Lonzo Ball and the Los Angeles Lakers desperately wanted to partner up when he was a collegiate prospect four years ago. The Lakers overcame the lottery odds to land the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, a feat LaVar Ball claims that he "spoke into existence." The Lakers used that pick on Ball, but only a year later, their timeline accelerated after signing LeBron James in free agency. The Lakers traded Ball to the New Orleans Pelicans in a package for Anthony Davis and went on to win the 2020 championship as a result. Ball, a Los Angeles native, seemed destined to be a footnote on that championship rather than a contributor to future Lakers titles.
But now, however slim it may be, there appears to be a chance for a reunion. Marc Stein reported in his Substack newsletter that the Lakers are seeking out a playmaker that would allow LeBron James to spend more time at power forward and Anthony Davis to spend more time at center. On that front, he writes to "expect to eventually hear of them searching for potential pathways, however obstacle-strewn they would be, to reacquiring restricted free agent-to-be Lonzo Ball."
As Stein suggests, there would be a number of obstacles standing between the Lakers and Ball. The most obvious is that Ball is only a restricted free agent. The Pelicans can match any offer sheet made to Ball, and the Lakers don't have even have the cap space to sign him to a lucrative one. The Athletic's Shams Charania reported Tuesday that the Pelicans are unlikely to match a significant offer sheet for Ball, though, so they might be open to sending him to Los Angeles in a different sort of arrangement.
The Lakers won't have the cap space to sign Ball outright, but they could work out a sign-and-trade arrangement with the Pelicans if Ball agrees. This is where the most serious obstacle for the Lakers emerges. Acquiring any player through a sign-and-trade hard caps a team at the apron, a figure roughly $6 million above the luxury tax. The final number has not yet been set for next year's apron, but it should come in somewhere around $142 million based on a projected 3 percent bump in the cap. The Lakers already have $76.4 million committed to James and Davis alone, and they have another $5 million in dead money on their books after using the stretch provision to waive Luol Deng.
Let's say Ball costs $20 million next season. That would leave the Lakers only around $40 million to fill out the entire rest of their roster. They already owe roughly that much to Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell (if he picks up his player option) and Marc Gasol. Some of those players would be involved in the Ball trade, but some would likely stay, and the Lakers also have to decide what to do about their own free agents. They'd likely prefer not to lose Dennis Schroder, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker for nothing.
If the Lakers view Ball as a third star, they might be willing to sacrifice the depth it would take to fit him into their salary structure and play next season under a hard cap. In theory, his newly developed catch-and-shoot excellence, defensive versatility and transition playmaking would make him a strong fit as an off guard, but the Lakers need another half-court shot-creator more than anything. That has never been Ball's strong suit, and there are players already under contract with other teams that the Lakers could pursue instead who could fill that role without triggering a hard cap.
In other words, Ball probably isn't returning to the Lakers. Another team Charania mentions as a possibility for Ball, the Clippers, has the same problem. If he does leave the Pelicans, a team like the Bulls or Knicks that can create meaningful enough cap space to sign him outright, would probably make more sense. But if Ball is willing to sacrifice enough money to be a Laker, or if the Lakers truly see him as the missing piece in a possible championship run, there are ways to lure him back to Los Angeles on a market-value contract.