Welcome to a new series for FB&G for the 2016 off-season. This series will focus on team building and various paths the Lakers have open to them for the upcoming off-season. We will try to cover a variety of scenarios the Lakers could feasibly take and what moves might be involved with that specific approach. This installment will focus on finding the middle ground towards building a winner.
The Lakers are in one of the more unique situations in the history of the organization. With no established star on the roster, there is no singular player to “sell” to fans. They are also coming off three of their worst seasons in franchise history and have just said goodbye to one of (if not the) greatest players in franchise history. Viewed through this prism, the Lakers are in a really rough spot.
On the other hand, they have just hired a young coach who fans are excited about. They just found out they would retain their lottery pick — the 2nd overall selection in a draft which many analysts say has two very strong prospects. They also have two additional former lottery picks already on the roster as well as a former 1st and 2nd round pick — all of whom have games which offer a fair amount of flair and excitement. Add to this an abundance of cap space (projections say around $60 million) on July 1st and it’s easy to see the Lakers as a team on the rise.
This makes the next steps the franchise takes crucial. The path they take to try and turn a doormat into a contender is worth discussing, then. We have already looked at the slow and steady approach and what a potential rapid race back to the top might look like. And while both of those paths have merit (one more than the other, in my opinion), I think the most realistic approach is one which lies in the middle.
The Lakers are tasked with building a winner, but that’s a long term goal. In the short term, they are seeking incremental improvements which come from strategic roster upgrades and the organic development of their young players. Here is what going about building a team that way might entail…
1). Keep the draft pick and select the best player left on the board. The assumption is that either Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram will be this player, but it could also be Dragan Bender. We’ll get into that type analysis at a later date, but the point is simple: while the Lakers already have young players who play the position Simmons/Bender do (both are projected to be PF’s early in their careers, the same position Randle and Nance play), they should still select the best talent and worry about fit later. The goal is to upgrade the talent base and whoever is selected does that once his name is called. The Lakers can then start to worry about minute allocations, a specific development plan, etc. Ultimately, if you have make a trade later, you do it after you know more about what you have — both in the new pick and in the players already on the roster who you are trying to develop.
2). Chase a long term answer at Center who fits a specific profile. The Lakers need a big man who can protect the paint defensively, every once and a while switch in a P&R defensively and not get destroyed, dive to the rim on the P&R offensively, set good screens, and finish inside on duck-ins and rim runs. He should be young-ish and athletic. If he can pass well, play with good feel, and be a good scoring threat in on-on-one offense, those things are bonuses, but not requirements. If it takes a boatload of money to sign this player, so be it. Big men almost always get overpaid. It’s the premium of being tall/having size. This is the biggest hole on the roster and there is not an answer for this player at the top of the draft. Of all the ways to upgrade the roster, this position really should be the highest priority.
3). Find wings — yes, multiple wings — who can play defense and hit the occasional 3-point shot. The Lakers have simply lacked defensive options on the wing over the past several seasons and it has shown up in their efficiency rankings. The last two years they finished 29th and 30th in the league, that needs to improve and it’s going to have to be a combination of upgrades on the wing and finding the big man mentioned in point #2. This is especially true when you consider the Lakers are already heavily invested in Russell (and will also likely be in Clarkson – more on that next) who have not yet shown they can be plus defenders. The team needs wings who can help cover up for these players’ shortcomings on that end of the floor. And it needs to be prioritized. It should be noted that if the #2 pick turns into Brandon Ingram, this becomes less a priority, but still matters. I would not suggest spending the max on a wing, but Ingram cannot be expected to fully carry the load and be a defensive answer on the wing as a 19 year old. He will need experienced guys to not only play with, but to learn from.
4). Re-sign Jordan Clarkson. We have written extensively about Clarkson’s free agency and how the Lakers are in the driver’s seat. They simply need to follow through and lock him into a contract. Remember, the Lakers can always try to trade Clarkson down the line if their roster construction ends up needing tweaking. But I do not think voluntarily letting him walk — especially when the Arenas Rule protects them in the first two years of his contract should he sign an offer sheet — is a good idea.
5). Roll over some cap space for the the summer of 2017. The cap is projected to go up to $92 million this summer and to upwards of $110 million in the summer of 2017. Holding back anywhere from $7-12 million in cap space this summer (this number should account for salary increases of guys already on the roster due to annual raises) would translate to about a max contract slot for the summer of 2017 when the crop of free agents is projected to be much stronger than the one this summer. I’m all for chasing a star or two this summer, but the reality is that the success of the Thunder these playoffs removes Durant as an option and LeBron is not leaving. This leaves a nice crop of players who can all help a team (DeRozan, Batum, Horford, etc), but who also have individual question marks (something we will dive into in the future). Holding some of that cap space back allows for continued flexibility into the regular season (where the Lakers can still make trades) and the summer where they will want to be a major player in free agency again.
Of all the plans presented, this is the one I would most support. Considering the players available in free agency and their individual circumstances, the chances the Lakers make a leap from 17 wins to a total approaching 50 are very slim. If that is the goal, the team is likely chasing an apparition. The best course of action, then, is to try and continue to grow the young talent into high level players who can be key performers on a top team down the line. That type of development takes teaching and it takes reps; it takes these players trying, failing, and learning from those failures.
Grabbing the right types of players to help fill in the gaps on the roster is important, however. So chasing a big man (or two), some defensive wings, and filling out the roster with the right amount of young and veteran players who can simultaneously help build a culture of competitiveness and structure should be the ultimate priority.
This doesn’t mean the Lakers should avoid taking meetings with the top free agents (you always take those meetings), but it does mean they should also be exploring alternatives to those players and actively looking to improve the roster in other ways. They have enough cap space to do so and enough young talent to not be reliant on top tier free agents in order to build a roster which can be improved next year.
Now comes the hard part of actually executing this plan.