The Los Angeles Lakers are about to add Dennis Schroder for a pittance. Danny Green's stock may be lower than ever, but as capable of helping a contender as he remains, he was little more than an expiring contract to a Lakers team already loaded with defensive-minded guards. The No. 28 pick is fairly valuable in the hands of a team that has landed players like Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Larry Nance Jr. at the end of the first round in recent years, but for the most part, that pick tends not to yield much more than a bench player. That's a minuscule price for the Sixth Man of the Year runner-up, at least in terms of literal cost.
The real price the Lakers are paying must be measured in opportunity cost. Green's expiring salary and the No. 28 pick -- one of only two Laker first-round picks that remain tradeable -- would both have been necessary components in a possible trade for a superstar. Now, thanks to aggregation rules, the Lakers don't have enough salary to legally trade for Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook. DeMar DeRozan's player option opens the door to sign-and-trade possibilities, but such a move presents a number of other complications that would functionally squash any deal. Victor Oladipo could fit in terms of salary, but the Lakers just surrendered two of the only things the Pacers might have wanted in exchange for him. Adding Schroder serves as a public proclamation: much to the relief of the rest of the NBA, the Lakers will not be adding a third All-Star this offseason.
Passing on adding a third star may wind up being a steep price to pay depending on what version of Schroder the Lakers are getting. Last season's breakout under Paul's tutelage was at least somewhat based on unsustainable shooting. Schroder hit 38.5 percent of his five 3 point attempts per game for the Thunder last season compared to 32.5 percent on 3.1 attempts per game for the rest of his career. That bump came largely through variance on his best looks. Schroder shot 44.6 percent on wide-open 3's, per NBA.com, and only 33.8 percent on all other long-range attempts. Schroder had never made 40 percent of his wide-open looks prior to last season.
The advantage of having another superstar would have been in creating more security for L.A. The Lakers wouldn't have to worry about Paul missing open shots. They would have had to pay extra for that peace of mind. Any construction of a Paul trade would have included at least six pieces going to the Thunder: Green, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Quinn Cook were givens from a salary perspective. Some combination of Kuzma, Alex Caruso, the No. 28 pick and Talen Horton-Tucker would have represented the asset portion of such a deal. Paul would have filled the ball-handling void comfortably, but created new needs in the process.
The Lakers are betting that Schroder can fill that same hole without costing them the rest of their bench. It's not a bad bet. Schroder's most important function will be running a bench offense that declined by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James was off of the floor in the pre-pandemic regular season. Schroder's Oklahoma City bench units tended to struggle without their stars, but that's not exactly a problem he will face in Los Angeles. He'll share the bulk of his minutes with Anthony Davis. Pairing one of the fastest guards in basketball with the NBA's best lob finisher should create one of the most dangerous pick-and-roll combinations in the league.
If the trade is completed, the Lakers get to play out the rest of the offseason with house money. They'd have filled their biggest need without exhausting their trade assets or using their mid-level exception.
Let's start with the latter. The Schroder trade serves another important function for the Lakers: it saves them money. While he and Green essentially cancel one another out from a salary perspective, the No. 28 pick would have cost the Lakers around $2 million. Offloading that money means a good deal when it comes to the mid-level exception. Using the non-taxpayer version -- worth around $9.3 million for the 2020-21 season -- triggers a hard cap at the apron, set for $138,928,000. Once that hard cap is triggered, it can't be crossed for any reason.
After this trade, the Lakers will have approximately $100.3 million committed to six players (including Anthony Davis at his new max). Let's add in another $10.2 million for Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee, both on player options they are expected to exercise, and then another $1 million for the guaranteed portion of Quinn Cook's deal. With nine players accounted for including a mid-level signing, the Lakers would have something like $19.7 million left for the remainder of their roster. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will presumably eat up most of that money, making the $2 million in savings from that first-round pick all the more important.
It could be the difference in whether or not the Lakers are able to use the $3,623,000 bi-annual exception. Assuming the Lakers go outside of the organization with their mid-level exception, that would be their only real chip beyond the minimum to retain a player like Dwight Howard or Markieff Morris from last season's team. Another possible target? Wesley Matthews Jr., who would serve as a Green replacement. The Lakers are interested, according to The New York Times' Marc Stein, and he took the minimum to play for a contender in Milwaukee last season.
Who the Lakers choose to pursue with that smaller slot will likely depend on where they allocate that mid-level exception. If the Serge Ibaka rumors prove true, then a guard like Matthews makes perfect sense. If they prioritize shooting, could they try to dip back into the Oklahoma City well for Danilo Gallinari? Expect them to go all out in trying to retain Howard. What we can say somewhat comfortably is that the Lakers were not going to fill the ball-handling void with either of these exceptions. Unless Goran Dragic was willing to leave quite a bit of money on the table, the best point guard on the board was D.J. Augustin. One way or another, the Lakers had to get their ball-handler through a trade.
And now, they'll still have pieces to play with should the need for another trade arise during the season. Kuzma is still in place. The Lakers still have their 2027 first-rounder to deal. McGee and Bradley represent over $9 million in matching salary. If the Lakers need to pursue an upgrade at the deadline, they'll have the chips to do so.
The real upgrade, though, would come in the 2021 offseason. While the pandemic likely robbed the Lakers of true max space short of surprise pay cuts from James and Davis, any deal for Paul or Westbrook would have taken them out of the cap space derby entirely. The Lakers are hardly favorites in the race for Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Kawhi Leonard pursuit of 2019 made something clear: when the Lakers can pursue a star in his prime, they almost always will. The ones available on the trade market were available for a reason. Paul and Westbrook are aging. Oladipo's health is a massive question mark. DeRozan comes with too many glaring postseason flaws.
Adding any of them would have confined the Lakers to a very limited set of team-building parameters. The trio of James, Davis and a third star would have been terrific. It also would have come with limited depth and the potential loss of long-term flexibility. The Lakers were willing to make those sacrifices when the third star was Kawhi Leonard, but not when it was Paul, Westbrook, DeRozan or Oladipo.
They chose to stick with the model that just won them the 2020 championship. Schroder will fill an immediate hole. His expiring contract won't hamper their 2021 offseason ambitions. The majority of their bench remains intact, and they have the tools to improve upon it significantly. More importantly, they have the tools to go about that improvement process however they see fit.
Do the Lakers want to stick with one-year deals again in order to clear the decks for a 2021 free agent? They haven't taken that off of the table. Do they want to use their mid-level exception or trade pieces to aggressively pursue more expensive long-term players? That's available to them as well. A year after the Lakers wasted the first week of free agency waiting on Leonard's decision, they'll enter the 2020 market with the freedom to pursue whatever opportunities present themselves.
Some teams need to take the sure thing. Historically speaking, the Lakers don't. Veterans want to play in Los Angeles. They want to play for championships. And they want to play with LeBron. Now the Lakers are positioned to fully take advantage of that, and even if meant giving away their chance at a three-star juggernaut this season, it clears several other paths to both short- and long-term contention. Not a bad haul for Danny Green and a late first-round pick.