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The Lakers’ biggest free agent need may be in the pivot, but you don’t total 17 wins if your only problem is needing a new Center. And despite the Lakers drafting Brandon Ingram #2 overall and having D’Angelo Russell and (restricted free agent) Jordan Clarkson as young players on the rise, the team could really use some help on the wing.

First, I think it’s worth repeating the prices for free agents are going to be outrageous this summer and you should prepare yourself for sticker shock. We discussed this some in our look at big men, but bigs always command high salaries. With wings, though, there’s typically more leeway. The supply of wings typically outpaces demand and while the cream of the crop will always get paid, there is usually some value to be found when going to the 2nd or 3rd tier.

That may end up being true this summer too, but “value” will be a relative term. When the cap explodes and teams have so much money to spend they won’t actually be able to spend it all, the formula inverts where the supply of dollars is going to vastly outpace players who would, in a normal year, make that much money. So, even if the Lakers go down-shelf shopping, they’re still likely to be paying a premium for their target simply because the availability of money for all players will ratchet up contract amounts.

With that out of the way and the Lakers need for a wing established, it’s time to go shopping. But first, let’s again take stock of what’s in the cupboard. As noted, the Lakers already have Russell and Ingram. Re-signing Clarkson is a priority and will almost certainly happen. They also have Lou Williams who will demand some minutes. Looking at this group, however, two things become clear: There’s only one SF in that group (Ingram) and there’s not a lot of defense-first guys (zero).

The team’s needs mostly revolve around those two areas and they’d be wise to chase players who fit a certain profile. Namely, if the guy can play small forward and has the potential to be a plus defender, he should get a long look. Of course shooting still matters. And being at least an adequate passer and having enough ball skills to initiate the offense in some way would also be great. But if those latter skills come at the expense of defense and position certainty, a guy should move down the list (or off it entirely).

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Over the last few years a vocal set of Lakers’ observers — be it fans or media — consistently called Kobe Bryant the elephant in the room. Kobe was holding the team back, they said. His contract, his dominant persona, his power and sway from two decades of successful NBA summit climbing giving him carte blanche over one of the marquee brands in all of sports. This was the popular narrative for many.

I’d argue, though, that the real elephant in the room was the Buss Family dynamic. The whispers of discord were always present, like the hum from the a/c unit on a hot summer day. After Dr. Jerry Buss passed away, his children were to lead the organization forward and, it seemed, they just couldn’t get on the same page. The hiring and firing of coaches was an especially touchy subject, one tied to personal relationships that fed into reported mistrust which only escalated pre-existing hard feelings.

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It is no secret where the holes on this Lakers’ team are. While the argument could be made there are holes everywhere — this team won 17 games last year! — the presence of multiple young players who hope to improve mean there are really only a few positions (and roles) of true need.

One of those positions — and probably the highest priority one — is Center. Roy Hibbert is an unrestricted free agent and, in all likelihood, will not be brought back. Brandon Bass, who played backup C for most of the year, declined his player option and is now a free agent. Tarik Black and Robert Sacre are restricted free agents and it is not yet clear if the Lakers will tender them qualifying offers, giving the team the ability to match FA offers.

The Lakers did draft Ivica Zubac in the 2nd round of the draft and there are reports he will come over from Europe this season to play in the NBA. But even if Zubac makes the team, he’s only 19 years old and could not be relied upon to be the team’s starter in the pivot. He would would also be the only Center the Lakers currently project to have under contract for next year. So, yeah, finding a rotation level big man (and ideally a high functioning starter) is important.

The good news for the Lakrs is that the list of big men options in free agency is relatively deep. The bad news is that teams always — ALWAYS — have to overpay for size in free agency. As much as we glorify the shift towards small ball in the modern NBA, being taller than nearly everyone else is still seen as an advantage when the goal is to score and stop your opponent from putting a ball into a fixed rim 10 feet high off the ground.

