Here's a little something I wrote up right before free agency began about the Lakers and their free agents. You can find the entire piece here:
as well as the rest of my work. Please take a look!
Last offseason the Lakers were faced with a number of difficult decisions that would cast a shadow over the 2013/2014 season. Following Dwight Howard's tail-between-the-legs defection and Kobe Bryant's achilles surgery it was apparent that the team would not be contending for a title. With only Robert Sacre, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, and Pau Gasol under contract (and healthy) GM Mitch Kupchak had his work cut out for him. The Lakers are a franchise that is used to playing for championships but Mitch along with Jim and Jeannie Buss (the Laker "brain trust") opted to take a step back last season to catch their breath and hopefully re-tool the roster.
With limited assets and next to no salary cap flexibility Mitch set out to fill the remaining roster spots with a specific type of player: young, talented prospects who had washed out with other teams in the league. The idea was that perhaps an overlooked diamond in the rough could be found. After all, the NBA is full of players who simply needed a change of scenery in order to realize their potential, such as Ben Wallace, Trevor Ariza, and to the chagrin of Celtics fans, future finals MVP Chauncey Billups. Finding one or two such players would be a major boost for the Lakers in their quest to return to the top of the league in spite of the oppressive new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which aimed to limit their ability to outspend their rivals for talent.
Kupchak and the Lakers scouting department scoured the depths of the free agent pool and emerged with Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, Shawn Williams (later waved), Xavier Henry, and former Laker Jordan Farmar. At the trade deadline they continued their search by trading steady point guard Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors in order to get a look at hyper-athlete Kent Bazemore and shooting guard MarShon Brooks.
The Lakers also signed undrafted rookie Elias Harris (later waved) and their only pick of the 2013 draft, second-rounder Ryan Kelly, giving them even more young talent to work with.
It was expected that this "Island of Misfit Toys" version of the Lakers would not be very friendly on the win column, although it's doubtful that Mitch and the powers that be ever expected it to get as bad as it did. Following an unprecedented rash of injuries the Lakers suffered through the worst season in franchise history, finishing with record of 27-55. The injury bug was so merciless that LA lead the league in games lost due to injury by a wide margin, which made the already difficult task of winning games with an inexperienced lineup become an impossible one.
***Coach Mike D'Antoni, whose offensive brilliance with the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns teams started something of a revolution, also didn't help matters by continuing his M.O. of not to preaching defense. The entire league has incorporated aspects of the D'Antoni offense but most teams (most notably the NBA Champion Spurs) have taken things a step further and found ways to play high-level defense in addition to using the drive-and-kick, fast break aspects of the SSOL offense.
It's like when Myspace came out and brought social networking to a wider audience than ever, and then Facebook came along and did everything Myspace did but better. Myspace got cocky, sold to Rupert Murdoch for roughly a bajillion dollars, and stopped pushing forward. As a result Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie kicked their butts with their own concepts (it could be argued that twitter/tumblr/whatever else kids are into these days is now doing the same to Facebook...it's the circle of life). Myspace quickly became a relic while Facebook and other contemporaries flourished. Mike D'Antoni is Myspace. He also looks like the Pringles guy.
Fear not though, there is a silver lining to all the hardships endured last year. By rounding out their roster with cast-offs the Lakers did receive a number of benefits. First and foremost they landed Julius Randle with the #7 pick in the draft, the highest draft pick the franchise has had in over 30 years.
All the expiring deals also helped free up cap space so that the Lakers can make a run at superstar-level players when they become available. Although they are unlikely to be reeled in this summer Mitch Kupchak is reportedly planning on trying to lure the likes Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh to LA. The addition of any one of those players would certainly speed up the Lakers efforts to rebuild (and make for a happy Kobe Bryant).
Lastly, the Lakers got to essentially hold a season-long tryout to evaluate and work with their bargain bin ballers. While it could be argued that no true diamonds were found there were still some pleasant surprises, such as Nick "Swaggy P" Young, who quickly won the hearts of LA with his infectious smile and ability to make difficult shots. Jordan Farmar returned like the prodigal son, showing a maturity to his game that wasn't there when he last wore the Golden Armor. Kendall Marshall had his moments of brilliance, becoming the best point guard the Lakers have poached from the Phoenix Suns (looking at you, Steve Nash).
While there were plenty of bumps and bruises (and tibial plateau fractures) along the way, now that the dust has settled the Lakers have the luxury of looking over their cadre of misfits to determine which ones have proved themselves worthy of returning next season as part of the long term plan. They won't be stars but hopefully some of them can take on a Michael Cooper-type role by filling a need that makes the team better as a whole.
