Let’s look at this together.

Recently, both the Lakers and Portland were eliminated from the playoffs.

These losses look like they are unrelated, but there is more to it than it seems.

Firstly, it means that the Lakers, which were expected to win the championship (even if Jeremy Lin, Nick Young and Carlos Boozer are on the team’s entry form), are currently on the same level as teams like Portland – the clubs that spend decades waiting for their messiah and then attempt to support for him.

Damian Lillard, the club’s best player since Draxler, has become such a messiah for Portland. Damian’s career trajectory reminds Clide’s – he also spent many years playing in a stable team without other great players. But Draxler still managed to make it to the NBA final (twice), thanks to the top role players around him (Porter, Kersey, Duckworth, young Clifford Robinson, older Buck Williams and Danny Ange) and talented young coach Rick Adelman.

Lilliard still hasn’t played in a final, and he turns 31 in a month. Almost all of his age-mates who want to become inductees of the Basketball Hall of Fame (Durant, Curry, Kawai, Davis, Draymond, Kyrie, Love, Clay) are NBA champions. There are chances that Harden and Griffin will make it this year. Westbrook is a special case, but even so, at least he’s played in the NBA final. It is evident that Damian wants to be put on par with these potential legends, but at the moment, he is in the medalless group with Paul George and Jimmy Battler. In comparison with these two, he doesn’t swap clubs and is loyal to his first team.

And by the way, when did Daxler eventually become a champion? When he relocated to a different club, to a different star player.

Damian’s Instagram post right after the elimination from the playoff has sparked rumours about the possibility of his move out of Portland.

Since even elimination from the playoff isn’t enough to ruin the good mood of Lakers’ fans, they are dreaming about Lilliard joining the LA team. 

Our text started with “firstly”, so, secondly, straight after being out of the playoff, the clubs have a right to exchange players who are guaranteed contracts for the next season. So, in theory, the Lakers and Blazers can start official negotiations now.

It’s time to explain why there might be a vast difference between theory and practice.  

What can the Lakers offer for Lilliard?

Age and health are the two weakest spots of the Lakers. There is no accumulated tiredness here yet, which has destroyed many dynasties, but also, there is no dynasty itself. 

After LeBron’s transition, the idea of the Lakers was to find a couple of basketball stars to help him, in the same way as Heat or the Cavs, that won conferences four times in a row. The Lakers planned their expenses in line with this strategy. But the club was able to bring the plan into effect only partially. The best young players were traded for Anthony Davis, but the third amigo for LeBron and Davies wasn’t found. Durant, Kawai, Clay, Jimmy, Kyrie, and even Kemba Walker were taken by other clubs.

Still, the Lakers became champions even as a duet, without the third player. But being slightly over-confident when moving forward made them lose up to 90 per cent of their assets for trade.

Currently, out of young and promising players, only Kyle Kuzma remains in the team, and he is already 26. Even the really young Taylen Horton-Tucker is a restricted free agent, and the past playoffs have convinced many that he is not a rising basketball star.

In a draft, the Lakers have only a 2021 pick (officially, they can trade only after the choice of player in August) and a far off pick in 2027, plus cheap picks in the second round, not earlier than 2023. 

In an ideal world for the Lakers, someone will want Kentavius Caldwell-Pope and give him twenty-some (or even thirty-some) picks in an indefinite future draft.

So, if Portland decides to trade Lillard, what can the Lakers offer in return? Kuzma and two weak picks of the first round. What else? Sign-and-trade Horton-Tucker – but a trade like this cannot be conducted without player’s agreement, and Portland doesn’t need such complex moves. Access to Rich Paul’s clients? The rights to 34-year-old Chinemela Elona? New Pine Creek Village, a disputed territory between Oregon and California, owned by the latter due to an 1868 geodetic error?

