I’m going to be completely honest here. I’ve little clue what to think about the Lakers as they head into this free agency period.
Teams can start to come to agreements with players in just four days and, really, that should be an something to get excited about — especially for a team like the Lakers that is looking to improve. But with so many moving parts surrounding this roster’s construction, it’s difficult to really formulate a clean course of action when there are some key open questions about the direction of the roster.
Are the Lakers going to trade for Paul George? Are they going to do anything about their glut of PF’s and C’s? How are they going to manage Tarik Black and his non-guaranteed contract for next season? Are there any players from the end of last year’s rotation who deserve a longer look (Tyler Ennis, Thomas Robinson, etc)? Is this front office willing to commit any money this off-season that will be on next year’s books?
Answering any of those questions one way or the other re-routes the Lakers down a different path, like one of those choose your own adventure books I read when I was a kid. Do the Lakers trade for Paul George? Yes => Advance to Page 327. Do the Lakers pick up Tarik Black’s option? No => Advance to Page 285.
So, unlike previous seasons where this team would enter free agency with a specific set of needs and then a certain number of resources to pursue those needs, this year is different. I can say that right now the Lakers have a need in the backcourt for a secondary ball handler and that they have too many bigs, but what if a trade for Paul George ends up including Julius Randle, Luol Deng, and Ivica Zubac while bringing back Paul George, Monta Ellis, and Al Jefferson? Do the Lakers still need another guard with Ellis in the mix and Clarkson still on the roster?
One could drive themselves crazy going down a rabbit hole of fake trades and roster changes which could impact free agency, so I’d rather not even begin to do so.
Instead, then, I think the bigger question is whether the Lakers will commit to paying any free agent guaranteed money that stays on the books heading into the summer of 2018. Remember, Rob Pelinka called the Lakers’ cap space next summer “sacred” and Magic Johnson said that he wouldn’t have made the Russell trade (to dump Mozgov) if he didn’t think he could spend the money. The team is on the hunt for two max-salaried players and they’ll need to be prudent if they’re going to create the $60-65 million needed to sight two veterans to huge deals next year.
After spelling all that out, I will operate under two assumptions when considering players. First, I will look at team needs as they are right now, with no consideration of changes due to potential trades. Second, any FA added will either 1). be on a one year deal w/ either a team option or non-guarantee for any season(s) beyond that or 2). be a star player who fits into the mold of being a high level contributor on a team that could be a contender.
Last thing before we dive into some names, here is what a potential depth chart would look like if including all players under contract and were drafted last Thursday:
PG: Lonzo Ball, Jordan Clarkson (including him here because that’s where he ended the season)
SG: Josh Hart, David Nwaba
SF: Brandon Ingram, Corey Brewer
PF: Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Luol Deng, Kyle Kuzma
C: Brook Lopez, Ivica Zubac, Tarik Black, Thomas Bryant
That’s 14 players. A full roster is 15 and, under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, the team can also have two “2-way” contracts for players who will shuffle between the newly branded “G-League” and the parent club (so, in this case the “South Bay Lakers” and the Lakers).
Sorry, one last thing, this list is only guys who are “likely” to be FA’s or have a chance of leaving their current team*. So, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Andre Iguodala are not listed (though another Warrior is). Now, with all of that out of the way, let’s get to potential FA options…
Guards and Wings
This is the shallowest area of the team and regardless of what position you think is best for Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers likely need at least two players here. The first is a pure PG type who can initiate the offense reliably and, at the very least, be injury insurance or a guy who can suitably fill in should there be foul trouble. The team also needs more experience on the wing, preferably a guy who can play both SG and SF. Note, the market here is not robust, which will become clear as we get into the names.
1. Gordon Hayward. I don’t think the Lakers chase Hayward, but he’s the archetype (along with Paul George) that the Lakers are after long term. He’s an all-star caliber guy, is only 27, continues to improve, and is an excellent two way player. He’d cost a max salary which means more maneuvering to open up that space (trading Clarkson or stretching Deng). I think this is a year too early to sign a max guy in FA, but if he came out in the days leading up to 7/1 saying (via back-channel communications) that he was interested in coming to the team, the Lakers should be having that conversation.
2. Shaun Livingston. Livingston checks off a lot of boxes. He can initiate the offense, can defend, is a good passer/playmaker, has a high BBIQ, and knows the system Luke wants to run. He does not shoot the ball with range, but you can’t have it all with players in his price range. It’s unclear if Livingston will leave the Warriors (how much will they pay him?) and whether he’d be open to a 1-year deal with the Lakers (where, in theory they could use a non-Bird salary structure to pay him more in 2018). But, if he does depart the Bay Area, I’d want the Lakers to take a hard look at him.
3. Joe Ingles. From strictly a fit standpoint, Ingles may actually be higher than Livingston — though the latter’s scheme experience gives him the edge. Ingles can initiate the offense, is a fine defender who has positional versatility, is a really smart player, and can shoot the hell out of the ball. The only problem with Ingles is, really, his status as a restricted free agent. Under the previous regime, I doubt the Lakers even look at Ingles due to this simple fact. However, under Magic/Pelinka, we’ll see if that approach changes. Due to his RFA status, it’s unlikely the Lakers would be able to create a contract scenario that is advantageous to their own parameters which would also discourage the Jazz from matching, but I’m including him on this list anyway. I like Joe that much and would love to add him to the fold.
