Exploring The Lakers’ Free Agency Options

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As we collectively euro-step around the backlash and faux uproar over what was a truly unfortunate ending to LeBron James’ Game 1, other teams are also actively working on pre-draft evaluations while continuing to position themselves for the free agency period.

Although the Finals are just beginning, dozens of young men will have their dreams fulfilled in less than 20 days as the Barclays Center will host the annual NBA Draft on June 26; that means free agents can begin negotiating with teams in just over three weeks. The Lakers are expected to be one of the league’s more active front offices this summer, as the team has the most needs of any roster currently on the mend.

When Kobe Bryant isn’t conveniently (and wisely) using the “Cramp-Gate” platform to remind everyone of his latest venture with Body Armor Super Drink, he’s been actively rehabbing for what is actually his second consecutive summer. If Bryant’s body will permit, it can be expected as a certainty that he’ll return with a chip on his shoulder, but he’s going to have to rely upon the front office to provide the support he needs all while aggressively implementing the “life after Kobe” plan.

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Whether that plan involves packaging what little assets they have in the hopes of either trading for established talent (possible, but far from a lock) or moving up in the draft (even less likely), the Lakers have options that could both make them a competitive team over the next couple years with Bryant while adding pieces that would make them more attractive for future free agents and maintaining future cap flexibility. GM Mitch Kupchak referenced the potential for a team to purchase late-first and second round picks as a means to improve a roster when he addressed the media after a pre-draft workout session, but offered little insight into which direction the organization may be leaning.

Luol Deng may be one of the more coveted free-agents-to-be, but the market and what Deng is actually looking for could dictate just how realistic of an option he is for the Lakers. Having reportedly turned down the three-year, $30 million deal from the Bulls while still a member, Deng may be able to convince a team he’s worthy of a much larger deal than the Lakers should even consider offering him. Not that Deng’s defensive prowess and ability to apply pressure along the perimeter as well as in help situations shouldn’t be attractive to a team sorely lacking any semblance of a defensive identity, but even paying Deng the amount he’s allegedly turned down in the past wouldn’t be conducive to putting together a championship roster over the next few seasons.

Lance Stephenson, Gordon Hayward and Eric Bledsoe are probably either going to re-sign with their respective teams, or have the realistic potential to price themselves out of the Lakers’ spending market altogether. If you can find a way to land one of them a price you’re comfortable with, of course you’d leap at the opportunity. Each of them are tremendous, young talents with high ceilings, but would likely require larger four-year deals that might limit your future freedom as well.

Unless they are able to maneuver into acquiring established talent such as Kevin Love or another young player like Kyrie Irving, the Lakers have to find a way to convince two contributing players to split about $14-17 million per year for the next couple seasons. You never want to completely dismiss the possibility or an unforeseen “home run” trade given this franchise’s history of doing exactly that, but (as things tend to go with Kupchak and the Lakers) several contingency plans are likely in place. In keeping with the baseball analogy, there’s also nothing wrong with manufacturing success by stringing together a few timely ‘base hits’ and ‘doubles’ when it comes to approaching free agency.

Not only would bringing in multiple contributors offer Bryant a chance to compete, but you’d also preserve the opportunity to offer a max contract to say a Kevin Durant or LeBron James, both of whom could conceivably be unrestricted free agents at that point. James could elect to opt-out during the two free agency periods prior to then, but Durant won’t be free to reassess his surroundings until the summer of ‘16. In the meantime, there are several names the Lakers could target with a plan of that nature in mind.

Fans of the Purple and Gold may remember the circumstances surrounding Trevor Ariza’s exit from Los Angeles following the first of the Bryant and Pau Gasol-led championship runs in 2009, but he is a player the team should once again pursue as an unrestricted free agent this summer. At 28-years-old, the former Bruin is still an above average perimeter defender and has developed into one of the deadlier three-point shooters in the league. Improving over each of the past four seasons, Ariza actually shot a career-high 40.7 percent from beyond the arc (5.7 attempts per night) and played in 77 games for the Wizards.

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Early reports out of Washington were that the team is interested in bringing him back, but they also have the matter of Marcin Gortat’s pending free agency to consider as well. With Martell Webster under contract for another three seasons and last year’s seldom-used #3 overall pick in Otto Porter still waiting to be developed, this could be the perfect opportunity for the Lakers to offer a three-year deal somewhere in the ball park of $20-24 million. Having already proven he’s able to play alongside Bryant during two trips to the Finals (including the loss to Boston when he was hampered by injuries), Ariza could truly be a perfect fit to play at the small forward.

His ability to space the floor in the halfcourt set will be vital, as will his knack for getting out in transition and being able to finish above the rim. The versatility would be a welcomed addition and might certainly come in handy as Bryant naturally adjusts to far less of a high-flying attack as we’ve been accustomed to in years past. A chance to return to his hometown – although born in Miami, Ariza grew up in Southern California where he attended both high school (Westchester H.S.) and college (UCLA) – the familiarity of playing alongside of Bryant and the opportunity to be a part of the group that helps turn things around in Los Angeles could be appealing enough to lure him back to the Lakers.

Kyle Lowry may be coming off the dreaded “career season in a contract year,” but that shouldn’t necessarily prevent this front office from exploring the possibility of signing the 28-year-old point guard. Lowry averaged 17.9 PPG and 7.4 APG in a career-high 36.2 minutes per game all while providing some noteworthy leadership for a surprising three-seeded Toronto Raptors team this season. Lowry’s defense has slipped a bit since he came into the league known as a tenacious defender, but he is isn’t the worst at the position. Admittedly, the thought of a defensive backcourt with a 6-footer and an 18-year-vet attempting to return from multiple catastrophic injuries could be a legitimate reason to dissuade Kupchak and Jim Buss from being in love with the idea of Lowry even if he has developed into an above-average offensive point guard.