Compare these with, for example, what the Knicks have to offer for Lillard. They have all their picks, two Dallas picks, a few young players available for exchange, and they play in another conference. Or Chicago. Or even Boston, which stopped being careful. But since arguments like this usually aren’t convincing, here’s the second part of the article—a mathematical one.

So what’s with the salary cap?

The cap space limits Lakers and all trades must be carried out according to the strict rule of having a 25% difference between the income and outgoing salaries.

It would look like this (with LeBron and Davis, of course):

Player2021/22
Lebron James41.2 mil
Anthony Davis35.4 mil
Luol Deng5.0 mil.
Left in the cap space:21.5 mil.

Yes, Deng’s stretched contract – which, after all, wouldn’t have prevented the signing of LeBron in 2018 or the transfer of Davis in 2019 – is still on the club’s payroll books. And there are also fees for not reaching the minimal requirement of 12 people.

21,5 mil. cannot get them far. There’s no way to get a top player through signing a contract – the best they can do is compete for Kyle Lauri on the free-agent market, but then they would have to let Kuzma, all the free agents, give up their 2021 pick.

That’s why they need transfers.

As already mentioned, the Lakers and Blazers can start trading players using salaries for the 2020/21 season anytime. Last year, Damian Lilliard earned 31,6 million, which means that 25,2 salaries need to be paid for him. And, according to the rules, these cannot be expiring contracts or those with a player option or non-guaranteed.

Here is what the Lakers have:

Player2020/21
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope12.1 mil.
Kyle Kuzma 3.6 mil.
Marc Gasol2.6 mil.
Total:18.3 mil.

It’s not enough, so theoretical trade needs to be postponed until August when the extension of Kuzma’s contract for 13 million a year will come into effect. But Lilliard’s salary will also increase significantly – two years ago, he signed supermax, and next year he will earn 35% of the cap, which is about 39,3 million dollars.

If we take away 25%, we’ll see that the Lakers need to have 31,4 million.

Player2021/22
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope13.0 mil.
Kyle Kuzma 13.0 mil.
Marc Gasol2.7 mil.
22nd draft of 20212.5 mil.
Total:31.2 mil.

Still not enough!

But some dreamers still have hope.

Firstly, it’s possible to increase position thanks to the draft and save up the necessary 31.4 million by taking a player with a slightly higher rookie contract salary.

Counterargument: picks 19 and 21 belong to Knicks, who won’t help their competitors, and Oklahoma (No. 20) have too many picks in the second round. The Lakers, on the other hand, have too little to go up.

Secondly, if Montrese has the player option, they can also participate in the trade.

Counterargument: usually, if the players sense that they can be traded, they refuse the option and look for a new club independently as free agents.

Thirdly, our favourite, sign-and-trade.LAL can use their Bird rights (full or early) on Schroeder, Caruso, Dudley, Morris, and Horton-Tucker to increase the cost of what they can offer for Lilliard.

Counterargument: these contracts must be a minimum of 3 years.

Counterargument 2: such a deal requires the player’s consent, but it’s equally profitable to transfer via the free-agent market for the player. 

Counterargument 3: the new team has to agree to this deal. If there’s an opportunity to find a player in a different way, they have no point to agree without additional compensation. 

Counterargument 4: another nuance of the cap rules: almost all the new players will be counted for Lakers only at half of their new salary, which complicates the trade balance. Only Schroeder’s salary is counted in full; but to arrange a multi-sided exchange of a disgruntled German, and with a team not interested in the sign-and-trade, losing all the remainings picks of the second round, while also convincing Portland to let Lilliard go to Lakers when there are more favourable offers…

Thus, according to logic, Lilliard won’t play for the Lakers. According to mathematics, Lilliard won’t play for the Lakers. And according to Portland, who is selecting the head coach based on the preferences of its loyal star player, Lilliard won’t play for the Lakers.

But while there’s at least one fan, expert or ex-player, who wants Lilliard to join the LA club, these rumours will continue to spread.