Kelly was a second-round pick from the 2013 NBA draft with very low expectations. NBADraft.net’s scouting report suggested he would have trouble finding a landing spot in the league, and that he might have trouble actually earning playing time.
And yet, he has become a starter for the Lakers because his game fits within the framework of the team.
Kelly represents an interesting dilemma for a Lakers franchise looking to make big free-agent signings in the offseason. Indeed, the Lakers lined up all of their cards specifically with the idea of rebuilding in this manner.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak outlined this to Mike Trudell over at Lakers.com:
Several years ago, we made a conscious decision to line contracts up for this coming year of free agency. If you look at our payroll a year ago, with the exception of Steve Nash, we didn't have anybody under contract (for 2014-15). That didn't have so much to do with who was going to be a free agent in 2014, but more a function of some planning of how our roster (looked).
You really have to be conscious of when players get to a certain age. Even though they are great players, they’re used to being paid at a certain level. And a lot of times you end up paying a guy a year to two longer than you should. This happens with championship teams, and we didn't want to have a bunch of guys locked up at the ages of 35, 36, and 37. We’d rather have the flexibility to make some decisions.
The team needs all of the cap space it can get in order to make a run at a star, but it also needs players at modest costs.
Kelly has a qualifying offer of $1 million for the 2014-15 season, and he will be 23 years old by the time training camp opens up.
Thus, the Lakers must decide whether to retain his services or allow him to depart in the offseason.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni has entrusted Ryan Kelly with minutes this season because of his shooting ability, and more than anything, because the Lakers have dealt with a multitude of injuries.
Despite his 6'11" frame, Kelly has range, as evidenced by his 34.4 percent three-point shooting. Also, the forward has been fairly productive based on his per-36-minute numbers of 13.4 points and 5.6 rebounds.
He gets himself open thanks to some great instincts. Watch below as he sets a screen for Nick Young and immediately rolls to the vacant area for a jumper:
On the other side of the ball, he has been a bit of a liability. Kelly lacks the experience and strength needed to survive at the power forward position.
In addition, he provides no resistance whatsoever when guarding players that face him up. Kelly is easily beaten with a first step and has trouble recovering to contest shots after getting exposed off the dribble. Watch below how easily Thaddeus Young takes him to school:
And yet, D’Antoni has consistently increased his minutes in every single month. His long-range conversion rate has fluctuated during the season, but the threat of his jumper has stretched the floor for the Lakers.
The coaching staff seems enamored with Kelly, and that more than likely means they will want him to remain on the team going forward.
Granted, there is a possibility that D’Antoni will not return next season. He presents a set of challenges that could make it difficult for the Lakers to sign high-profile athletes this summer.
Thus, the front office might kick him to the curb. If such is the case, Kelly will probably lose his biggest supporter. His inexperience and defensive shortcomings might discourage a prospective coach from keeping him on the team.
That essentially leaves up the decision to…
The Lakers are scheduled to have roughly $26 million in cap room this summer if they renounce all of their free agents. From there, the plan is to make a run at a big free agent and pair him with Kobe Bryant in the twilight of his career.
The move sets up the franchise for the short term as well as the years after Bryant has retired.
According to Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com, the Purple and Gold have an interest in Carmelo Anthony.
The New York Knickerbocker will have a starting salary of a little over $21 million should he enter free agency. (He is signed until the end of 2014-15, but has an early termination clause allowing him to hit the open market this summer).
Therefore, if the Lakers are successful in acquiring Anthony, they will have roughly $4 million left to spend on the remainder of the roster.
The Lakers will have a couple of salary exceptions at their disposal (all contingent on whether they are above either the salary cap or luxury tax apron) that will allow them to add more talent, but that is the extent of their cap space. In this scenario, L.A. needs talent on the cheap.
Enter Ryan Kelly.
The former Duke Blue Devil fulfills two needs for the Lake Show: Kelly brings youth to a team that features Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash (a combined 36 seasons of experience by the time the 2014-15 campaign tips off), and he comes at very low price.
Per Sham Sports, the Laker forward has a qualifying offer of $1 million for the 2014-15 season. Hence, the Lakers can keep him on the roster as a reserve at that modest sum.
Obviously, it is far from certain that Los Angeles will acquire Anthony. Still, if they can instead get a package of players like Zach Randolph and Luol Deng, for instance, Kelly will still be a decent option in relief of the incumbent starter.
With that said, there is also a possibility that the Lakers might instead aggressively attack free agency in the 2015 offseason. If such is the case, they will simply sign a few players this summer to one-year deals and then make a huge run at Kevin Love.
According to Chris Broussard of ESPN.com (subscription required), many believe Love will end up in LakerLand:
As for the Kevin Love-to-New York rumors, most executives believe Love is destined for the Lakers when he becomes a free agent in 2015. "That's a 100 percent certainty,'' one GM told me.
Kelly fits within the frame of these plans given that his contract would expire in 2015. What’s more, with an additional year of service in the City of Angels, Kupchak will get a better grasp on the ceiling of Kelly as he watches him develop.
That will give the Lakers an opportunity to re-sign him in the event they believe he can be a key contributor for years to come. Ultimately, keeping Kelly for at least another season comes with very little risk.
His cheap contract makes him easily disposable. On the flip side, Kelly is gaining confidence as the season unfolds, and that could set him up to become a good rotation player next year.
Should that be the case, the Purple and Gold will be getting a steal. In other words, everything points to Los Angeles bringing him back in 2014-15.
All stats accurate as of February 7, 2014.