With the 2015-16 season officially over, the Los Angeles Lakers get set to embark upon their most important offseason in over 20 years.
No, not because they need to hone their focus on putting together the best pitch possible for prize free agents like Kevin Durant (which almost undoubtedly would fall upon deaf ears anyway), but because the team is entering year one of the post-Kobe Bryant era with sparse assets and next-to-zero leverage at their disposal.
Thus, the front office implementing wisdom in their offseason strategy is absolutely imperative to the future of this franchise.
New head coach Luke Walton reportedly flew directly into Los Angeles from his NBA Finals loss as assistant coach of the Golden State Warriors Sunday in order to begin his duties. He’ll be met with a quick hello from the brass followed by almost immediately walking into the NBA Draft war room, and soon thereafter, the beginning of free agency (July 1).
With so many holes on the roster to fill and a losing culture to mend, it was terribly difficult to pinpoint just three things for the Lakers to focus on during this pivotal offseason.
However, if the Lakers can adhere the outlined logic below, they will begin the process of righting the ship immediately.
1) DON’T TRADE AWAY ANY YOUNGSTERS
Rumors have already been swirling that the Lakers are shopping D’Angelo Russell for a top-5 draft pick instigated by ESPN’s Chad Ford, and as transcribed by CBS’s James Herbert. Even one slaphappy blogger for Forbes threw out the notion that LA might trade Russell for the shell of Derrick Rose.
While the latter unquestionably has zero validity (mercifully for fans), trading Russell and still staying in the top-5 could be tempting for Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak — but they must remain strong in the face of said temptation.
The allure lies in the fact that with the right trade, the Lakers would likely still be able to land who ESPN’s analytics team projects to be the second-best player in the entire draft in point guard Kris Dunn (in case you’re wondering, Ben Simmons is ranked No. 4). And on the surface, Dunn would give the Lakers an immediate replacement for Russell, as well as a player some analysts project to have the better pro career.
However, when building, it’s illogical to swap one young player that you already have a good idea has a high ceiling, for another that has a completely unknown one at the professional level. It’s the franchise equivalent of spinning one’s wheels.
The Lakers need to bite the bullet and build through the draft, and while doing so, acquire valuable and reasonably priced pieces in free agency until they’re attractive enough again for top free agents to want in. You don’t do that by trading away pieces of your young core before you absolutely know they aren’t what you drafted them to be. And it’s way too early for that with Russell.
Further, the notion the Lakers need to move Russell because of alleged locker room issues stemming from the Snapchat fiasco is ludicrous. The team should dump Nick Young for that (along for a multitude of other reasons), and simply move on.
Unfortunately for the Lakers Young is currently one of six players from last season that is still under contract for the upcoming year, with the rest being: D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Anthony Brown and Lou Williams.
They’ll likely have to waive him and eat some cash, this year and next, as Young is not only a poor locker room presence, but he’s not very good at basketball anymore either. Thus, finding a trade partner seems next to impossible.
Luckily for the Lakers, cash is something they finally have plenty of with Bryant off of the books, so the focus can be on securing Jordan Clarkson, who may sign an offer sheet elsewhere (a max offer sheet for Clarkson would be four years and $58.8 million), and then building around the youth appropriately.
With Clarkson locked in, the Lakers young corps of Clarkson, Russell, Randle, Nance Jr., Brown, and presumably Brandon Ingram would be their future.
Not bad at all as a starting point.
Each one of these young players still have high ceilings with Randle already proving his effectiveness on the boards and tenacity on offense. With a little refinement (and less recklessness) added to his offensive game, an All-Star berth for the third-year power forward isn’t completely out of the question.
Brown is a solid role player with a smooth game and shot that should improve. While Nance Jr. is a freak athletically that demonstrated he has more of an outside shot than most thought coming into his rookie campaign. Clarkson is a bouncy young guard that can score in bunches and works hard; each of which are qualities any team values.
Finally, Russell had the best three-point percentage on the team last year, is only 20-years-old, has rare vision and is long and strong already for his position.
None of these players should be considered expendable by a franchise that both doesn’t have much leverage on the trade market, and isn’t desirable to players in free agency right now. Thus, it should go without saying that Kupchak and Buss should keep intact this young corps and shift their focus on getting the most out of them until the team knows that the players have hit their ceilings. And at that point, if it isn’t a fit, that’s when you entertain moving one or two of them.
Now is not the time for any premature shenanigans.
2.) BE SMART IN FREE AGENCY
Being “smart” in free agency in 2016 is much different than in year’s past for the Lakers.
After swinging and missing on the last seven big-name free agents that they’ve tried to sign (including two of their own) in: Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe and DeAndre Jordan — it’s long since past time for a change in philosophy.
