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by Will Laws
Which personnel moves would give the Lakers the best chance of returning to the postseason in 2016-17?
After the 2013-14 season saw the Los Angeles Lakers lose 55 games, then the most in franchise history, part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss self-imposed a deadline of 2017 for Los Angeles to return to the glory days of competing for conference titles and NBA championships.
Buss' sister, Lakers president Jeanie Buss, later clarified that translated to a second-round playoff run for the Lake Show next spring. There's been no indication the Lakers will relent on that goal. In fact, general manager Mitch Kupchak previously hinted at an openness to package the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft for a star player who could hasten LA's timeline to contention.
Now that Brandon Ingram has already started to bond with his new teammates, that possibility seems far less likely -- especially since rumored target Paul George appears to be sticking with the committed-to-contending Pacers.
The fact that possibility was even debated, however, betrays the notion that the Lakers are no ordinary franchise. Their fans (and executives, presumably) are tired of missing out on playoff basketball after previously never enduring a three-year drought.
Fortunately for them, Los Angeles is extremely attractive to free agents, recent struggles or not. Accordingly, the Lakers could be well-positioned to ascend from a 17-win outfit in 2015-16 to a playoff team in 2016-17, perhaps more so than any other franchise would be.
With the help of PointAfter visualizations, I'll try to contort the, ahem, developing roster the Lakers currently field into a contender by acquiring stars via free agency.
The main metric I'll use to measure these improvements will be win shares, a statistic meant to roughly quantify how many wins a player contributes to his team. A team's collective win shares doesn't exactly add up to its wins, but it's always pretty darn close. For example, the Lakers totaled 17.4 win shares this season against their 17 wins. At the very least, they'll likely have to improve to a 45 win-share squad to bring two series of postseason basketball back to their restless fan base.
Now that we've got that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let's jump into the roster construction.
The Lakers have committed $23.1 million next season to six players -- guards D'Angelo Russell and Lou Williams, wings Nick Young and Anthony Brown, and forwards Julius Randle and Larry Nance. The projected salary cap for 2016-17 has been set at $94 million by the NBA. That gives LA roughly $71 million to play with in free agency, which is awfully nice for a team with quite a few holes to fill.
Even though Russell, Randle and Ingram might have bright futures ahead of them, they're unlikely to provide a ton of value in 2016-17. I looked at the last 10 players drafted at the No. 2 and No. 7 slots and calculated how many win shares players as talented as Ingram, Russell and Randle would be expected to average in their first, second and third seasons, respectively.
First season for No. 2 pick (Ingram): 2.1 WS
Second season for No. 2 pick (Russell): 3.8 WS
Third season for No. 7 pick (Randle): 4.1 WS
Assuming Russell will contribute 3.8 win shares might even be generous, since he's the only No. 2 pick from the last decade to accumulate 0.0 win shares in his rookie season. Even Hasheem Thabeet (2.0) and Jabari Parker (1.3), who missed most of his debut year with a knee injury, managed to notch positive win shares as rookies.
Randle's projection also might be optimistic, since he's essentially entering his second professional campaign after a torn ACL negated his 2014-15 season.
But for the purpose of this exercise, let's use the optimistic estimates and project LA's prized trio will combine for 10 win shares.
Let's also assume Jordan Clarkson, whom Kupchak has indicated the Lakers want to hold onto through restricted free agency, stays in LA. The most he can earn in 2016-17 via the Gilbert Arenas provision is $5.6 million (though a "poison pill" deal could push a three-year deal to $34.1 million overall).
Clarkson is likely in line to duplicate his prior production of 2.1 win shares from 2015-16. That might be underselling Clarkson's potential development, but the 2016-17 Lakers also likely won't feed the second-round pick 79 starts and more than 2,500 minutes, as they did last season when he wasn't quite as promising at the 2 alongside Russell.
After accounting for projected salaries and win shares, the 2016-17 Lakers should glean about 19.5 win shares from approximately $33.1 million committed to eight players (six under contract, plus Clarkson and their draft pick). That might seem like a coup, given the new estimated salary cap of $94 million, but it's going to be tough to retrieve such value from the open market, where the cost for quality contributors will be higher than ever.
Fishing for stars in free agency
With about $65 million left to spend in free agency, the Lakers will almost certainly look to sign two stars to maximum-level contracts.
The biggest name most consistently attached to the team has been Los Angeles native and USC product DeMar DeRozan, who recently ended Toronto's highest six-game battle in the Eastern Conference Finals as the Raptors' high scorer. The DeRozan-to-LA rumor was pumped up by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, who casually mentioned in April that DeRozan would be "leaving for Los Angeles in a few months."
