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Trade with Cavaliers gives Lakers financial flexibility to pursue big-name free agents

Tania Ganguli, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

LOS ANGELES--Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka put his hands around president of basketball operations Magic Johnson's shoulders as the two sauntered across the Lakers' practice court. Only a few hours removed from another trade that helped them unravel the previous regime's pricey entanglements, they could not help but smile and laugh.

Their actions roared Thursday.

Their trade, made only hours before the deadline, told the rest of the NBA that they still firmly believe they can bring two star players to the Lakers. Now they have the salary cap space to earnestly chase them.

"Wouldn't have made the move if I wasn't confident," Johnson said. " ... I wouldn't have made the move. We have got to take the next step."

The Lakers traded Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers for point guard Isaiah Thomas, veteran big man Channing Frye and a 2018 first-round pick three hours before the NBA trading deadline. Thomas and Frye are each in the final year of their contract, adding no salary cap burden for the 2018-19 season. Before making the trade, the Lakers had no first-round draft pick, and while this one is protected in the top three, Cleveland has only a negligible chance of getting such a high lottery pick.

Now the Lakers control their own fate. With a few more moves, and without help from other teams, they would have the salary cap space to sign two players to maximum contracts this summer when stars such as LeBron James and Paul George could become free agents.

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"We now have real 100 percent space to do two max players if that is what we decide to do, or one in 2018 and then following it up with another one in 2019," Pelinka said. "So the flexibility is really amazing and if you break it down and study the cap, we feel like we are the most strongly situated franchise in the NBA in terms of where our cap stands."

The Lakers could have up to $70 million in cap space this summer if they renounce their rights to Julius Randle, who will be a restricted free agent July 1, as well as waive and then stretch the salary cap hit of Luol Deng, who is making $18 million a year and has not played since the season opener. Maximum contracts can range from $25.5 million to $35.7 million per year depending on a player's experience.

It's not certain that they will part ways with Randle or Deng, though, especially if they don't need the salary cap space immediately.

Clarkson was owed about $26 million over the next two years from a four-year, $50-million contract the Lakers gave him in the summer of 2016. That summer the Lakers also signed Deng to a four-year, $72-million contract and Timofey Mozgov to a four-year, $64-million contract.

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