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:
- Al Horford
- Hassan Whiteside
- Bismack Biyombo
- Joakim Noah
- Festus Ezeli
Let’s quickly go one by one with these guys:
*Horford’s only detraction is his age. The big man just turned 30 years old and next season will be his 10th season. There are some durability concerns as well, but in three of the last four years he’s played at least 74 games (including all 82 last season) so I think those concerns are overstated some. Some will also point to his dipping production, but he still had a PER of 19.4 this past season, making it his 7th straight season boasting a number over 19.
As for his game, his skill set really is a perfect fit. Offensively he can stretch the floor out to the three point line (he hit 34.4% of his 3’s last year on over 200 attempts), is an excellent mid-range shooter, and can still score inside. He’s also an above average passer and can still rebound well enough. Defensively he’s not a great shot blocker, but he can protect the rim, can play out on the floor in the P&R, and is super smart about positioning, angles, and how to operate within the construct of the team’s scheme.
He also offers a good locker room presence, is of high character, and would be an asset in future free agency pursuits. There’s little to not like here. Yes, he’ll be expensive. But as I said above, most big men are. I also think his game will age well.
*We covered Whiteside in this space already, so I will keep this short. There’s probably no player with a higher upside available in free agency this year. The Lakers should be interested in him. I’d be lying if I said signing him wouldn’t bring at least a few bouts of nervousness with it. But I would be on board…I think…yes, I would. I think.
*Biyombo is young, has good enough size, tremendous length, and looks to be finally coming into his own as a player after a few years of looking like a disappointment compared to his draft slot. He came on strong in the playoffs for the Raptors as a step-in starter when Jonas Valanciunas got injured and more than held his own as a defense first paint presence who got all his buckets on lobs, put-backs, and drop-off passes when defenses helped on dribble penetration.
It’s difficult to project how much he can still improve offensively. I don’t ever see him developing a reliable 15-18 foot jumper and while he can become an adequate passer, no one will ever mistake him for Pau Gasol. However, he should only continue to improve as a dive man who can finish above the rim in the P&R and he has good enough hands to be a viable target as a slasher and cutter when teams help on on the ball side.
Defensively he has shown he can protect the rim and can hedge on the P&R and slide with ball-handlers enough to not be a minus if forced to switch or stay in the action for longer than designed should the guard string out his dribble. He also showed he was competitive and could raise his level of play in high stakes games. That was a small sample, but I am comfortable projecting out that he can play well over a longer stretch in an expanded role.
*Noah is a player I love more than I should considering his profile. Noah will be 32 in February, is coming off two injury filled seasons (last year he only played in 29 games after suffering a shoulder injury), and has played a lot of minutes after spending the majority of his career as one of Tom Thibodeau’s workhorses.
Noah’s offensive game has also fallen off a cliff as he’s struggled to score in the paint consistently or efficiently and was never really a jumpshooting threat to begin with.
Noah remains a fantastic screener and passer, however. And while his turnover rate was up last season, I trust him at the top of the floor making the types of reads the Warriors have asked Andrew Bogut to make under Steve Kerr. If Noah can find ways to increase his scoring efficiency when playing off the Lakers’ guards and wings, there is hope he could be a net neutral on that end.
Defensively it remains to be seen how much Noah has left to offer, but his on/off numbers from last season, though in a limited sample, suggest he’s still an impact defender. In the past seasons he combined a high motor and extreme defensive IQ to be one of the most important defenders in the league. Can he still resemble that player? I think he can, but I understand if some disagree.
I also firmly believe his leadership and competitiveness would be a real asset for a young team like the Lakers. It’s mostly for these reasons and his defensive potential that he makes my list.
*Festus Ezeli had nearly as bad a conclusion to his season as Harrison Barnes did. Near the end of the Finals vs. the Cavs, Ezeli was clearly a net negative on both sides of the floor. He couldn’t effectively defend the P&R by either hedging or switching. He also couldn’t finish well offensively in the P&R, was stymied in the post, showed shockingly bad hands in compared to where he was earlier in the season, and became a target of “hack-a” fouls that saw him brick FT’s.
So, why is he on my list? Well, he’s not nearly as bad as he showed against Cleveland, he’s still young, he offers very good size, and he has institutional knowledge from his time with the Warriors which should aid in the transition to Luke Walton as the new coach.
At his best, Ezeli does nearly everything the Lakers will want in their Center. He’s a threat in the P&R, he’s a capable (if robotic) post scorer, he can slide his feet defensively in the P&R (go back and watch the Portland series tape from these playoffs), he can protect the rim, and, by all accounts, is a good locker room guy.
Does his Finals performance concern me? Yes. If he’d played well in the Finals, he’d be higher on my list. But I’ve seen enough of him throughout the past two years to think he’s a viable starting C in the league. If there’s another concern about him it’s his RFA status, but that’s a different conversation. In terms of fit, he’s pretty good and, realistically, should be higher than Noah.
Some other names to consider: Ian Mahinmi (UFA), Tyler Zeller (RFA), Miles Plumlee (RFA), Jordan Hill (we know him well), Brandon Bass (ditto), Zaza Pachulia (UFA). Any of these guys fit in their own way and I could be talked into any of them. If pairing this list down, the two who I might like best are Mahinmi and Bass.
Mahinmi did really good work for the Pacers this season. He has good size and has improved in nearly every facet of the game in recent seasons. He’s probably a bottom half of the league starter, but he’s quite useful and would help this team. Bass is a guy I think the Lakers should continue to keep tabs on, especially if his price is reasonable. The young players raved about him and I think, while undersized, he is still a positive influence in a lot of ways (on the court and off).
But if looking at the market, the above five guys are it and the Lakers should be putting out feelers (strong ones) on all of them. Again, finding a viable starting big man is the most pressing need, the Lakers need to make a move here.