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Lakers make all the right moves on first day of free agency

This is not an instant “winners and losers” of NBA free agency column, but after the early hours of free agency on Friday evening, the Los Angeles Lakers have emerged through a second consecutive transaction window with marked improvements to its roster surrounding LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Dating back to the February trade deadline, Rob Pelinka’s front office has targeted low-cost, productive players based on system fit who are capable of impacting games with versatility. The Lakers aren’t exactly targeting the splashy, headline names affiliated with approaches of yesteryear.

The three second-round picks Los Angeles sent Washington for Rui Hachimura brought strong postseason performances from the Gonzaga product, helping the Lakers reach the Western Conference finals. Hachimura returned to the team on a three-year, $51 million deal Friday, league sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports. In extension talks with the Wizards last offseason, Hachimura was searching for $15 million in average annual value, sources said. The Lakers must have known that dollar figure before acquiring him in January, and it’s no surprise his salary has stretched above that original range following Hachumira’s postseason run.

The three-team trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Utah and netted D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt turned the Lakers’ splashiest acquisition — and splashiest failure — into a beneficial conclusion. Vanderbilt is on the books for just $4.6 million this season, one of the better value deals in the NBA despite the Kentucky product’s lack of true scoring threat. While the Lakers declined Beasley’s $16.5 million player option for 2023-24, Pelinka holds the shooting wing in high regard, league sources told Yahoo Sports, and there were discussions into Friday evening about Beasley potentially returning to the Lakers. Russell’s status remains undetermined, although there was mutual interest in his return to Los Angeles when free agency began, sources said.

Adding Tauren Prince on the one-year, $4.5 million bi-annual exception appears to be a strong value play as well. Prince was set to make over $7 million with Minnesota this season before the Timberwolves waived Prince and his non-guaranteed salary as part of cost-saving moves to open the team’s non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Prince is a career 37.2% 3-point shooter — a tick better than Max Strus, a mid-level darling of this free agency cycle who is said to be seeking upward of $16 million in annual salary. Prince’s two-way ability should bring another dependable wing option the Lakers lacked against the Nuggets’ high-octane offense. Cam Reddish has long been linked to Los Angeles. After signing with the Lakers to the veteran minimum, Reddish will have his best opportunity yet to contribute in a contending environment.

The most interesting outcome of the Lakers’ spending is the addition of former Miami Heat point guard Gabe Vincent. The UC Santa Barbara product is returning to California on a three-year, $33 million contract, league sources told Yahoo Sports, with the entire deal guaranteed. Vincent emerged in Miami after going undrafted in 2018 and really took a step forward in the Heat’s starting lineup during postseason play. As free agency began with Fred VanVleet widely known to be Houston’s top target with the Rockets’ $60 million-plus in salary cap space, the Raptors appeared to be a strong possibility for Vincent. Word of Vincent emerging as Toronto’s top option to replace VanVleet seemed to spread around rival front offices. But then the bell rang and players flew off the board. Bruce Brown, the Lakers’ top target with that full mid-level, quickly signed with the Pacers for two-years and $45 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Eric Gordon was another name on the Lakers’ radar, but Los Angeles opted to move forward with Vincent, and the Raptors never contacted his representation Friday with an offer, sources said.

Miami didn’t offer Vincent a comparable salary to the Lakers’ deal either. According to league personnel, the Heat wouldn’t go above $8 million in annual value. Miami appears to be operating on a strict budget. For the Heat to help facilitate any sign-and-trade for Strus, which the Cleveland Cavaliers hope to complete, sources said, the Heat have indicated a requirement to not take back significant salary, which will need a third team such as the San Antonio Spurs for salary-matching purposes. And ever since Victor Oladipo exercised his $9.5 million player option for this season, the Heat were searching for deals to offload his salary, sources said, and ended up sending Oladipo into Oklahoma City’s cap space. The Lakers, meanwhile, were waiting for Vincent with a hefty payday.

Bringing in Vincent took Dennis Schröder off the table for the Lakers after there was plenty of word that Los Angeles would try and retain Schröder with part of its mid-level exception that ended up going largely to Vincent. That seemingly turned into good news, however, for the German point guard, who went on to join Toronto in VanVleet’s stead, for two years and $26 million, according to sources.

Without VanVleet, the Raptors stand on precarious footing in the Eastern Conference. Re-signing Jakob Poeltl to a four-year, $80 million deal with a player option, league sources told Yahoo Sports, always seemed to be the likely outcome after Toronto sent a first-round pick to the Spurs for the veteran center before the trade deadline. Schröder was a valuable cog for the Lakers’ playoff sprint, but this will mark the second time Toronto lost a franchise favorite at point guard on the open market after rebuffing sizable offers for those players at the previous trade deadline.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Dennis Schroder (17) reacts after making a 3-point basket against the Denver Nuggets in the second half of Game 3 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Dennis Schröder is moving on to the Toronto Raptors. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

After Toronto spurned offers for Kyle Lowry in 2021, the Raptors watched the All-Star who helped claim the only championship in franchise history walk to Miami by way of sign-and-trade, yielding just Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa in return. By the next deadline, after Dragic played only five games for Toronto, the Raptors had to use a 2022 first-round pick to turn Dragic into Thaddeus Young — choosing that avenue over acquiring Kristaps Porziņģis from Dallas. Flash forward to this season, and the Phoenix Suns were surely interested in acquiring VanVleet at the deadline, league sources told Yahoo Sports. The Clippers also registered strong interest in VanVleet, sources said, and were willing to include much of the pieces that Los Angeles may very well end up sending Philadelphia to acquire James Harden this summer instead. Toronto now has to stomach VanVleet leaving for Houston with nothing in return.

Maybe VanVleet’s exit will help create more on-ball opportunities for O.G. Anunoby, who changed agencies from Klutch Sports to CAA amid ongoing questions about his role in Toronto. Anunoby told representatives during meetings with prospective agents, according to people familiar with the situation, that he was searching for greater ball-handling and playmaking duties in advance of his upcoming contract talks. Without that chance in the Raptors’ offense under new head Darko Rajaković, there remains the ongoing possibility that Anunoby could request a trade from the franchise during what’s now the third season of a four-year, $72 million contract — which Anunoby relayed to potential agents he deemed was below his market value but does include a player option before the 2024-25 season.

Even then, there remains the roadblock of Toronto communicating what rival front offices have consistently deemed unrealistic valuations for its players — such as Anunoby and All-Star forward Pascal Siakam and VanVleet himself — that would make any potential trade exit appear more fraught than meets the eye. These negotiations are never without the moving goalposts of leverage, but teams and players can often mistake time and the looming threats of the next transaction cycle as a factor in their favor. On other occasions, a team or player may simply have been burned by the ill-fated summer to reach the open market as a free agent or a team with money to spend.

Just ask Austin Reaves. The biggest piece of the Lakers’ remaining offseason puzzle remains unsigned. Los Angeles strongly signaled the Lakers will match any offer sheet for Reaves, which may limit the 25–year-old to the four-year, $50 million-plus maximum Los Angeles can offer him — still a massive win for the undrafted guard out of Arkansas. If Reaves were an unrestricted free agent, he likely could have drawn the attention of several suitors with cap space. Now, only the San Antonio Spurs stand as a team with the room to give the Lakers a true scare and lob Reaves the four-year, $100 million maximum offer sheet he can only garner from a rival team.

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