It is true that the Lakers will have approximately $58 million to spend after Brandon Bass opted out of his contract (would have been due $3.1 million in 2016-17) last week, but the team is not likely to be able to throw a huge chunk of cash at any of the players they’d truly desire to.
Ergo, L.A. must avoid spending hastily on players that may look good at face value, but aren’t the right fit for a long-term build and/or not a good investment overall.
A prime example of the exact wrong type of player to throw bushels of cash at but looks like a perfect fit on the surface is Harrison Barnes.
After an NBA Finals performance over the final few games that was enough to make a mother cry, Barnes clearly demonstrated that there’s only one consistency in his game — that he’s inconsistent.
Between Games 3 and 4 Barnes went 12-22, he followed that up by making 5 of his last 32 shots (15.6 percent), while bringing nothing else to his floor game. Dubbed (you see what I did there?) as a great defender, Barnes’ steals, on-ball defense and rebounding were almost non-existent all series.
Barnes is not an effort or fiery player either. Simply put, he’s not the guy to throw $20 million a year at even with the cap rising. The Lakers need to understand this.
They could explore the 26-year-old Festus Ezelie, but only at a cheap price given his injury history. The fact that he couldn’t earn more than 17 minutes per game on the Warriors and saw those numbers dip in the Finals despite an injury to the Warriors’ starting center Andrew Bogut reflects his current team didn’t see much value in either the regular, nor the postseason.
The Lakers will make a run at the apple of their eye, Hassan Whiteside, but he is also the most obtainable free agent on the market. This means that he’s going to have endless potential suitors, and with the Lakers near the bottom of the proverbial totem pole for top free agents – – it would be wise to plan on not seeing Whiteside in purple and gold.
Which leads us to the next free agent the Lakers might have a shot at, and while some fans might cringe after some of his postseason efforts, DeMar DeRozan can work on this team.
Remember, truly obtainable pickings are slim for the Lakers on the free agency market, and DeRozan is unquestionably the better $20 million a year player over Barnes at this point.
He does have some postseason experience, plays with a little edge, is a veteran now (which is important for a young team).
He also has ties to the city of Los Angeles, so he won’t require much persuading. Nor would he be making a move to LA as a money grab to get fat and happy on.
From there, fleshing out the roster with solid role players and potential starters such as a player like Joakim would be the shrewd route.
A first-time head coach will steward the Lakers young core; thus a blue-collar type of leader like Noah represents the makeup of the type of veteran the Lakers should be spending their free agency money on. While there would be some health concerns, they wouldn’t negate his leadership.
Ultimately, when building this roster out, Kupchak and Buss need to understand that it’s about putting pieces in place that not only aid the young players in the growth of their game (and potentially unlearning some bad habits from Bryant), but also guys that walk out what it is to be part of a winning culture.
Which is something that’s sadly been missing from this storied franchise for too long now.
3) GET THE BEST ASSISTANT COACHES POSSIBLE
Rebuilding a winning culture starts from the top. Sure the front office needs to be shrewd about how they handle their business, but they also need to assist in supporting their new head coach by surrounding him with the best assistant coaches possible.
Coaches generally have their own network of previous coaching colleagues to draw upon when seeking out assistant coaches. However, Walton doesn’t have that luxury given his position; thus, it may have to be somewhat of a team effort by the front office and Walton to make sure he gets a strong coaching corps around him.
Currently, the Lakers are almost certain to land Brian Shaw as an assistant or associate head coach, and have locked in former Raptors 905 coach Jesse Mermuys. Beyond that, is a bunch of rumors and holes to fill.
One rumor associated with the Lakers coaching staff is that current Golden State Warriors player development coach Chris DeMarco might hitch a ride with Walton to Los Angeles. The most intriguing rumor to date is that Richard Jefferson, still wet from his championship champagne, might consider joining the purple and gold’s coaching staff given his ties to Walton’s Alma mater Arizona.
However it shakes out, the focus has to one of an even keel much like the approach to building a team.
Walton will need an assistant that’s a good motivator and authoritarian, a couple of tenured X’s and O’s guys, a coach that has a way of reaching and understanding players, etc.
Not putting together the right coaching staff around could spell long-term disaster not only this team as a whole but for the individual young players on it as well.
If the Lakers stay the course by not prematurely bailing on their youth, approach free agency with the mindset that this is a process (not instant gratification) and find a way to flesh out a good coaching staff around Walton, they’ll be well on their way to building this thing into a contender again.
Sounds easy enough right?
Will Reeve is a podcaster and national football and basketball columnist for FanRag Sports, Today’s Fastbreak and Today’s Pigskin. He has been featured on ESPN Radio, NBC Sports Radio, SIRIUSXM Radio and others. You can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on Facebook.