How LeBron’s new max contract limits Lakers’ trade options, explained

Well, so much for LeBron James taking a pay cut.

James agreed to terms Wednesday on a two-year, $104 million max contract with the Lakers, according to multiple reports. The deal contains both a player option in 2025-26 and a no-trade clause, which means James has full control over his future from here.

If James takes his full max salary of nearly $50 million, that would push the Lakers slightly over the $188.9 million second apron. His agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, “is planning to discuss with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka the possibility of taking $1 million or so below the maximum” to keep the Lakers below the second apron, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Either way, the Lakers’ proximity to the second apron will greatly limit how they can round out their roster around James and Anthony Davis.

Teams above either the first or second apron can’t acquire players via sign-and-trade, can’t take back more salary in a trade than they send out, and don’t have access to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. The Lakers would have to shed nearly $25 million in salary without taking money back to get far enough below the first apron to use the full $12.8 million non-taxpayer MLE. (In other words: DeMar DeRozan probably isn’t coming home.)

Teams above the second apron are subject to all of those restrictions and more. They can’t aggregate salaries in trades, can’t send cash in trades and can’t even receive players in return when they sign-and-trade their own free agents elsewhere. They also can’t use pre-existing trade exceptions, and they can’t trade first-round picks seven years in the future.

All of these restrictions apply post-transaction, so the Lakers could aggregate contracts in a trade as long as they don’t take more salary back than they send out and finish the deal below the second apron. Between D’Angelo Russell ($18.7 million), Rui Hachimura ($17 million), Gabe Vincent ($11 million) and Jarred Vanderbilt ($10.7 million), they have plenty of contracts that they could combine to acquire a bigger salary and still stay below the second apron after the fact.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant recently arose as one such possibility. He’s making $29.8 million this year, so the Lakers would have to package either Russell and Hachimura together or one of those two with Vincent/Vanderbilt and one more small contract (Christian Wood, Jaxson Hayes and Cam Reddish would all work). They would need to stay far enough below the second apron after the trade to be able to add another minimum contract or two afterward, though.

If they traded Russell, Vincent and Wood ($32.7 million in total) for Grant, they’d be roughly $2.4 million below the second apron after the deal if James takes his full max salary. That would leave them enough room to add one minimum-salary contract ($2.1 million), but they wouldn’t be able to fit two. The math gets even tighter if they swapped out Russell for Hachimura, Vincent for Vanderbilt, or Wood for Hayes or Reddish.

It would be easier for the Lakers to fit Cam Johnson, who’s earning only $23.6 million this season. If they flipped Russell and Vanderbilt for him, they’d be nearly $5.3 million under the second apron with only one roster spot to fill. They’d have just enough wiggle room to use the taxpayer MLE ($5.2 million) and stay under the second apron, although they’d have limited flexibility from there.

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has repeatedly bemoaned how the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement ties teams’ hands in terms of trades. Although he’s willing to include draft picks in “the right deal,” other teams “are aware” of the restrictions that the Lakers face and are “eager to take advantage of the Lakers if they come calling for a deal,” according to Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus.

No one should begrudge James for taking his full max salary (or near-max, if he takes a slight pay cut to keep the Lakers below the second apron). The Lakers put themselves in this position by signing so many deals last summer with second-year player options, which all of Russell, Wood, Hayes and Reddish picked up this offseason.

Still, they now find themselves hamstrung because of the trade rules in the new CBA. That will make it far more difficult for Pelinka to find a cap-legal trade that improves their short-term championship outlook.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotter and salary-cap information via RealGM.

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