut back on his ridiculous on court miscues, so he is an obvious positive for this team at a small $1.5 million that is easy to digest.

The Lakers have also been on point with their drafting over the last few years. Kuzma, Lonzo and Ingram are still under team control and they are providing nice value with their evolving games. They are all making under $8 million and will be with the team for at least the next couple years under the super affordable deals.

So when we take a widescreen view of this roster, it will certainly be in incredible flux this Summer. Everyone on one year deals will probably be let go and several other on expiring deals could be on the move as well. As we've seen in years past, LeBron has had and will most likely again have serious input into how the roster evolves in the future. It is most likely for the best after looking at how badly this iteration has underperformed.

Let's just hope that this Laker is slightly less distracted by the big names.

Coming next week: Analyzing Myles Turner's Contract Extension