On one hand, Smith predicted The Big Three would formulate in Miami long before anyone else. On the other, his credibility regarding such rumors has been openly questioned by players, and this particular tidbit was thrown into the news cycle back when Toronto was struggling to handle Indiana in the first round.
With the Raptors enjoying the franchise's best campaign ever in 2015-16, DeRozan has recently expressed his goal is to re-sign with Toronto. Would DeRozan bolt the Drakes for a fresh start, albeit one that would bring oodles more exposure (and thus, endorsement money)?
The Lakers must hope he does if they wish to reload through free agency. Assuming Kevin Durant stays put, DeRozan is easily the best wing on the market, a spot the Lakers must address even if they keep Ingram.
The two-time All-Star has averaged 7.0 win shares over the past two years, a much better mark than fellow free-agent wings Harrison Barnes (5.8 WS) or Nicolas Batum (5.1 WS). Though Barnes might have room to grow and has been linked to LA -- and frankly, just seems like a Laker, given his well-documented obsession with his brand -- it'd be a risky move to throw max money at a guy who's never scored more than 11.7 points per game during the regular season and wasn't exactly in form for the Warriors' fruitless playoff journey either.
That leaves center as the most obvious area of need, as there's no true "five" signed for 2016-17.
The Lakers, who struggled mightily on both ends of the floor last season, need to add a two-way star to make a marked improvement down low in one fell swoop. Hassan Whiteside (projected 10.3 WS in 2016-17) and Al Horford (9.1 WS) are the only two potential free-agent targets who fit that bill (assuming Detroit matches any offer for restricted free agent Andre Drummond, and Dwight Howard stays far away from Hollywood).
Horford doesn't seem to be a great match for LA, as he's a low-key personality going into his 30s. However, inking DeRozan and Whiteside to max deals would present the Lakers with the most straightforward path to the Western Conference playoff picture.
That'd put them at 36.8 projected win shares with approximately $11 million of cap room left to throw at a quality backup big man -- Zaza Pachulia? Al Jefferson? -- before digging into the mid-level exception for much-needed sharpshooters and other veterans who could push them into the mid-to-high 40s of projected win shares.
But what happens if Whiteside elects to stay in Miami, a warm-weather contender he's already familiar with? Los Angeles might have to roll with a collection of mid-tier post players, of which they'd have several to choose from.
The second tier of centers includes Pachulia, Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi, Joakim Noah and Festus Ezeli. All of those guys should be good for between 4-6 win shares, but none of them scare opposing defenses on pick-and-rolls (which Walton will presumably institute in heavy doses) like Whiteside could.
Earmarking the $23 million necessary for Whiteside's max contract in 2016-17 on say, Pachulia and Mahinmi, instead would net LA about the same amount of win shares. But could a Russell-DeRozan-Ingram-Randle-Mahinmi/Pachulia starting five truly compete for a playoff spot out West? Conventional wisdom says no, even if areas of need are filled on the bench with plus reserves such as Ryan Anderson (projected 3.7 WS) and Brandon Bass (projected 4.7 WS).
If the Lakers can't lure a game-changing star or two to SoCal through free agency, they'll need to search far and wide in the trade market for a team willing to part with its best player.
Trading the future for the present
In May, Mark Medina of the Orange County Register singled out Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins as Los Angeles' top two targets if they resorted to trading for an All-Star. With the Pacers now seemingly holding onto George, that leaves the maybe-disgruntled Cousins as the lone viable superstar possibly being dangled right now (as far as we know, anyway).
Of course, doing so would almost certainly involve trading away Ingram -- who has been widely compared to Kevin Durant -- Russell and another minor piece.
If this trade was consummated, it'd leave LA with a relatively modest-priced superstar (Cousins has two years and $37 million remaining on his current deal) and the cap space to sign guards and wings such as Shaun Livingston, Kent Bazemore or the like to aid Lou Williams and Clarkson.
There's obviously so many potential combinations in play, and the Lakers could likely finagle their way back to the playoffs with Cousins in purple and gold alongside a couple notable free agents.
Granted, what happens if any of the glass-half-full scenarios previously locked in don't happen? What if Ingram takes more than his fair share of lumps? What if Lou Williams becomes a liability? What happens when Nick Young's inevitable revenge against D'Angelo Russell tears the locker room apart?
There's a lot of uncertainty swirling in Los Angeles right now. There are viable possibilities for the Lakers to return to the postseason next year, but if they swing and miss in free agency for the second straight offseason, the 2016-17 season could serve as strike three for Jim Buss.
Article: Courtesy Point After
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