Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

The Russell Westbrook Trade is a Salary Cap Dilemma for the Lakers

Adding another max player presents both serious upside and significant costs for LeBron, AD, and Co.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers made a trade big enough to steal some thunder from the evening’s NBA Draft, completing a proper Big Three of superstars.

They agreed to a deal with the Washington Wizards to acquire 2017 MVP, nine-time All-Star, and LA native Russell Westbrook in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft.

The 32-year-old point guard averaged a triple-double last season for the fourth time (!) in his career, but teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in his childhood stomping grounds didn’t come cheap. Still on a true “super max” contract, Westbrook will make $44.2 million next season, plus a $47.1 million player option in 2022-23 that anyone under the sun would be a fool to decline.

James, Davis, and Westbrook, once the trade is officially completed when the league year starts on Aug. 6, will combine to make an absurd $121 million next season, and the Lakers already have about $130 million committed next season to just five players.

That’s only $6 million below the NBA luxury tax, notes ESPN’s Bobby Marks. That means one thing loud and clear: Filling out every last spot on the rest of the Laker roster comes with zero margin for error for governor Jeanie Buss and GM Rob Pelinka if another championship is to be a possibility.

The Lakers own Bird Rights for unrestricted free agent guard Alex Caruso and 20-year-old restricted free agent wing Talen Horton-Tucker, which means they’re permitted to go over the cap with no special restrictions to re-sign those two rotation pieces. They’ll also be able to sign players over the soft cap using the taxpayer midlevel exception worth approximately $5.9 million and a veteran’s minimum exception, but the rest of the team will have to be filled out by nothing but minimum deals.

Such is the cost of adding a supermax player to a team already top-heavy with salary commitments.

(If $125,356,901 allocated to five players doesn’t look daunting, consider that the teams’ total salary cap allocations for 2020-21 were $136,923,741.)

The Purple and Gold could improve their roster through a sign-and-trade deal involving veteran guard Dennis Schroder, but can only bring in players already under contract — otherwise, the team would be so far into the luxury tax that they’d be over the NBA’s hard cap.

No exception or carveout exists for this scenario. Team payroll cannot exceed the hard cap, period.

The Lakers definitely have tools at their disposal to improve the group around their all-new Big Three, but need to choose extremely wisely if they want to cash in on the twilight of LeBron’s all-time great career.

Adding a future Hall of Famer always looks great on paper. But for Pelinka and the front office, the most difficult work regarding roster construction merely begins when the Westbrook deal goes final next week.