4. Darren Collison. I’m not in love with him as a player (he also carries some personal baggage that offer character concerns), but he’s a good PG who can fill in as a starter or be a good reserve option. He’s a good shooter and is capable enough playmaker. Unlike the two players above him on this list, he’d purely be a 1-year option, which likely requires an overpay. Still, though, for a team with a real need for another ball handler/facilitator, Collison would be worth a look.
5. Justin Holiday. Many thought the Lakers might be in the running for his brother Jrue, but the Pelicans are likely to open up the vault to keep him in New Orleans. Justin, while not nearly as good as his brother, is an intriguing wing option, however. He has good size for a SG (6’6″, 185lbs), shot 35.5% on 3’s for the Knicks last year, isn’t awful defensively, and has a history playing in the Lakers’ scheme (he was on the Warriors title team in 2015). Holiday will likely be among the 2nd and 3rd tier of free agents, so his price tag should be reasonable. Again, though, he’s likely only a one-year option so you likely have to overpay to get him.
6. Omri Casspi. As a pure wing who has some shooting ability, rebounds his position, and not terrible on defense, Casspi is a guy worth looking at. He’s not yet 30 and, due to injury issues over his career, he might have a depressed value on the open market. I would imagine he’d want to play for a better team than the Lakers, but, again, if the market goes away from him a 1-year deal with a consistent role as a back up SF could entice him. I like his game and feel like he just needs a steady role to show he can be a stead contributor. The other side of that, though, is that coaches have often gone away from him which leads to questions about why it keeps happening. Still, though, I’d welcome him as a floor spacing wing who knows how to play team ball.
7. KJ McDaniels. I’m going to be honest here: I have no idea of McDaniels is any good. He was one of those “shows flashes” guys, but has unceremoniously been dropped by several teams who would seemingly want a wing who is young, has some athleticism, defensive potential, and can still improve as a shooter. From that angle, then, I am skeptical. That said, he should be relatively cheap and could be a guy who would be happy to take a 1-year “prove it” contract on a team where it looks like there could be some minutes available on the wing. From the Lakers side, McDaniels has some tools to work with and the hope is that those could be sharpened under Walton and his staff.
8. Tyler Ennis. Positives about Ennis: he’s still young (23 in August), he has experience under coach Walton, and in his last 20 games of the year he was a viable backup PG posting a line of 8.3 points and 2.5 assists while hitting 39.2% of his threes in 19 minutes a night. He also shows good effort (and some skill) defensively and, by all accounts, is a good kid who works hard. Considering his pedigree as a former 1st round pick and the fact that it typically takes point guards a bit longer to develop, bringing Ennis back might offer some value. It’s also worth noting that the Lakers can only pay Ennis what his 4th year option would have had it been exercised, so there’s a built in ceiling in his cost that could aid in negotiations. Asking him to come back to see if he can improve on where he left off could be worth the chance, all things considered.
I only included that header there to say this: I don’t think there’s a single PF/C in free agency who the Lakers should consider signing with their current roster construction. If anything, they have a decision on their own FA in Tarik Black, rather than concerns about who on the market can improve their team while also being a viable target/player who they can actually sign.
I mean, the PF market has some nice names – Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Taj Gibson — who could really help the Lakers in a vacuum. But, in reality, all of those guys will either be too expensive, require too much of a long term commitment, or a suspect candidate for the “star” player you want for shelling out the money they’ll command. When you add in the Lakers depth at that spot, there’s no need to go further.
As for C, the Lakers just traded for Lopez, still have Zubac, drafted Bryant, and have the aforementioned Black decision to make (which I will write on in the next couple of days). The team will also continue to slide up either Randle or Nance to play some small-ball C, which pretty much eliminates any minutes for a potential FA. So, that’s that.
Unless a major deal happens and the Lakers shake up their current roster, they should be looking at lower tiered FA’s who play specific roles and fill some very narrow needs on the perimeter. Ideally you want players who can shoot/pass/defend, but in the price range the Lakers are operating in, getting all that in a single player isn’t very likely. Further, I do not expect the Lakers to offer any guaranteed long term money to anyone who is not a clear star. That means a bunch of straight up 1-year deals or 1+1 contracts to players who do not mind jumping into the free agent fray again a year from now.
This creates some real limits on the team’s approach and, overall, is likely to impact the market they see. They’re operating out of a small corner, with specific goals, which naturally reduces the number and type of players they’re going to attract. This doesn’t mean the Lakers are destined to fail or that they can’t exhume some value in this market. But patience will be key. As will a targeted approach with the right type of recruiting/messaging to convince guys to come on.
In theory, this is one of the things Rob Pelinka should excel in as a former agent. We’ll see how things go come July 1st.
*There are other players who deserve mention who did not appear on my list for a variety of reasons. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter both fit the bill of player types the Lakers could surely use, but both will be wildly expensive and are restricted free agents and unlikely to leave their respective teams. Tony Snell is another RFA, but one who might be gettable, but I just don’t see the right intersection between value contract to the Lakers while also dissuading the Bucks from just keeping him. Mo Speights, Patrick Patterson, and Jonas Jerebko are potential stretch big men, but as I noted already, I just don’t see how you fit more bigs onto this roster as it’s currently constructed. Ian Clark is a name many fans are likely to bring up due to his history in this scheme and shooting ability, but I’m not as high on him as others. I’ve seen quite a bit of Clark and feel he’s likely to get massively overpaid (if he leaves the Warriors) for a skill set that is quite limited while not offering any semblance of defense.