Below, then, is my list of five free agent big men I would recommend the Lakers target. This list is not definitive and I will offer a few other names after it, but these guys would be my priority. I would call them all at 9:01pm Pacific time on June 30th (aka 12:01am July 1st) to express my interest if I could:

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When I talked with Sam Vecenie about the Lakers’ offseason, he asked me to make one bold prediction for this summer. I asked Sam if it was bold to say the Lakers would sign Hassan Whiteside in free agency. After all, there have been murmurs of the Lakers’ interest in the Heat big man and he fills an obvious need.

Fast forward a few weeks and Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne are reporting the Lakers interest is quite real and they plan to target Whiteside when free agency opens on July 1st:

The Los Angeles Lakers plan to aggressively pursue Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside when NBA free agency starts, according to league sources.

With rim protection and perimeter shooting ranking as the Lakers’ foremost areas of concern heading into the open market, sources told ESPN that Whiteside has emerged as a priority target.

The report further notes that Whiteside is expected to command a maximum salary and, while not spelled out directly, the expectation is the Lakers would be willing to offer that amount. With a projected $94 million dollar cap, the starting salary for Whiteside earning the max would be $22.2 million in year one and would total nearly $95 million over a 4 year deal.

That, my friends, is a lot of coin.

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The Lakers (and their fans) have always viewed this summer as one where they would be able to retool and grab talent in free agency. It is no coincidence Kobe Bryant’s contract expired this year or that when the Lakers did not sign top flight free agents the past two summers they did not throw long contracts at mid-tier talent. They instead signed or traded for players on short term deals which would keep their cap relatively clean this summer.

They have preached flexibility for years and this summer was a major part of that. Or, more accurately, Kevin Durant was a part of that. Getting a chance to pitch Durant on the merits of being a Laker and, potentially, bringing whoever else he wanted with him was an opportunity this franchise wanted to have. It may have been one they were even counting on. It seems, though, they may not get it.

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It’s been quite a whirlwind for D’Angelo Russell, I would imagine. Almost a year ago to the day I write this, he was drafted with the #2 overall selection by the Lakers. He seemed genuinely ecstatic about the development, going a spot higher than most projected him to go, and avoiding being part of “the process” in Philly which just produced a 10 win season and the #1 overall pick in this draft.

Fast-forward to today and he’s gone through an up and down rookie campaign and saw an off-court issue with a teammate become national news, branding him a “snitch”, “rat”, or worse in the process. His image has taken a hit that to the point that the flashes he had as a rookie might as well have never happened.

In the shows leading into and during the actual draft itself on Thursday, no less than 4 analysts found ways to either trade, give away, or discredit Russell’s basketball playing ability. Arguments were made that there was no place for him on the team and that the Lakers should voluntarily draft Kris Dunn over Brandon Ingram just to be able to trade Russell.

This was silly. More than that really, but I’ll keep this PG rated.

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Brandon Ingram is a 6’9″ long and lean all-court basketball playing dude. He combines guard skills with the height and length of a big man. Watch any highlight reel of him playing the game — be it in high school or in his lone year at Duke — and there’s a smooth, almost regal way to how he plays the game. After the selection was made, Mitch Kupchak said Ingram “has no ceiling” as a player.

This sort of high praise paired with what we see on the court, plus the stories of his work ethic and character, inspire a level of excitement that is not often felt. Allowing for a brief tangent, I love D’Angelo Russell and think he has the ability to be a truly fantastic player. During Thursday’s draft coverage when analyst after analyst tried to find ways to trade or discard Russell as if he wasn’t good…I found it comical. Ingram, and the total package he possesses, might excite me even more than Russell. Which is saying something.

A balance must be struck, though.

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Okay, I’m going to be honest. I know very little about Ivica Zubac. In the lead up to the draft I took a cursory look at the big man, but did not see him lasting to the Lakers’ selection at #32. After all, he was the #19 prospect in Draft Express’ top 100 and #25 on Chad Ford’s Big Board. There was a chance he’d be there, but I imagined some team with multiple first round picks (Celtics, 76ers) would take him and leave him in Europe to season a bit more.

But with the overall supply of big men being too big compared to the needs of the teams in the draft, Zubac was there at pick #32 and the Lakers snatched him up. So, what do we know about the young Croatian?

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