Coincidentally, if Lowry’s market ends up being more than you’re comfortable with or the front office determines the match alongside Bryant isn’t the best, then Greivis Vasquez (his backup) is another player the Lakers should consider. At 6’6, Vasquez is bigger and stronger than you might realize. An average three-point shooter (34.5 percent for his career), the four-year vet can defend the bigger point guards and averaged 9.0 assists per game in his last full season as a starter for the Pelicans in 2012-13.

Vazquez is due to become a restricted free agent, meaning the Raptors would also be able to match whatever offer he received from another team. It would also make sense if the rumors are accurate about the Raptors’ interest in Canadian-born Tyler Ennis if he were to somehow find a way to fall to them at the 20th pick in the upcoming draft, which could make Vasquez expendable in Toronto’s eyes.

There is no official word on whether they’re considering moving up several spots in order to improve their odds, but that’s always a possibility as well. Keep those rumors that circulated last year detailing a legitimate interest in acquiring Steve Nash in mind as things continue to develop this summer. Given the fact that Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was clearly attempting to trade SF Rudy Gay at the time of the rumors (from late last summer and into the season), any interest could very well have been tied to discussions related to that deal.

Although the Lakers aren’t going to fool anybody in terms of the likelihood of Nash lasting a full season playing anything beyond strictly rotation minutes, he could actually be seen as a much more attractive piece for a team in need of someone to help nurture and mold a young point guard. Add the obvious box office appeal of Nash in Canada with the fact that he is now an expiring contract at the end of the year, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see his name discussed if the Raptors and Lakers were to enter any negotiations.

Filling out the rest of the roster

Putting guys like Ariza, Vasquez, and potentially a young power forward like Julius Randle (if he were to dip slightly in the draft) next to a returning Bryant would certainly be an intriguing start,’but Kupchak and Buss would be far from done this summer. Although we shouldn’t expect quite the ‘rent-a-roster’ that took the floor this season, even if the Lakers are able to land a couple of the players mentioned, the front office is still expected to look to retain some of the current crop of players in order to complete the roster. Reserve big man Robest Sacre is the only player with a guaranteed contract beyond Bryant and Nash. Things remain uncertain regarding Pau Gasol’s future, as there have been no updates beyond the reports that surfaced last month claiming he would consider the Grizzlies, Bulls, Spurs and Lakers when deciding where to play next season.

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After the productive season he put up for an injury-depleted team in 2013-14, Nick Young is expected to receive some interest from the open market. Young’s game may be flawed, but there are few players that can be counted upon for instant offense at the rate the seven-year veteran is able to provide when he’s on.

Jodie Meeks could easily have been considered the Lakers’ most consistent player this season, as the five-year guard was finally able to put everything together in the free-flowing offense Mike D’Antoni ran. Meeks set career marks in several categories including scoring (15.7 PPG), steals (1.4 SPG), and three-point percentage (40.1). His potential price tag would be the only reason to see the Lakers wanting to move on, but Meeks’ fit within the next system is also likely to be taken into strong consideration when deciding what to do with him.

Jordan Farmar played well in multiple stretches during his return to the Lakers, but was sidelined numerous times by hamstring issues throughout the season. He fits well in Los Angeles and is generally a productive player when healthy, but the draft could also determine his status. Much like with Vasquez’s case in Toronto, if the Lakers decided to select Marcus Smart with the #7 pick, then the decision on Farmar could be different. Of course Farmar, having already determined a crowded backcourt was not to his liking once in the past, could very well come to the same conclusion depending upon what options are available to him around the league. He has championship experience, can be a playmaker and has developed into a dependable three-point shooter, so he may not be as easy to retain.

Last season’s second-round selection (48th overall) Ryan Kelly actually showed some true signs of promise as his playing time increased out of necessity throughout the season. A full summer to work on his strength and conditioning should absolutely help, as Kelly is a player that can be developed into productive rotation member especially if the eventual system and coaching philosophy matches his skill set.

Based on the way it came across around the time of their exit interviews from April, Wesley Johnson is a guy the team appears to like, moving forward. His shot and all-around offense was streaky (at best) this season, but the effort was always there on the defensive end and in transition. Johnson is probably a player you can still retain at a reasonable rate, and he could presumably fit within any system due to much of his action coming from effort and athleticism on many nights. It would also be great to see what Johnson might be able to develop into given a chance to actually play, practice and learn alongside Bryant. Prior to the season, Basketball Insiders caught up to Johnson at the annual adidas Nations tournament in Southern California, and he sounded very eager to play alongside a guy he admittedly grew up watching and looking up to.

Beyond those guys, it truly seems as though decisions will be based on the fit and needs of the roster following the draft and depending upon how their venture into free agent market goes. These plans and ideas may not sound “sexy” or “immediate” enough for some fans, but the old adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” – while extremely cliché and even sometimes misused – couldn’t be more apropos than in this exact moment with the Lakers. For better or worse, they are absolutely married to Bryant, his extension and eventual return. Even though you know his competitive fire is probably akin to molten lava at this point, given the manner by which the last few seasons have ended, they are far less likely to expect or rely upon him to be their “savior” as we move along.

Make no mistake, as Bryant should be right back to occupying the mid-post, hissing for the ball, and setting himself up for that patented turnaround jumper before we know it. We just don’t know what the team around him will look like.