James Ennis III worked out for the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason. He has that in common with a number of other well-known players, who, like him, are not currently members of the Los Angeles Lakers. Isaiah Thomas came in, worked out and left. So did Darren Collison and Mike James and, in all likelihood, a number of other veterans whose auditions went unreported. It’s standard offseason practice. Most of these workouts don’t lead to job offers. Players typically move on and await another opportunity.
But give Ennis credit: He is persistent. Or perhaps a tad stalker-ish. The Ventura California native will not leave the Lakers alone this offseason. In August, he liked a number of tweets suggesting that he would land with the Lakers. Now, four games into a winless preseason in which the Lakers have allowed an average of 121 points per game, Ennis has taken things a step further by publicly asking for a contract. While he did not technically specify which team (if any) he was speaking to, that it came at the end of a Lakers game makes his intended audience clear.
Ennis reportedly drew interest from a number of teams earlier this offseason, but has remained unsigned. We can’t say for certain why that it is, though as a viable two-way forward, it’s likely that if his only goal was to be on a roster to start the season, he could have accomplished that by now. It might not be Lakers or bust, but he has every right to be picky. He is one of the few available players genuinely capable of helping a team as good as the Lakers.
While any player available at this stage of the offseason is going to come with flaws, the 31-year-old forward is a perfectly viable wing defender that shot over 43 percent from behind the arc last season and has hovered around league-average on low volume for his career. He’s played the past several seasons on minimum contracts due to his inconsistent shooting and limited on-ball offensive upside, but he is without question an NBA-caliber player at a position that is extraordinarily thin league-wide.
It’s even thinner for the Lakers. While they might have been comfortable brushing Ennis aside in favor of the players they signed earlier this offseason in August, their circumstances have grown somewhat precarious in recent weeks. With eight of the 14 roster spots dedicated to guards, the Lakers entered training camp with only four forwards on guaranteed contracts. Two of those forwards are LeBron James, who functions as a point guard offensively, and Anthony Davis, who, in a perfect world, is going to spend most of his time at center. That left Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza as the team’s only true forwards, and now, Ariza is going to miss eight weeks with an ankle injury. Lest you believe that the Lakers can lean more heavily on their guards as the season opens, remember that Malik Monk is dealing with a strained right groin while Talen Horton-Tucker has a sprained right thumb. Throw in DeAndre Jordan’s underwhelming play in the preseason and Russell Westbrook’s slow start and you have a roster in a somewhat significant state of flux before the season has even begun.
The Lakers don’t need Ennis or anyone else to come in and play 40 minutes a night. They might not even need someone to last the entire season. They just need another body at the forward position to get them through this early string of injuries. Ennis may or may not be the best option, but in basketball terms, there’s no reason for the Lakers not to explore any option. They have only 14 players on standard NBA contracts right now. That leaves an empty roster spot available for Ennis or another forward to fill. The Lakers don’t have to waive any guaranteed contracts to sign one.
Yet they haven’t, and the only real explanation for why they haven’t is financial. At present, the Lakers have more than $155 million committed in player salaries this season (including the dead money owed to Luol Deng), according to Spotrac. That has left them with a hefty $40.7 million tax bill. The Lakers can only sign Ennis for the minimum, and a good chunk of his contract would be covered by the league. As a seven-year veteran, Ennis’ minimum is over $2.2 million, but when teams sign older players for the minimum, they only have to pay those players the second-year minimum amount of around $1.7 million. The league covers the rest so as not to discourage teams from signing older players. Still, that $1.7 million price tag looms large for the Lakers because of the tax implications. In total, it would cost the Lakers another $5.6 million or so in taxes in addition to that $1.7 million salary.
There are ways to soften that hit slightly. The Lakers could sign Ennis to a non-guaranteed deal and then waive or trade him midway through the season to save some cash, for instance. But it has become clear that finances are a serious consideration for them as they fill out the back end of their roster. Whether or not they could have convinced Marc Gasol to stay for another year is unknowable at this stage, but it should be noted that trading him and signing DeAndre Jordan in his place saved money against the tax. Gasol’s minimum contract did not include those savings from the league because it lasted multiple seasons. The 14th roster spot went to undrafted rookie Austin Reaves, whose $925,000 minimum salary is only around 55 percent of the two-year veteran’s minimum.
Yes, the Lakers might want to keep their 15th slot open to facilitate a buyout market addition, but it’s not as though they couldn’t trade or release a player in the middle of the season to clear the roster space for such a player. The only real difference there is financial. When a team signs a player in the middle of the season, his salary and accompanying tax hit are prorated based on when he signs. Waiting until the deadline to add a 15th player is cheaper than signing one early on. While top basketball executive Rob Pelinka has claimed that winning a championship is the ultimate goal, he himself has even hinted at some of these constraints when discussing the team’s moves.
“Jeanie [Buss] and the ownership group has empowered the front office to do one thing and that’s to smartly build a roster to win championships,” Pelinka said in June. “That’s been the hallmark of this team since Dr. Buss acquired it, and continues to be today. Clearly all 30 NBA Teams are confined by a salary cap, so we’ve got to be smart about how we put all the puzzle pieces together, but there is only one goal, and it’s doing it smartly to have a championship-caliber team.”
The Lakers might want to spend smartly to win the championship, but their competitors have been a bit more reckless this offseason. The Lakers are still below $200 million in combined salary and tax payments. The Warriors are paying over $360 million, and the Nets aren’t far behind. They were above $300 million before trading Jordan and are still on track to pay over $280 million in combined salaries and taxes. Right now, the Lakers are essentially spending exactly as much as the small-market Bucks. Their Staples Center co-tenant, the Clippers, are on track to spend roughly $250 million on their players this season.
It would be unfair to call the Lakers cheap. They have three superstars making market value and are around $20 million above the tax line. They paid the tax last season as well and did so frequently during Kobe Bryant’s career. But even if their ownership group doesn’t have quite as much cash as Joe Lacob or Steve Ballmer, they have access to revenue streams other teams can only dream of. Their gargantuan local television deal alone gives them an enormous financial advantage over the competition. They don’t have to spend the historic amounts Golden State and Brooklyn are dropping in their championship pursuits. They could even be excused for drawing the line in negotiations with fan-favorite players like Alex Caruso to avoid exorbitant tax payments. But in-season signings and injury replacements are just the cost of doing business in the modern NBA. If the Lakers are unwilling to incur those costs, they’re going to outsmart themselves out of the title picture.