While other teams are reportedly scrambling and hoping to meet with some of the bigger names on the free agent market – such as Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside and Harrison Barnes among others – perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers should take a slightly different approach and consider continuing to mold their roster around the young talent they already have such as D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson (assuming he’s re-signed since he’ll be a restricted free agent), Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and, of course, their second overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft.
That isn’t to suggest they shouldn’t at least “kick the tires” when it comes to the top free agents. They’ll rightly do their due diligence when it comes to a player like Durant, and Whiteside is clearly intriguing due to the gaping hole they currently have at the center position. But each of those players would have to agree to join the Lakers despite there being more attractive situations elsewhere, either with their current team or other potential suitors. Horford’s flexibility on both ends would absolutely improve this current Lakers squad, but at 30 years old (much like LaMarcus Aldridge last summer) and having played in the postseason in eight of his nine seasons as a pro, he’s likely not willing to join a rebuilding effort – no matter how promising these young players may be.
The interest in a restricted free agent like Barnes makes a bit less sense when you consider the fact that the Golden State Warriors are likely to match any offer so that he remains a part of their championship rotation. There’s also the legitimate concern over whether Barnes, while clearly versatile and skilled, truly has the game and disposition to be counted on as a leader of a franchise and more of a go-to guy as opposed to being a fourth or fifth option for an extremely talented team.
While there may be a hint of the old adage that “beggars can’t be choosers” (this ain’t Chipotle, after all), if you’re the Lakers you can afford to at least be cautious when it comes to spending this summer. Put simply, just because they’ll have as much as $64.1 million to spend on roster upgrades this summer, doesn’t mean they have to spend every penny.
Even though DeRozan decided to officially opt out of the final year of his deal with the Toronto Raptors and was initially linked with the Lakers via the rampant rumor mill that constantly surrounds the team, it probably makes the most sense for the 26-year-old shooting guard to re-sign on a max deal north of our border. If we’re being completely honest, while he may have Los Angeles ties, it would even make more sense to consider another Eastern Conference suitor rather than jumping into the Western Conference gauntlet these Lakers are attempting to conquer.
DeRozan may long for some Pacific Ocean vibes, but he could easily spend time in Southern California throughout the offseason – as many players do – while either taking the most money and security from Toronto or going to a different East team like, say, the Boston Celtics for a potentially easier path to the NBA Finals.
Nicolas Batum will be a restricted free agent this summer and would probably be the most ideal fit for the Lakers from a skill set and age perspective, but like fellow veteran free agents Ryan Anderson and Marvin Williams, Batum appears most likely to seek a situation in which he can immediately win. With so much cap space available, perhaps the Lakers could sway one of these players, but at a certain point you have to assess whether it would be cost-efficient to hypothetically max out the type of guys that are more “complementary pieces” rather than guys that can lead a franchise out of its least successful run in a long and proud history.
It isn’t about “striking out” with the big names this summer, per se, but it will be much more important to simply continue the positive momentum – no matter how slight it may seem to some – by developing the young talent the Lakers currently have on the roster so that they are in a position to either strike when a realistic free agency option presents itself over the next couple seasons or when a desired player becomes available on the trade market. Last season would have been a more ideal time to fully embrace this notion of a total youth movement, but it was understandably determined that longtime franchise player Kobe Bryant was deserving of his epic farewell tour.
You can debate whether (or how much) this tour could have at least initially stunted things for this young core, but the reality is the organization had the right to honor their legend however they saw fit (and it wasn’t like they had all that many favorable options at that point). Also, it isn’t as though Clarkson, Randle, Russell and others didn’t also learn some incredibly valuable lessons about the game as professionals, such as overcoming adversity and injuries and navigating the potential pitfalls of playing in a market like Los Angeles along the way.
