Improving The Lakers Without A Major Trade

Darius Soriano —  June 24, 2012

Since the season ended what’s been on everyone’s – from fans to front office members’ – minds is improving the Lakers’ roster. If a second round defeat wasn’t enough to show the team needs to improve, the quality of play exhibited in the Finals hammered the point home. The Lakers must get better if they want to raise another Larry O’Brien trophy and the must do so quickly.

How to do so, of course, is the key question at hand. The Lakers don’t have many resources at their disposal and working within the boundaries of the new collective bargaining agreement offers new challenges not yet mastered by any front office. But, even with those challenges, the need for improvement is as apparent as the nose on your face.

Up to this point, the Lakers top executives – Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak – have spoken about the realities the team faces and how it will be difficult to pull off the type of radical change that some seek. Be it mentioning the rarity of blockbuster trades, the difficulty of obtaining a high draft pick that can yield an impact player, or the type of talent that can be lured by the types of cap exceptions the Lakers have available, Mitch and Jim are both setting expectations for a hungry fan base and working to let others know how much they value the players currently on their roster.

That said, what’s also being acknowledged – simply by having the conversation – is that better is needed. And while it’s more than reasonable to expect there to be some natural improvement from the familiarity of working under Mike Brown and all that comes with that – better cohesion, understanding of his systems, etc – getting better players is still the goal. With that in mind, we offer a general plan to try and improve the roster solely using the resources at their disposal. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m not yet entertaining any trades for the Lakers’ big three. We’ll touch on that eventually, but at this point, let’s take Mitch and Jim at their word that they expect Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum to all be wearing Lakers’ jerseys when next season starts.

Re-sign Ramon Sessions
Fans aren’t yet sold on Sessions as a long term answer at point guard and I can understand those concerns. His defense needs work, he’s not yet the type of shooter that can consistently stretch the floor, and there were times where he looked overwhelmed by the raised stakes of the post-season.

However, I’m still of the mind that he’s quite a good player that will still improve. Remember, he’s not yet 27 years old and does have several good aspects to his game and a foundation for growth. His speed, decision making, and floor generalship are all above average. He’s a very good pick and roll player, makes plays for himself and his teammates, and can score the ball well. He adds an open court dimension, has shown he can hit big shots, and also showed enough smarts and hard work to pick up the team’s schemes on the fly and make an impact.

I don’t know if he’ll ever be as consistently good as his first 10-15 games with the team but I definitely don’t think he’ll ever be as consistently out of sorts as he was in the playoffs. So, if he can be had for a reasonable price – which, for me is in the $4.5 to $5.5 million per year over the next 3 to 4 years – I think that’d be a good deal for the Lakers. Remember, starting caliber players in this league often make much more than that once they’re beyond their rookie contracts so getting him at that price, I think, would be a good deal for the Lakers and would give them a starter with good growth potential in the fold. And with him in tow, the team could move on to other needs.

Attempt to use the trade exception from the Lamar Odom trade
I’ll be the first to admit that making trades can be complicated. Outsiders never really know how other teams value assets on the trade market and making a deal requires that two sides who both want to achieve something positive for their franchise get what they want. Using a trade exception can be even harder because teams typically don’t just hand over good players only for the salary relief a trade exception offers. This typically means the team who gets the player has to sweeten the offer somehow. Another issue can be the length of the contract the player possesses, thus making his “value” as a player much less due to the money he’s still owed. The Lakers don’t have a lot of sweeteners and also must be careful about taking on long contracts that affect their ability to avoid the repeater tax in the 2014-15 season.

All that said, the Lakers have this $8.9 million resource at their disposal and using it before it expires on a player that can help the team should be a priority. Maybe the Lakers look to use it via a sign and trade on a player that’s leaving his current team as FA and would like a contract bigger than the MLE that a lot of teams are sure to offer. That would require getting on the phone with agents and getting a feel for whether or not a player would want to come to the Lakers. Then more work would have to be done convincing the team that holds that player’s rights to make a deal. The Lakers could also make calls to teams with desirable players and see if salary relief is something those teams would want in exchange. There are other options as well.

However they go about it though, they need to actively try and find a partner. The Lakers only have so many ways they can add talent and this is one of them. I’ll understand if they try to make a deal and fail. But, they need to try.

Re-sign Jordan Hill
Let me say this upfront: Hill’s not a great player. What he is, however, is a good role player that can help a team win within a well defined role. And after he got healthy and found his way into the Lakers’ rotation, that’s exactly what he did.

Hill showed great instincts on both backboards, meshed well into the Lakers show/recover defensive scheme, and complimented both Bynum and Gasol well when he shared the court with both players. He worked hard, played within himself, and never seemed to be about anything else other than doing his job well. Of course there were times that he didn’t play well and that is to be expected with any player. But as a 3rd big man the Lakers can do a lot worse and need only look at the production they were getting from that spot before Hill emerged as a rotation player.

A wrinkle in the collective bargaining agreement states that Hill can’t make any more money than what his declined team option would have paid him next season (approximately $3.6 million). I’m not sure he’ll command that much money on the open market but at least the Lakers know what his contract ceiling will be can use that to work with him on a reasonable contract to return. Remember, the Lakers essentially traded a 1st round pick for Hill and to lose him in free agency would be a step back – even if only a minor one. At this point, the Lakers can’t take steps backwards when trying to improve their talent base.

Use the mini-MLE to sign a viable player
As Mitch Kupchak said, “You might not be able to really go out there and dramatically improve your team with a $1 million player or a $3 million player. But there’s value out there and we’ll search for it.”  So, we can only assume he’s going to be scouring the market for good players that will fit into the $3 million slot that the mini-MLE offers. My preference is that the Lakers search for a viable wing using that exception, especially since Matt Barnes is a free agent and Kobe could use a back up that helps get his minutes down.

I won’t get into skill-set specifics with this player because I honestly don’t think it’s as big a deal that the Lakers find someone that is a “shooter” or a “great athlete”. Targeting those specific skills doesn’t always pan out and can lead to signings that don’t work out (see Radmanovich, Vladimir). The Lakers need the most talented players that they can find, period. Give me a good talent base to work with and the weaker parts of a player’s game can be developed and improved. In the end, the team simply needs to find more contributors and that doesn’t mean finding a specialist.

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These are only four steps, but if all of them can be executed the Lakers can end up with a quality roster. These moves would net them a starting point guard, a third big man, a back up wing, and another player of consequence that would contribute. When you add those players to Kobe, Gasol, Bynum, Artest, Blake, and McRoberts, that’s a 10 man rotation of players that should be able to compete even in a crowded Western Conference. If the Lakers are able to add another player in the draft (Jim Buss has openly said they’d like to get back into the 1st round) that could be another player that bolsters the talent base to help them compete nightly.

I understand many are looking for the homerun deal. But if that doesn’t materialize, these are the types of deals the team can make to get better. How much better isn’t known by anyone, but this would certainly be a start.

Darius Soriano

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