Free Agents: Carlos Boozer (Unrestricted), Ronnie Price (U), Wayne Ellington (U), Ed Davis (U), Wesley Johnson (U), Jeremy Lin (U), Vander Blue (Restricted), Jordan Hill (Team Option)
“We’re a young, eager group ready to restore this franchise back to where it once was. I think that kind of sums it up. These guys are ready. I’m excited to play a piece in that project. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a long road, it’s going to take a lot of work. I know the three of us are and I know the guys in the locker room are more than ready and willing to. ”
-Larry Nance Jr.
Ah, the Lakers. They are perennially in the discussion to have stars join the team, whether it be by trade or by signing, to carry the torch of the Lakers mystique. For them, the draft may be sweet during rebuilding years, but the allure of proven talent is always sweeter. This offseason, Jim Buss’ organization is presented with a dilemma that both he and GM Mitch Kupchak will have to find the best possible solution to. Having been the beneficiary of the draft lottery, the Lakers ended up with the #2 pick and used it to select D’Angelo Russell. At the same time, they’ve been linked to players like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Love, and DeMarcus Cousins. So the question is, do they keep all of their newly drafted talent, or ship some of it out in favor of a current superstar?
It is for this reason that the Lakers have very little interest in re-signing their incumbent talent. Even Hill and Davis, who would both make valuable role players to any team, seem unlikely to return. Davis seems sure to command a payday from another team that would hinder the Lakers from chasing a superstar if they tried to match it, and Hill’s player option worth $9 million was declined by the front office for the same reason. The only player who is expected to return is Robert Sacre, whose team spirit is valued by the front office and whose slated contract for the 2015-2016 season is viewed as too small to make a difference in terms of luring a big name. The likes of Lin, Boozer, Price, Johnson, and the like seem to be headed elsewhere after underwhelming seasons with Byron Scott’s tutelage, even if they are likely to command scraps of the salary cap (think the bi-annual exception, or maybe part of the MLE).
The Lakers shocked many with their draft picks, selecting D’Angelo Russell with the second overall pick, Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick, and Anthony Brown with the 34th pick. Many expected Duke center Jahlil Okafor to be picked second so the Lakers could pair him up with Julius Randle, and create a frighteningly talented frontcourt duo for the future. They instead opted for Russell, the 6’5 guard from Ohio State. There was much intrigue surrounding Russell throughout his lone season of college ball. On the one hand, he dazzled scouts with his incredibly efficient volume scoring. While Russell’s 44.9 FG% isn’t necessarily jaw-dropping, his shooting 41.1% on 6.6 3 pointers attempted/game, as well as his above average true shooting percentage (57.3%) are impressive indicators that his offensive abilities will translate to the next level. In that sense, Russell could form an electrifying tandem with Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, who showed flashes of stellar play late last season. Defensively, Russell averaged 1.6 steals a game, which might not be the most accurate indicator of defensive ability, but it does highlight his athleticism. Russell is only an average free throw shooter, making 75.6% of his free throws on the year off of 4.5 attempts per game. Despite Russell’s strengths, analysts have questioned the level at which his abilities would translate on an NBA-level, citing the Big Ten Conference as inferior to some of its other Division I rivals. Russell also turned in a lackluster performance against Arizona State during the NCAA tournament, in which he was heavily outplayed by his matchup TJ McConnell (who went undrafted). Russell was dubbed as one of the riskiest picks to choose before the draft, and will have high expectations to live up to. Looking back at highly touted Ohio State prospects, it really does seem unpredictable – he could go in either the direction of Mike Conley, or that of Evan Turner.
On the other hand, the Lakers’ other picks didn’t garner nearly as much attention. Many questioned the choice of Larry Nance Jr. at the 27th slot when he was a projected late second round pick, but he could end up being one of the steals of the draft. Nance Jr. is every bit as athletic as his father, and happens to play a similar brand of basketball as he did. Throughout college, Nance Jr. proved himself adept at playing both forward spots and was especially lauded for his defense. He won the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year award in his senior season, and earned a place on the First Team All-MWC. He is, however, still a very raw prospect. Despite his athleticism, Nance Jr. occasionally has trouble with defensively closing out on the perimeter, as well as shooting from long range; he made strides with his jump shot, but does not sport very impressive numbers when shooting off the dribble. He did tear his ACL during his junior season, but seems to have bounced back from it nicely. Finally, the Lakers selected senior Anthony Brown out of Stanford with the 34th pick. Brown is a prototypical 3&D player, who has a low ceiling, but comes into the league with some NBA-ready skills. For example, he has a wingspan of nearly seven feet even though he’s 6’8” in shoes. Those are great measurements for a small forward, and Brown makes the most out of his gifts on the defensive end. Brown is not without weaknesses, however. He stayed in college for five years after medically redshirting what was supposed to be his senior season in order to have surgery on a congenital hip issue. He also is prone to defensive lapses, and collects a startlingly low amount of steals and blocks for a player of his reputation. Also, although he has proven that his outside shooting is no fluke, his ability to finish at the rim ranked among the worst collegiate players. With a steady support system, Brown could carve out a successful career as a role player, but it will take some time.
With almost $23 million to spend on upgrading their roster, the Lakers seem fine appropriating the majority of that money to a single player. Players like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan, whose max salaries start at around $19 million per year, have been linked to the organization. They both have meetings set up with Los Angeles, and while Jordan seems more content choosing the Mavericks or Clippers, numerous reports have stated that Aldridge has a significant interest in playing for the Lakers. Pistons forward/center Greg Monroe has also been confirmed to meet with the Lakers and discuss joining them, among other teams. From there, there are reports dating back to May which show the Lakers’ extreme interest in signing players like DeMarre Carroll, but the reciprocity of this interest is questionable, at best. Finally, if Kings owner Vivek Ranadive ultimately makes the choice to override the opinion of Vlade Divac, he could send prolific center DeMarcus Cousins to LA to begin rebuilding the Kings yet again. While Cousins could very well be the most desirable player to move teams, the Lakers would most certainly have to part with at least one of Randle, Clarkson, or Russell in order to poach the highly sought-after big man. Although the two teams swapped trade dialogue, talks have died down – this is due to Divac assuming greater control over team operations, as well as the fact that the Lakers will focus more resources on the immediately available free agents.
Prediction: The Lakers will probably lose out on the big names yet again. Kobe has stated that the upcoming season is his last, and the young talent that the Lakers are developing are still a ways off from becoming championship-level contributors. Not only that, but other teams that are in a better position to contend can offer the same amount of money that Kupchak can, and Kobe will retire without a chance to go out strong in the playoffs. If the Lakers can, by some chance, convince Aldridge (at this moment he is by far the likeliest name to make their way to LA, but it could be someone else) to join the team, look for the Lakers to be at the fringe of the playoffs bubble all season. Independent of free agency, however, could be a trade for DeMarcus Cousins. If he decides to force his way to Los Angeles, or Ranadive assumes full control, look for talks with the Kings to pick back up in late July, culminating in a trade during August. Cousins would be a gigantic boon to the quality of the Lakers’ roster, and could also help them contend for the playoffs, perhaps with some other names picked up during free agency. However, all these scenarios where the Lakers make a push for the 8th seed are based upon the contingent that Kobe is not only healthy, but also a productive offensive player.
This piece is part 5 of the 30 Team Offseason Preview Series by Fazal Ahmed.