It’s become fashionable to bash Dennis Schroder for turning down a four-year, $84 million extension with the Lakers midway through last season. The barren market he now faces justifies the jokes, but at the time, you could almost construct a credible defense for his decision.
He signed his previous four-year, $70 million contract extension expecting to remain in Atlanta as a starter. He was dealt one year into the pact and immediately moved to Oklahoma City’s bench, yet he still lived up to the deal as a reserve by scoring 17 points per game with the Thunder. Most teams will take 17 points per game for $17 million per year if good enough defense is attached.
Adjust that $70 million figure for cap inflation and $84 million is barely even a raise. Schroder was playing for a capped-out big-market team that he assumed was about to go on a lengthy playoff run. He figured he’d have leverage in an offseason that wouldn’t lack for league-wide cap space. He was even christened “Dennis the Menace” by LeBron James. Ask Matthew Dellavedova how profitable the King’s seal of approval can be.
You could blame what followed on half a dozen factors. Schroder’s bout with COVID knocked him out of a portion of the regular season and weakened him in the playoff loss to Phoenix. His fit as an inconsistent—and often unwilling—shooter next to James was uncomfortable, though they shared some successful two-man actions when the mood struck them. He couldn’t lift the Lakers’ listless bench offense when James sat, which proved to be one of the primary motivators for the Russell Westbrook trade that seemingly has cost him his job. His exorbitant salary demands knocked him out of free agency’s opening frenzy. You never want to be the last man standing when the music stops.
Now, Schroder’s options are dwindling, and each of the few that remains is less appealing than the last. Behind Door No. 1 is a mid-level deal, either through cap space or the eponymous exception, that would be worth a fraction of what he’d initially hoped for. Door No. 2 is a sign-and-trade that carries numerous complications… if the Lakers are even willing to cooperate at all. Door No. 3 is the most awkward for all parties involved: Schroder returning to Los Angeles with his tail between his legs on a bargain-basement contract. As recently as a week ago, any of these scenarios would’ve been unthinkable. Now they’re the best-case options for the biggest loser of 2021 free agency. Let’s go through all four scenarios and try to figure out what comes next for Schroder.
1. Signing with another team outright
Only three teams still have the ability to create more than $10 million in cap space. The Hornets (roughly $13.6 million in space) and Pelicans ($11 million) already have crowded backcourts. Charlotte let Devonte’ Graham go in part to create minutes for rookie James Bouknight behind LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier. The Pelicans want to get a closer look at Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis. Don’t rule either out as an asset play, but neither seems all that enthused about the idea of paying Schroder.
Oklahoma City, with its near-infinite flexibility, might be more open-minded. The Thunder just opened up a bunch of minutes in their backcourt by buying out Kemba Walker and could probably talk themselves into a one-year Schroder deal with an eye on flipping him for picks at the deadline. It’s not unrealistic. The Thunder just got a first-rounder for Schroder eight months ago. That they haven’t swooped in on Schroder yet, in combination with the reporting surrounding the Lakers’ disinterest, is not exactly a ringing endorsement of his fit in a locker room.
Plenty of non-contenders wield non-taxpayer mid-level exceptions that start at $9.5 million. We can probably rule out Cleveland, Houston and Sacramento off the bat. If Washington was interested in Schroder, he would’ve been in the Westbrook trade. Minnesota is too guard-heavy and close to the tax as is. The same goes for Portland.
How about Boston? The Celtics are roughly $1 million short of the tax line, but can create another $7.3 million in breathing room by waiving Jabari Parker and trading Kris Dunn into someone else’s cap space. If they don’t want to play Josh Richardson at point guard, Schroder would be an adequate starter in a mutually beneficial short-term arrangement. A one-year deal would allow Schroder to rebuild his value playing on a team with plenty of shooting and defense, and it would allow Boston to preserve its max space ambitions for the summer of 2022, when Jayson Tatum‘s close friend Bradley Beal is currently set to become available. Toronto is in a similar position after waiving Aron Baynes, but if Goran Dragic remains, they have no great need for another point guard.