The rest will unfortunately be discarded into the wastelands of the “Samaki Walker” chapter of the Lakers history book with the rest of the players who just never panned out. It's a dubious distinction, but certainly preferable to finding oneself in the Smush Parker chapter instead.
***The Smush chapter is something like the 8th level of Dante’s Inferno (i.e. Hell), which hosts , among other things, frauds and thieves. Joining Smush there are JR Rider, Dwight Howard, Sam Bowie, Travis Knight, Kwame Brown (who is probably crying) and Steve Nash has one foot in the door. Who occupies the 9th (and final) level you ask? Why the traitorous David Stern and his “basketball reasons”, of course.
Before we break down who should stay and who should go here are the factors that had to be considered in making these thumbs up/thumbs down, gladiator-esque decisions:
1. Bidding wars: As free agents there will be competition for their services. While it’s likely that Marshon Brooks won’t have many suitors the same can’t be said for Nick Young and Jodie Meeks. That matters, as competition drives price tags higher and gives the Lakers less cap room to sign other players with.
2. Age: A player like Chris Kaman, who doesn’t have many years left, may take a lesser offer from a title contending team. In order to stay in LA he may want substantially more than what other teams would offer him. Spending more on role players= bad for the Lakers.
3. Positional scarcity: Yes, the Lakers need help just about everywhere on the court (and in the coaches chair). However, if they add a point guard like Eric Bledsoe as a free agent then the resigning of Jordan Farmar doesn't make sense. Kendall Marshall is already on a cheap contract as a backup point guard and Steve Nash may occasionally get wheeled onto the court (to remind us all that Father Time is undefeated), so Farmar would be superfluous. We won't put too much stock into that here but when free agency goes live on July 1st who the Lakers sign (or don't sign) could be the biggest determining factor in deciding which members of last season's squad return.
4. Length of the contract: The longer the deal the more risk for the team and the less cap space the Lakers have in the future to go after a star. It takes superstar players to win championships in the NBA and missing out on one because Wesley Johnson got an extra year on his deal simply isn’t a risk the Lakers can take.
Now that the factors being used to make these decisions are out of the way let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Samaki Walkers ( Let it go, let it gooooo…)
MarShon Brooks: MarSwag came over last season as part of the Steve Blake /Kent Bazemore trade with Golden State. Brooks played precisely one good game while employed by the Lakers: a 23 point, 4 assist outing against the Sacramento Kings which prompted Kent Bazemore to declare that Brooks reminded him a little of Kobe. MarShon responded by failing to score in double digits again for the remainder of the season.
My personal belief is that after being compared to KB24 MarShon was on the receiving end of a Kobe death stare (the horribly frightening image to the left), which accounts for his poor play after that. You don’t challenge Kobe. Ever.
Wesley Johnson- Johnson seems to have everything that the Lakers would be looking for in a small forward: athleticism, solid outside shooting, length, and above-average defense. He unfortunately also has what scouts like to call a weak “motor”, in other words he doesn’t play that hard. He can be frustrating to watch as he looks like a player who should be better than he is. It's time for the Lakers to move on and focus on other small forwards.
Chris Kaman: Chris Kaman (aka Captain Caveman) proved last year that he can still be a solid offensive center. He showed flashes of brilliance when teamed with Pau Gasol and even dominated a few games as the lone big man on the floor. Unfortunately Chris played for Mike D’Antoni, who is allergic to post play and certainly doesn’t tolerate having two bigs on the floor at once. With that being the case, Kaman spent large portions of the season glued to (or laying down on) the bench. While he would be a reliable backup there has just been too much bad blood for Chris to stay in LA.
Don't worry ma'am, Chris is still alive. D'Antoni is only killing his spirit, not his body.
Jodie Meeks: This one hurts. Jodie has grown by leaps and bounds as a Laker. He has always been a solid defender and excellent shooter but last season he took things to a whole new level. From the 12/13 to 13/14 seasons he increased his field goal percentage from 39% to 46% and his three point percentage from 36% to 40%. What’s truly remarkable though is that he did this while playing a much larger role in the offense (sometimes even being forced into playing point guard) and almost doubling his number of shot attempts. Nearly every time a player increases their shot attempts and takes on additional responsibilities on offense their field goal percentage drops. Somehow Jodie bucked that trend in a big way. That’s an incredibly impressive feat and he is a player that the Lakers could absolutely use next year. The problem? Other teams have noticed his improvement too. Nearly every team wants to add shooters, and Jodie is near the top of the list of quality bombers available this year. While I would love for the Lakers to keep him I think they will simply get outbid while they go after Melo, Bosh, LeBron, Bledsoe, etc. As impressive as Jodie has been he simply isn’t worth getting into a bidding war over and potentially missing a shot at a star as a result.
