Going into this NBA offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers have at least two major holes to fill on their roster for next year. With Kobe Bryant’s retirement, there is no viable option at the small forward position. Likewise, last year’s starter at center, Roy Hibbert, is a free agent who is not likely to return. At all costs, these needs must be met before next season begins.
Nearly every projection has the Lakers taking Duke’s Brandon Ingram with the second overall pick in the NBA Draft later this month. While there are no certainties, Ingram has all the makings of a future star, someone who will more than meet the team’s needs at the “3” position for years to come. That will leave the Lakers with four likely starters, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson in the backcourt, and Julius Randle and Ingram as the forwards.
The situation at center, however, is still very much up in the air. The Lakers might choose a center with their high second round pick in the draft, but it is unlikely that any such rookie would be ready to start in the short term. Thus, the hole will have to be filled in free agency or by trade.
The team’s number one target in free agency is likely to be unrestricted free agent Hassan Whiteside. The team passed on Whiteside when he was available two years ago, which proved to be another embarrassing misstep by the front office. Whether they can pry him away from Pat Riley and the Miami Heat this summer remains to be seen, but all signs suggest that they are going to try.
Whiteside has quickly developed into a spectacular defender. He led the league by a wide margin in blocked shots (3.7 per game), and that doesn’t include the countless attempts he altered in the paint. He was also among the leaders in rebounds (11.7) and has improved dramatically on offense where he made a high percentage of his shots (60%) while averaging 14.2 points per game.
The knock against Whiteside is his erratic personality which has led some to question his influence in the locker room. Still, Whiteside will be 27 next season, and unless he implodes off the court, he is likely to get even better and is seemingly a perfect complement to forwards Randle and Ingram.
The Lakers second choice is Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks. Horford is also an unrestricted free agent, and many believe he is going to be playing for another team next season. Whether he is interested at all in the Lakers is unknown, but again, the Lakers will definitely be interested in him especially if they are spurned by Whiteside.
Horford just turned 30, which is not ideal for the young Lakers, but he is talented. While not as spectacular as Whiteside, he is solid and consistent on both ends of the court. He averaged 15.2 points a game on 50 percent shooting this past season, though his rebounds dipped to 7.3 per contest, well below his career average of 8.9.
Given the upside potential of Whiteside and the fact he is three years younger than Horford, he should be Lakers’ number one target. There are reasons to believe that Whiteside may be interested in the Lakers, but there have been no rumors connecting Horford to the purple and gold. If they miss out on Whiteside, the Lakers would no doubt be pleased to end up with Horford as a consolation prize.
One center who has repeatedly been linked to the Lakers this offseason is Festus Ezeli of the Golden State Warriors. Ezeli will turn 27 at the start of next season, and he has not seen significant minutes with the Warriors. He played in only 46 games this year due to injuries, and when he played he averaged only 16 minutes a game. Still, he averaged 5.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. He does not shoot much but makes a high percentage of his attempts.
Ezeli has never been an NBA starter and is much more of a question mark than Whiteside and Horford. But there are those who believe that Ezeli could be a monster, especially on defense, if he got more playing time and managed to stay healthy. Ezeli is a restricted free agent, but there is speculation that for financial reasons the Warriors might let him go if the Lakers throw big money at him.
Another center whose stock has risen dramatically the past few months is Bismack Biyombo of the Toronto Raptors, who has played five years in the NBA but is still only 23. He is 6’9” tall which makes him short for a center, but in today’s NBA, where teams are running and gunning more and more, Biyombo may be ideal.
Despite being undersized, Biyombo is a fierce rebounder and defender who only averaged 22 minutes a game this past season but grabbed eight rebounds and had 1.6 blocks per game. His play exploded in the postseason, where he was a dominant force on the boards and was instrumental in helping the Raptors reach the Eastern Conference Finals and giving the Cleveland Cavaliers stiff competition.
Other free agent centers this summer include Roy Hibbert, Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah, Timofey Mozgov, Jordan Hill, Kendrick Perkins, and Matt Bonner. Due to concerns about age, health, or both, these are far less attractive options than Whiteside, Horford, Ezeli, and Biyombo.
Of course, the number one center in the league is DeMarcus Cousins, who the Lakers reportedly have coveted for a long time. Unfortunately, it would gut the team to try to acquire him in a trade and at this point such a move is unexpected.
With Cousins presumably unavailable, if the Lakers can sign Whiteside or Horford it will be a home run. If they get Ezeli or Biyombo there will be reason for optimism — while both come with question marks, they have intriguing potential.