Atlanta still has roughly $5.5 million left of its mid-level exception, if Schroder is up for a reunion. The Hawks need a backup point guard, but as last year proved, Schroder fancies himself a starter. Philadelphia would have made sense with the roughly $6.3 million left on its mid-level exception before re-signing Danny Green, but at this stage, the active portion of their offseason appears to be over.
At the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level, Schroder would figure to have his pick of homes. Milwaukee was interested in trading for him before the Lakers nabbed him last offseason, and given their shot-creation needs, would likely still be intrigued. The Warriors missed out on Patty Mills as a possible Stephen Curry backup. Schroder would be a strong consolation prize. The Clippers haven’t yet re-signed Reggie Jackson. If they prefer Schroder, they could give him a starting job on a team that needs someone to take some of the shots Kawhi Leonard can’t while he rehabs.
The Clippers appeal to Schroder’s big-market sensibilities and desire for playing time… but only if Jackson isn’t retained at his Early Bird max of roughly $10 million next season. If the Clippers might be trying to leverage the two of them against each other to try to lower their prices. Schroder might not close in Milwaukee. He wouldn’t in Golden State. That’s the danger of joining a contender. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Montrezl Harrell missed out on his major payday after proving almost unplayable defensively in the past two postseasons. Another playoff dud could prove similarly disastrous for Schroder. Any one-year deal elsewhere would leave him with only Non-Bird Rights next summer, limiting his earning power to a 20 percent raise if he plans to stay with his incumbent team no matter well how he plays.
Needless to say, none of these paths are all that likely to lead to the jackpot Schroder turned down. Financially speaking, his best bet is probably to work with the Lakers in some way purely for the sake of his Bird Rights. Both of those routes are just as fraught.
2. Sign-and-trade options
In basketball terms, the Lakers probably should be working with Schroder to find a sign-and-trade. They badly need to receive salary in return for him just for the sake of in-season trade flexibility. But all indications suggest that the Lakers are operating with a firm budget. They already owe a hefty tax bill before factoring in their three final roster spots. Even if they should take back matching salary for Schroder, they’ve shown little appetite for doing so.
That necessitates the involvement of a third team in most cases. The Lakers certainly aren’t paying the Thunder to take on extra money, so the acquiring team would probably have to. In addition to any toll the Lakers might charge for facilitating such a deal, the asset cost might make a possible trade partner queasy.
The Mavericks stand out as an easy partner here if they want another ball-handler and defender to pair with Luka Doncic because of the $10.9 million trade exception it created when it traded Richardson to Boston. At that price point, should Schroder agree, the Mavericks could absorb him without sending the Lakers a penny back. Ironically, the Mavericks have some of the few salaries the Lakers might want. Rob Pelinka would probably ask for Dorian Finney-Smith, a 3-and-D wing on a dirt-cheap $4 million salary, back in such an arrangement. Dallas would say no, just as they probably would for Josh Green ($3 million) and Jalen Brunson ($1.8 million). The game of chicken would probably end in the Lakers blinking. A second-round pick and a trade exception for Schroder would be better than nothing, but it’s not even clear that the Lakers can get that. Marc Stein reports that Dallas is not currently interested in Schroder.
Most teams already have a starting point guard that they’re comfortable with at this stage of the offseason, and most of those who’d value a high-end backup can’t afford to be hard-capped by a sign-and-trade. Maybe the Hawks would give up picks to re-route Delon Wright to Oklahoma City so they could absorb Schroder? Given his history in Atlanta that is highly doubtful though. Denver would love to add a starting-caliber guard to help replace Jamal Murray while he recovers from a torn ACL, but there’s no easy path to doing so underneath the tax line. Even if there were, the Lakers probably wouldn’t want to help a possible playoff opponent. One could argue that the possibility of seeing Schroder in the playoffs isn’t worth an extra second-round pick.
