Coach

Randle, Thomas and Lakers Free Agency

Julius Randle is emerging as a big ticket free agent, and the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a tricky situation

The Ides of a March, which is the 15th of March, was traditionally deadline day for the Romans to settle their debts, but it's perhaps more famously known as the anniversary of the day a rather large group of powerful people got together and publicly stabbed Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.

Entirely unrelated to that random bit of history, the Los Angeles Lakers host the Miami Heat at STAPLES Center on the day after the Ides of March. The hometown's modern day gladiators, injured and exhausted, take that court on Friday night to perform for the fourth time in six nights.

With Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Channing Frye all ruled out for Friday night's game with various injuries, Alex Caruso reaching the maximum on his NBA days with his two-way contract and Kyle Kuzma's status up in the air with a sprained ankle, the Lakers are limping into a lengthy four-game road trip that won't see the purple and gold back at STAPLES Center for twelve days following Friday's game against Miami.

So, after 31 wins in 68 games, it's time to talk about Isaiah Thomas, Julius Randle and where the Lakers are heading after the four game road trip and the final 14 games of what has undoubtedly been a positive season for the purple and gold.

The past few days have been eventful, as Isaiah Thomas came out and told USA Today's Sam Amick that he's not a sixth man on the same night Lakers coach Luke Walton game the 29-year-old his first start with the Lakers. Watching Thomas play since his arrival in LA, his demeanor and confidence on the court left little doubt about Thomas' thoughts before he ever opened his mouth.

Overall, the Thomas in LA experiment has been working out, and Walton tends to play the experienced point guard late in games—occasionally when he probably shouldn't.

All that said, Thomas' decision in the upcoming free agency will likely be based on dollar value, and if the Lakers don't land all their targets, Thomas could fit as a short-term, big money contract, keeping the Lakers financially flexible for the summer of 2019. Of course, at age 29, Thomas could not be blamed for taking a longer-term contract elsewhere, rather than waiting around to see if the Lakers fail in free agency and offer him the leftover scraps on a short-term deal.

While not out of the question, Thomas' return to the Lakers seems unlikely.

While Thomas' future and fit with the Lakers may be a fun thought experiment, the current conversation clogging up the calculating zone of the Lakers' brains is figuring out how exactly Randle fits into the Lakers' future. The Lakers drafted Randle in 2014, though he broke his leg and didn't play his first complete game until the 2015-16 season—Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott's farewell tour.

Over the two seasons under Luke Walton that followed, Randle has improved immensely, and the player and coach seem to share a special professional relationship that mixes in positive messaging, along with tough love. More than any other player, Walton had tested and tried Randle, openly admitting that he treats the forward differently than he does other players on the team. Walton would talk about expecting more from Randle than any other player on the roster long before the unique forward began to turn heads.

Now, Randle suddenly looks like a player the Lakers can ill afford to watch walk away. Randle has been his own special form of beast on the court recently, with one struggling to find comparisons for his level of play.

Over the past 11 games, Randle is averaging 21.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game and shooting 61 percent from the field. Over the stretch, the Lakers have won eight of 11 games, and the forward has seven double-doubles. With Randle starting and leading from the front, the Lakers have won 20 of their last 30 games despite a spattering of injuries taking hold of the team.

At age 23, Randle is still a full three or four years away from the age most players consider the prime of their careers. The former University of Kentucky forward, though, poses a bit of a conundrum for the team. If the Lakers truly believe they can get LeBron James and Paul George in the summer, the restricted free agent would have to be incredibly understanding not to sign an offer sheet if a team comes in at the start of free agency with an offer. Considering his recent play, one has to expect Randle will draw interest and an offer from other teams.

While James and/or George are still making their respective decisions, the Lakers may be forced to make their decision on Randle.

Only, Randle told ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk in no uncertain terms that he'd welcome playing with James: Randle said, "I would love to play with Bron and learn the same things."

So, is it possible to keep both James and Randle, while also making space for George, who has seemed like the most likely free agent to commit to LA. Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus, who is widely regarded as a salary cap expert, explained that if the team renounced every single free agent not named Randle, including the non-guaranteed players, the team would have roughly $48 million in salary cap space.

Then, the team would need to stretch out Luol Deng's contract for either five or 11 years to maximize its salary cap space but still fall short on giving George and James maximum level contracts by $3.3-$6.8 million if they held onto Randle, according to Pincus.

A trade involving Deng and packaged with draft picks would help the Lakers out, but that doesn't appear to be likely before the start of free agency—if at all. So, the Lakers simply may have to make a decision on Randle while the man famous for his drawn out "The Decision" announcement about leaving Cleveland makes his latest decision about, well, possibly leaving Cleveland, again.

If the Lakers decide to keep Randle, they'll have to work out a deal with Randle's agent, who also happens to be George's agent and let him know that George can only get a maximum contract if James passes on the Lakers. Funny enough, James will likely be sitting at his $23 million Brentwood home when he decides on whether he wants to go back to Cleveland, join his buddy Chris Paul in Houston or take his talents to Venice Beach.

So, can the Lakers keep Randle? Will the Lakers keep Randle?

At the moment, even the Lakers probably don't know the answers to those questions. If Randle is sacrificed for George and James, however, the front office of Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka won't shed any tears. They walked out smiling ear-to-ear when they traded Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland for expiring contracts and a draft pick.

Noting that he's the last Laker remaining from Bryant's final season, Randle has slowly ascended to Caesar's throne as the team's leader on the court, and the Dallas native would be wise to keep alert to avoid being stabbed in the back in free agency.

With only 14 games remaining in the Lakers' season and the playoffs not a realistic target, deep dives ahead into free agency are inevitable. At the moment, the Lakers may not exactly know how to keep Randle, but one clearly gets the sense that the team wants to keep Randle.

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