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Lakers GM Rob Pelinka Is Reportedly Learning How The Salary Cap Works In Real Time

Photo: Kevork Djansezian (Getty)

The Los Angeles Lakers are going to enter next season with a roster of extremes. On one hand, LeBron James and Anthony Davis seem like the league’s most seamless pick-and-roll partnership. On the other, the team seems determined to add a third maximum salary player to its books, which will inherently require the Lakers to stock their bench with second-round picks and the cheapest possible free agents. The precise amount of money the Lakers have to spend, however, isn’t determined yet, and it might be because GM Rob Pelinka reportedly doesn’t quite grasp the concept of the salary cap.

The Davis trade has not been formally completed, and it is not expected to be until either July 6 or July 30. The timing matters, and that’s partially because of the inclusion of the fourth overall pick in tonight’s draft. July 30 is the earliest date first-round picks can be traded after signing contracts with their new teams, which means the Lakers would be allowed to clear that player’s salary off their books if they included him in a trade.

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If the trade is instead finalized at the end of the free-agent moratorium on July 6, the drafted player’s salary won’t count towards the trade. The mechanics of salary matching are very complicated, but the difference in timing would be significant. A July 6 trade would leave the Lakers with $27.7 million in cap space, whereas a July 30 trade would leave them with $32.5 million.

That gap could be the difference between the Lakers being able to sign another max player or not, or simply having another $5 million to use to sign a warm body. Whichever path they take, they’ll need all the space they can muster, though it sounds like the Lakers didn’t take the sensitive timing into consideration. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported Wednesday that L.A. didn’t consider any of these subtleties, and the team is now scrambling to make it work:

If this was really their plan, they want to have a third star, this should have been central to the conversations with the Pelicans. And my understanding is that it was not, that it went all the way down the road and it was more, it has been described to me as, the Lakers called back – after everything had been discussed – about this.

Shelburne also said the Lakers have “capologists,” who theoretically could have made the trade’s pitfalls evident to management ahead of time, though she shrugged and said, “It’s a question of if they listened.”

The Lakers also reportedly did not know Davis’s contract included a 15 percent trade kicker, worth about $4.1 million. Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck reported Wednesday that the Lakers never even asked Davis about waiving it, and Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the player “doesn’t plan” to waive it. The net result of the Lakers not understanding how the salary cap works could be having around $9 million less to work with this summer as well as having a bare cupboard of young players, which matters to a worrying degree for a team with only AD, LeBron, and Kyle Kuzma on the roster.

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Three other players—Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, and Jemerrio Jones—are under contract, though because the Lakers didn’t understand how the rules work, the team might have to attach cash or a late pick to those players in order to trade them. Without their salaries in the deal, the Lakers would not be sending out enough money to come within the acceptable percentage of Davis’s $27 million salary. By failing to consider the sensitivity of the trade’s timing, Pelinka blew all his leverage.

If the Lakers successfully clear those salaries and get Davis to void his trade kicker, they could complete the trade and walk away with over $32 million in cap space. It really should not have come to a flailing attempt to completely gut the roster in order to acquire Davis, and had Pelinka understood how the CBA works, the Lakers conceivably could have held onto Wagner or whatever incentives they have to give away in order to clear the decks.

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Assuming all of that happens, and L.A. finds the space to sign Al Horford or Kemba Walker or some other maximum salary player, they’ll still enter next season with some cheap randos. The rest of the roster would have to be players on extremely low salaries. Woj reported the Lakers are actively trying to buy as many second-round picks as they can with the $3.7 million they’re allowed to spend. The implication that they’ll need some of those guys to produce next season on a team that wants to win the championship is not reassuring!

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