We continue with our “Fixing” series this week at Basketball Insiders, and next up is the Los Angeles Lakers.
Arguably the most storied franchise in NBA history, it’s been a bumpy past few years since the Lakers’ last playoff appearance in 2013. Poor trades and questionable free agent signings have led them to where they are now, but there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.
Since Jan. 1, the Lakers have won 19 out of 31 games. They’ve had three four-game win streaks and one five-game streak. They’ve beaten the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder twice, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs twice, and the Cleveland Cavaliers during that span. The young guys are performing and they’re looking to close the season on a high note.
What Is Working
Coaching is probably the biggest positive from the Lakers turnaround. It was back in early January when the Lakers were mired in a nine-game losing streak that LaVar Ball was quoted as saying the team had given up on Luke Walton and guys didn’t want to play for him anymore. It was right about then that the Lakers began trending upward.
They’re in the top ten in the NBA in scoring (9th overall at 108.7 points per game). Defensively they could stand to improve, but they’ve got guys who are giving solid effort on that end. Walton has also revived Isaiah Thomas, who looked out of place in Cleveland. Coming off the bench for the Lakers, he’s looked more like the dynamic scorer he was in Boston and he’s been an integral part of their recent five-game win streak. As the primary scorer for the second unit, he’s getting to his spots and creating for himself and his teammates.
Walton has also reintroduced Brook Lopez to the rotation. A few months ago, Lopez saw his playing time start dwindling amid inconsistent play. Post All-Star break, Lopez has emerged as an offensive force who’s played a key role in the Lakers strong play.
The Lakers have also received strong play from their young core. Kyle Kuzma will likely make the All-Rookie first team while Brandon Ingram could be a contender for the Most Improved Player award. Lonzo Ball started the season off a bit slow as you would expect from a rookie, but since coming back from a sprained MCL, he’s seen an uptick in production. He is most assuredly the Lakers’ point guard of the future.
Perhaps the most impressive young player in recent games has been Julius Randle. Since the All-Star break, he’s been arguably the best player on the team. He recently had his best game of the season in the win over Cleveland with 36 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, and two blocks.
Walton has shown that he is indeed the coach of the future and his job is safe. He even has Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who looked like a free agent dud early on, playing some of his best basketball as of late.
What Needs To Change
The Lakers should change their approach to free agency. Under the new regime of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s safe to say that there will probably be no more free agent signings such as Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. That’s step one. Step two, which Lakers fans might not want to hear, is to scale back a bit on the pursuit of someone like LeBron James and Paul George. Give this group an opportunity to grow and develop. They’re building something special in LA and their recent play is proof of that.
Besides, both James and George have seemingly made it clear that they want to win championships. Either one of those guys would be a massive acquisition for the Lakers, but with just one of them, the Lakers still wouldn’t be good enough to contend with the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. They could theoretically sign both, but it would come at the cost of someone like Randle.
The Lakers should also look to use their G-League team, the South Bay Lakers, when searching for talent. They did a good job finding David Nwaba last season, but they cut him over the summer to make room for Caldwell-Pope. Nwaba should still be a Laker. They just signed Travis Wear from South Bay which is a step in the right direction. When looking to fill out their roster this summer with end of the bench guys, they should keep looking at South Bay’s roster.
Focus Area: The Draft
The Lakers may not own their own pick in this summer’s draft, but they acquired Cleveland’s pick in the trade that sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr to the Cavaliers. Currently, the pick is slated to be in the mid-twenties. Although this looks like a top-heavy draft, unlike last summer’s deep draft, there should still be some quality guys available where the Lakers will select.
No matter where the selection lands, the number one rule for the draft is to always go with the best player available regardless of position. A couple guys that might be around when the Lakers are on the clock are a pair of local standouts: Aaron Holiday of UCLA, and Chimezie Metu of USC. Holiday is an explosive scorer with good court awareness. Metu is a big man with a nice touch around the rim and a good mid-range game. Either one would make a nice addition to the Lakers’ young core and both have the potential to outperform players that will likely be taken ahead of them.
A few other guys that might be available in that range are Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Shake Milton of SMU, and De’Anthony Melton of USC. Each has the potential to be a solid rotation guy in the NBA, and for a rebuilding team like the Lakers, you can’t have too many of those.
The Lakers do own a second-round pick, and while the majority of second rounders don’t really amount to much, they could find a gem here. Every year there are players who slip or don’t receive much attention. If available, the Lakers should tab either Rawle Alkins or Allonzo Trier, both of Arizona. They’re first-round talents that are being overlooked.
Focus Area: Free Agency
There is one player who should be the number one priority for the Lakers in free agency, and no it’s not James or George. That man is Julius Randle. Randle has improved his game every season since he’s been in the league. He’s established himself as a budding young member of the team worthy of their loyalty in the summer.
Other teams surely will come calling, and his hometown Dallas Mavericks have been linked to him for quite some time. He’s proven himself worthy of being a free agent priority and he should be kept. He’s got a nice touch in the post and he has an improving jump shot. He’s also becoming more versatile with a developing playmaking game.
Obviously, if someone like James or George want to play in LA, then, by all means, sign them. But if they’re entertaining offers from better teams, which they surely will, and dragging out the process, the Lakers need to lock up Randle quick before it’s too late. He’s entering restricted free agency so the Lakers can match any offer, but teams with money to burn will dial his number.
The Lakers are also going to have to make some decisions on their unrestricted free agents. Thomas, Lopez, Caldwell-Pope, and Channing Frye are all set to become free agents. Caldwell-Pope is a good candidate to let walk, probably Lopez as well. Frye is a nice locker room veteran that every young team could use. It would be nice to have him stick around unless another team decides to spend big money on him.
Thomas is in an interesting situation. He’s going to have suitors, but the offers won’t be near as much as projected a year ago. His stock has slipped, but he’s shown he’s still a very productive player and a deadly scorer given the right situation. He’s not a bad player to have to mentor the Lakers young guards such as Ball and Josh Hart. The Lakers should look at bringing him back for the right price, but don’t break the bank for him.
They’ll also have some minor moves to take care of, such as the contract guarantees for Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac, and Thomas Bryant. Ennis has probably played his last season with the Lakers. Don’t expect him back. But Zubac and Bryant have shown flashes of potential with the South Bay Lakers. If they don’t bring back Lopez, both of those guys should stick for next season at least.
The Lakers are much closer to the light at the end of the tunnel than they were a year ago. All of their young players have made gigantic strides and Walton has definitely developed as a head coach. There is something special budding in Los Angeles. The management team of Jeanie Buss, Johnson, and Pelinka seem to understand what they’re doing. Playoffs might not be out of the question next season.
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