Michael Coopers (Keep em' around)
The Lakers couldn't (or shouldn't) bring back all of these guys, but here are the ones they should at least consider retaining as well as the size and length of the contract they should offer. Of course, it goes without saying that should LeBron, Melo, or any other star decide to come to LA then all bets are off for this group.
Xavier Henry: Xavier Henry is essentially Wesley Johnson’s doppleganger. Everything Wesley is Xavier isn’t and vice versa. Xavier isn’t a great shooter from outside but he attacks the rim relentlessly, plays physical defense, and has a motor that never stops. Unfortunately Xavier spent a decent amount of time on the injured list last year but that can work in the Lakers favor as he isn’t likely to be in high demand. When he was on the floor he was an emotional leader for the Lakers and a pest on the defensive end. He’s also capable of backing up both the SG and SF positions and is a solid replacement if Jodie Meeks or Nick Young leave in free agency. If he can be had on a 1-2 year minimum contract (2nd year team option) he would be an absolute steal.
Kent Bazemore: Essentially everything said about Xavier could be said about Bazemore as well, except Kent is more athletic while Xavier is stronger and absorbs contact better. Aside from that they are very similar players. Offer them the same contract and whichever one signs first gets the spot.
Pau Gasol: Gasol has been unfairly vilified by Laker fans over the past few seasons. Sure his prime is long gone but he’s still a better big than nearly everyone on the free agent market aside from Greg Monroe (restricted) and Chris Bosh (velociraptor lookalike). Pau is due a proper send off from the Lakers after battling alongside Kobe for all of these years. There is something that just seems right about Gasol getting a 2 year deal so he and Kobe can finish their careers together. In addition the Lakers couldn't ask for a better mentor for Julius Randle. A 2 year/20 million deal should get it done.
Ryan Kelly: Kelly is the type of player who looks better than he really is in Mike D’Antoni’s offense (for stretch 4s Mike D’Antoni’s offense is like a legal steroid). With that in mind however look at everything Kelly dealt with last season: he missed training camp due to offseason foot surgery, was pushed into the starting lineup due to what can only be described as a plague of injuries, and then spent the remainder of the season watching his playing time and role change without warning. In spite of all this Kelly thrived and even grew as a player, adding a surprising number of blocks to his defensive numbers as the season went on. His mental toughness and resiliency (made more impressive given the fact he is a rookie) should outweigh the effect D’Antoni had on his stats. It’s time to lock up Kelly now at a low number before he prices himself out of the Lakers range next season. Give him a 3 year/3 million deal.
Jordan Farmar: Farmar isn’t the best point guard out there but like Xavier he has a high motor and competes each and every night. The injury bug wasn’t kind to him (nor anyone else on the squad) but when he was on the floor Jordan showed an ability to knock down big shots that he didn’t have during his last stint in LA. While he sees himself as a starter, the Lakers would be best suited to let Farmar and Kendall Marshall duke it out for the lion’s share of the backup point guard minutes. Offer him a 2 year/3 million deal.
Jordan Hill: Hill was yet another Laker big that found himself being misused in Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Whenever he was given the opportunity though Hill shined, providing hustle, defense, rim protection, rebounding, and he even showed off an expanding offensive repertoire. Laker fans should be giddy about the bash brothers-style havoc that Julius Randle and Jordan could unleash on the boards together. Offer the same deal he got last time: 2 years/8 million
***Mitch Kupchak should consider sealing the deal with Hill by giving him a framed copy of Mike D’Antoni’s voided contract with a plaque on it that reads “He can’t hurt you anymore”. Worth a shot.
Nick Young: The argument could be made that Swaggy P was the heart and soul of the Lakers last season. He posted career numbers (although they were nearly identical to his stats a few years ago in Washington) and provided a major spark off the bench. He was a Laker fan growing up and has connected with the fan base in a way that few players have. That said, how much money can a one-dimensional scorer off the bench truly command? He will likely have better offers out there but hopefully a 3 year/ 11 million offer will be enough to keep him home.
Without a doubt the Lakers have a busy offseason in front of them. It’s time to find out what the front office is made of. They certainly can’t afford any mistakes; they have used up all of those over the last two seasons. Free agency starts at midnight on July 1st and it promises to be a wild ride.