The Los Angeles Lakers have successfully completed the first two phases of the NBA offseason. In May, they obtained the number two pick in the lottery and in June used that pick to select Brandon Ingram. Not only does Ingram fill a large void at the small forward position, but many observers considered him the best player in the draft.
Despite the positive vibes so far, due in part to the hiring of new head coach Luke Walton, the real key to the team’s immediate future will begin July 1 with the start of free agency. This is the time of year when proven NBA talent can move from one team to another at the player’s election.
There are two directions the Lakers can take. They can decide that the current young players under contract will start and be featured, and look to add proven veterans to come off the bench in a supporting role. Or they can shake up the starting lineup by signing top-tier free agents.
Of course, it has been well documented that in recent years the Lakers were rejected by almost all of the free agents they really wanted. This summer, two of the top players in the league, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, are both available; but unlike the Lakers of the past, who were almost everyone’s most desired destination, it is silly to think that either player would give any serious thought to joining the team in its current state.
Still, there are other top-tier players available this summer, and the Lakers have many holes to fill. Here is a position-by-position analysis of what the Lakers need and who might be in line to meet such needs:
Assuming Jordan Clarkson re-signs, the Lakers have only three guards on the roster: Clarkson, Lou Williams, and D’Angelo Russell (it is questionable whether Nick Young will return). They will need at least one more guard, and more likely two. If Clarkson is going to start at the “2” position, with Williams in reserve, the Lakers will for sure add at least one more point guard.
The best point guards available in free agency are Mike Conley, a smart all-around player who will be in high demand; and Rajon Rondo, who had a comeback season with the Sacramento Kings where he led the league in assists. Other interesting options include Ty Lawson, still only 28, a former star who virtually destroyed the Lakers until two years ago when off-the-court trouble led to a steep decline in his reputation and performance.
There is also Deron Williams, who in his prime was often linked to the Lakers but whose talent declined as injuries mounted. The team could also bring back former Laker Jordan Farmar, who was playing abroad until a fairly successful return to the league mid-season. Steve Blake is another purple and gold veteran who could return although at 36 he is nearing the end of his career. Ramon Sessions, who infamously bolted from the team after one partial season and Marcelo Huertas, who played fairly well in a very limited role last season, are both options as well.
If the team is looking to sign a shooting guard, the expensive option is DeMar DeRozan, an Eastern Conference All-Star who does not shoot well from the outside but is still a prolific scorer. Other viable options include former Laker Kent Bazemore (who can also play small forward); former UCLA Bruin Aaron Affalo, a solid two-way player; Eric Gordon, a 27 year old sharpshooter who is often injured; Courtney Lee; O.J. Mayo; Mario Chalmers; and Lance Stephenson, who looked like a rising star for the Indiana Pacers two years ago whose talent has declined in short subsequent stints with three other teams.
The Lakers are set at power forward with Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. However, at small forward, there is only the inexperienced Ingram and Anthony Brown, so it is likely the team will look to add a veteran. The number one target is Nicolas Batum, who will be coveted by many teams. Harrison Barnes has been discussed for months, but putting aside his awful play in the recent NBA finals, he is a restricted free agent, would be a very expensive option, and may not make sense at age 24 since he plays the same position as Ingram.
Finally, there is the center position, which will attract the most attention this summer. Putting aside Ivica Zubac, the Lakers recent second-round draft choice, the Lakers will need to find two centers this summer. The number one option would likely be 22-year-old Andre Drummond, but he is restricted and will very likely re-sign with the Detroit Pistons. The next choice would be between Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside, and the oft-injured but very talented Joakim Noah. The competition for these three unrestricted free agents will be intense.
There are other intriguing possibilities, including obvious names like Festus Ezeli and Bismack Biyombo, who at age 23 is the most attractive option of the two. Former Lakers Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are also available. There are some who would like to see team holdover Tarik Black get a legitimate shot at the backup center position.
With all these possibilities, the first part of July is going to be a very active and exciting period for the Lakers. They have the most cap space of any team in the league, but the burning question for months has been, will any of the top free agents be willing to take their money? The answer to that question will have a major impact on the team’s fortunes for the next couple of years.