The Los Angeles Lakers will spend the next few months trying to upgrade their roster before the start of training camp in September. It is an offseason that promises to be a nail-biting, entertaining, roller coaster ride with an entirely unpredictable ending.
With the team’s fate in the hands of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka for the first time, the fun begins on May 16 with the NBA Draft Lottery which will determine if the Lakers get to keep their top-three protected pick in the draft or whether their first selection will not come until late in the first round.
While the team would welcome upgrades all around, if they had to start next season without any changes, they are fairly well set at the three, four, and five positions. At small forward there is Brandon Ingram and Luol Deng. At power forward there is Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. The centers would be Ivica Zubac and Timofey Mozgov. Tarik Black could be added as needed at center or power forward.
Who in this group would start and who would be a reserve would depend on whether head coach Luke Walton repeats what he did for most of last year when he preferred to start the veterans. The situation at the guard position is more fluid.
For most of his 20-year career, Kobe Bryant was the backcourt for the Lakers, playing alongside whomever the Lakers threw out there with him, whether it was Derek Fisher, Smush Parker, Lindsey Hunter, Sasha Vujacic, Gary Payton, Jannero Pargo, Jordan Farmar, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price, or any of the other stable of backcourt players who briefly donned the purple and gold.
Other than Bryant, it has been a virtual round robin of guards since the Lakers had some stability in the 90s with Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel, Anthony Peeler and later Bryant. With Kobe now retired, it is time for the team to find some stability and that should start with a modern, speedy point guard who can score and set up his teammates for easy baskets.
Last season’s reserves, Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas, did not finish the season with the team. The same thing happened to Lou Williams, who is currently playing for the Houston Rockets in the playoffs. Nick Young, a starter, is likely to decline his player option and sign elsewhere. If Young departs, it will leave only two guards who started and finished the season with the purple and gold, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson.
Two other guards had short stints with the team late in the season, David Nwaba and Tyler Ennis, but neither has a guaranteed contract for next season. Whether either or both return will probably not be decided until the last minute when it has been determined what was accomplished over the summer and what needs remain.
Russell and Clarkson have trade value, so if the front office swings for the fence this summer, as predicted, either or both players could be packaged to obtain the star the front office covets. Clarkson is particularly vulnerable, not because of his talent or lack thereof, but because of his salary. Unless the Lakers can unload Deng or Mozgov, which would seem difficult, a trade for Paul George or Jimmy Butler would almost inevitably require parting with Clarkson and his $12.5 million salary, so the compensation coming and going is about even.
Even if Clarkson and Russell stay, the Lakers have a pressing need for a point guard. If one thing was proven this past season, both players are more adept at shooting than passing and playmaking, and thus their best position is shooting guard. Russell is too slow to play the point in the modern NBA, plus he turns the ball over too much and cannot guard the smaller quicker point guards. Clarkson does not excel at running an offense or setting up his teammates for easy scores.
To round out the guard position for next year, the Lakers will look to the draft, free agency, and the trade pool.
If the Lakers keep their lottery pick and don’t package it in a trade, the team may try to find a point guard in the draft. Three of the top prospects this summer play that position, including Markelle Fultz of the University of Washington, Lonzo Ball of UCLA, and De’Aaron Fox of the University of Kentucky. One of these young men could be wearing a Lakers uniform next season if the ping pong balls bounce the Lakers’ way later this month.
After three years of trying to nurture teenage draftees, however, the Lakers may be tired of gambling on yet another 19-year-old. If so, there are excellent point guards available in free agency this summer including Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, Jeff Teague, local product Jrue Holiday, and the skilled but oft-injured George Hill and Derrick Rose. Signing a free agent is the best possible result since the Lakers would get a player whose talents are already proven without having to part with assets in return.
Other under-30 guards who will be available this summer are Ty Lawson, Patty Mills, Dion Waiters, Brandon Jennings, and Darren Collison. Some of these players could fill in for a year or two as a starting point guard or solid reserve off the bench. It should be noted, however, that the Lakers do not have enough cap space to spend on a reserve with Mozgov and Deng taking up one-third of the entire cap space themselves.
If it comes to a trade, the Lakers might consider those young point guards who were lottery selections, have gained some experience, but for one reason or another have not yet broken through. In the past five drafts, the point guards chosen with a top 10 pick included Kris Dunn (2016), D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay (2015), Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, and Elfrid Payton (2014), Trey Burke (2013), and Damian Lillard (2012).
With the lone exception of Lillard, none of these players has become a star or anything close to it, and most have been a disappointment. Perhaps with a change of scenery Mudiay, Exum, or Smart could finally flourish.
With this much uncertainty, and with serious cap space limitations, the Lakers will need to sign some of their guards to minimum salaries. That is why Ennis and Nwaba have a good chance of returning next season. Both played with energy and skill in their brief stint with the team, and both are young and will continue to grow.
In the end, despite all the rumors and speculation, it is unlikely that the Lakers will be able to pull off a major trade this summer or sign a star free agent. The trade would come at too high a price, and top free agents want to join contenders. Still, with Calderon, Huertas, Williams, and (probably) Young gone from last year’s roster, the biggest need on the team is in the backcourt and more specifically point guard, just as it has been for many years. If nothing else, the Lakers really need to find a starting point guard this offseason.