Checking in with the boss pic.twitter.com/qzGf0tjjiE
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 10, 2016
It will be intriguing to see how Russell responds to all of the late-season criticism he earned and how he develops from year one into his sophomore season. Drama aside, Russell was steady in most categories throughout his rookie year, and showed some serious flashes as a scorer over the second half of the season. It’s evident that he possesses the abilities to be a scorer, shooter and passer in this league, but he has yet to fully display all of the playmaking ability he seemed to possess during his pre-draft process. There wasn’t a man on the 2015-16 Lakers roster that played even a semblance of consistent defense, and Russell was far from the best of the bunch. While far from the greatest athlete, Russell is long and rangy for the position and can be taught ways to capitalize on his size and length more consistently if he’s willing to embrace the idea of playing both ends of the court. Time will obviously tell on Russell, but he did show a particular amount of poise over the last month of an all-around frustrating season for the purple and gold, and is reportedly hard at work this summer. Clarkson, assuming he’s back, appears to be ready to follow up an encouraging second year with even more dedication and attention to correcting some of the holes that remain in his game.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 14, 2016
He’s clearly been in the weight room already this summer and appears poised to take yet another step, which could be another reason to avoid the DeRozan sweepstakes. Even though Clarkson is a restricted free agent and due for a sizeable raise over the next few seasons, the Lakers still have the option to either structure a deal that would keep him at a very cost-effective rate around $5.6 and $5.9 million over the next two seasons (before ballooning to $22.7 and $23.6 million in years three and four) or could even offer the 24-year-old a deal closer to what the market would average at just about $14.5 million per season over the next four years.
Coming off a year in which the 6’5 combo guard averaged 15.5 points and four boards while shooting comparable numbers at similar points in their respective careers, one could very well ask why the Lakers would even consider DeRozan given Clarkson’s similar trajectory and significantly lower price tag? For the record, while DeRozan showed slight improvement from beyond the arc, his career-high 33.8 percent on 1.8 attempts per contest still don’t match Clarkson’s rate of 34.7 percent from that mark on 4.1 attempts per contest in just his second year. Essentially, if the Lakers still believe in Clarkson’s capability to take another step – especially on the defensive end and with ball control – then continuing to cultivate him as a significant rotation piece would seemingly be the right call.
It’s going to be fun to see what head coach Luke Walton and crew are able to do with the versatile mix of Randle, last year’s surprise contributor in Nance Jr. and perhaps even seldom-used swingman Anthony Brown. Each will need to continue developing and improving their outside shot in order to be able to properly space the floor for the offensive sets Walton is most likely to prefer, but all three of them have shown signs of skill sets that should lend very well to the interchangeable lineups and style the team is reportedly planning on adopting.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) June 15, 2016
Randle was a double-double machine (34 total this season, which ranked 15th in the NBA) in what was realistically just his “rookie” campaign having been injured one game in the previous year. He’s been avidly working on extending his range on the offensive end, but it will be most pivotal for his development if the new staff is able to instill the same amount of focus and motivation on his defensive principles as well. Nance Jr. is probably the liveliest body on the roster from a sheer athleticism standpoint and while the previous regime wanted to explore some playing opportunities at the small forward position in order to increase his floor time, the current staff may actually consider him as one of the options in the center rotation given his agility and wingspan.
Brown is still raw and will likely be in the same boat as whichever rookies they decide to select in next week’s draft – even though he was able to practice with and spend time around the team and their D-League affiliate Defenders prior to his season-ending injury. He was seen as someone with the potential to be a “3-and-D” guy coming out of Stanford, but the jury is definitely still out on him at this level. Like others, the new system and overall philosophy may ultimately suit his skill set a bit better, but it will be upon Brown to find a way to stand out among what will be one of the league’s most intriguing young cores in 2016-17.
These Lakers may not be anywhere near back to the top of the mountain where the franchise has historically resided, but at least they no longer appear to be blindly pushing the stone up the mountainside in vain. That’s why even though they’re fully expected to pursue the bigger-name free agents in an effort to expedite the rebuild as much as possible, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to spend recklessly and go all-in on that approach. This front office deserves a great deal of criticism for some of the events that have transpired over the last half decade, and has received every bit of it.
Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss also deserve credit for the job they’ve been able to do in these last couple drafts, including what we presume will be a relative no-brainer decision once the Philadelphia 76ers have chosen between Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. It would be a shame to see them potentially derail said momentum by suddenly thinking championship rosters can be constructed with an “easy button” once again. If the last few seasons have taught us anything, it’s that such devices and shortcuts simply don’t exist when it comes to building a winner in today’s NBA.
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