If that’s the case, the Lakers are really going to struggle to drum up much of a market here. Maybe the Pistons could use a veteran point guard as a developmental aid for Cade Cunningham. The Spurs may want a veteran backup to replace Patty Mills, but they’ve never been particularly enthusiastic about working with the Lakers. There just aren’t that many obvious homes here. At that stage, it’s worth wondering if Schroder might get desperate enough to go back to the bargaining table with the team he expected to leave.
3. Re-signing with the Lakers
There are so many reasons why Dennis Schroder is not going to re-sign with the Lakers. They already have six guards that expect to play, for starters: Westbrook, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker. The two sides hardly had a positive experience together last season. And then there’s the tax bill.
The Lakers currently owe $153,337,652 in salaries for next season. The tax line is $136,606,000. That means that the Lakers are roughly $16.7 million above it, and the tax becomes increasingly punitive for each dollar you go above it. For the first $5 million above the line, teams owe $1.50 for every dollar spent. Between $5-10 million above the line, that goes up to $1.75, and in the $10-15 million range, it jumps to $2.50. At $15-20 million, it leaps again to $3.25, and an extra 50 cents is added for every $5 million increment beyond that.
That means that right now, the Lakers owe almost $34.8 million in taxes. Let’s add one more minimum salary to get them to 13 players. That pushes their team salary above $155 million and their tax bill up to $39.8 million. The $84 million contract Schroder turned down would have paid him an average of $21 million per year. Let’s say he was willing to take half of that on a one-year deal at $10.5 million. That would push the Lakers’ tax bill up to roughly $80.3 million. Combine that with their $165.5 million payroll and they’d be paying nearly $250 million in player salaries alone next season. This, in essence, is why Alex Caruso is no longer part of the team. The tax bill would be enormous.
But if we’re being honest about the team’s finances, the Lakers probably could afford this. In 2011, they signed a 20-year, $3 billion local television deal that pays them $150 million annually. The NBA’s national TV deal is for $24 billion over nine years, which cuts down to almost $90 million per team per year, so they’d be close on just television revenue alone, and that doesn’t factor in the enormous profits this team made when they were losing and therefore didn’t have to pay particularly high player salaries. The Nets and Warriors both have substantially higher payrolls than the Lakers. A $500 million payroll might not be feasible, but half of that should not be out of the question for the Lakers with a championship on the line.
Of course, if the Lakers were willing to spend an extra $40 million on another guard, Caruso would probably still be on the team. He’d have had a genuine role. Re-signing Schroder, in all likelihood, would be done strictly for the sake of preserving tradable salary. That has value, but probably not enough to incur such a tax bill from ownership’s perspective. Even if ownership wanted to pay that bill, there’s no guarantee Schroder would take it considering all of the other guards he’d have to battle for playing time. That makes a return to Los Angeles unlikely.
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4. So what’s going to happen?
The likeliest outcome here is that some team steps up with an exception and signs Schroder. They may not have planned to pursue a guard this offseason, but at a certain point, a healthy 27-year-old one season removed from finishing as the Sixth Man of the Year runner-up just becomes too valuable to pass up. If it isn’t Boston at the full mid-level or Oklahoma City with cap space (or perhaps a trade exception), it will probably be one of those contenders with the taxpayer mid-level exception. That is almost certainly the floor here.
The question then becomes how enthused Schroder would be about taking such a deal. Might he be willing to take another risk? If the entire goal is to maximize his possible earning power in the future, the nuclear option here would be to not sign with anybody at all. Carry this out into the season, see who gets hurt and pick a destination based on which team is likeliest to help improve his value. Free agents rarely try to go this route, but free agents rarely lose as much money as Schroder already lost.
The truth is that we’re practically in uncharted waters here. Aside from Nerlens Noel declining a $72 million offer only to play for the minimum a year later, there just isn’t much of a precedent for a player somewhat credibly believing that more than $84 million would be available for them in free agency only to find that their best option might be a mid-level exception. With so little history to go off of, almost anything is on the table right now. There is no easy answer for him after he so enormously misevaluated his own worth on the open market.