Barring a miracle of epic proportions, the Los Angeles Lakers will not suddenly become championship contenders next season even if they have a lot more salary-cap space to work with. Already strapped with over $35 million in contracts next season, the Lakers are going to have to be smart in terms of bringing in big names and retaining steady hands.
Whether it's a big free agent like Carmelo Anthony or lucking their way into a high draft pick, the Lakers are going to want to consider bringing back at least some of the following three players in order to stay competitive in an increasingly difficult Western Conference.
The perfect sixth man, Nick Young is the type of player who can come in and score in bunches. A streaky shooter, Young can light it up from the perimeter or take it to the hole and score in bunches. While he isn't the most consistent producer, he is relentless in his approach and fills a Nate Robinson type of role for the Lakers.
With a player option on his contract, it would be great if Young chooses to stay for an additional year. However, if he does choose to test the waters of free agency, it would be in the best interest of the Lakers to lock him down for the foreseeable future.
Kobe Bryant isn't the player he once was. Even if he is able to get back to his MVP levels of play, the Lakers won't want to lean on the veteran as heavily as they used to. They would want to preserve him for a playoff run. Young is the perfect type of player to give Bryant some rest and to ensure that the offense never goes stagnant.
As one of the few players on the roster who can create off the dribble, Young's performance is invaluable. If he can learn to get his teammates involved with his penetrating skills, he'll be the perfect substitute for Bryant off the bench.
Perhaps his one drawback is his tunnel vision and his relative inefficiency. Shooting 42 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range, Young is also only averaging 1.4 assists per game. He may be a proven scorer in this league, but he has not proven that he can make his teammates better.
Regardless of his weaknesses, he is one of the Lakers' best young talents and it would be a shame to let him walk away.
A proven interior scorer, rebounder and mid-range jump shooter, Gasol has been an integral part of two championships for this franchise and is one of the most skilled big men available on the market.
While age has taken a toll on his body, Gasol is still one of the best passing big men in the league and is versatile enough to work out of both the high post and the low post. Although wear and tear over the years has degraded his game a bit from his All-Star days, nothing has been worse for Gasol than playing for Mike D'Antoni, who seems to have a loathing for anything to do with the traditional post-up.
Gasol is still putting up close to 18 points and 10 rebounds this season and shows that even in a system not really conducive to a traditional big man's productivity, Gasol can still find his niche and exploit his versatile game in order to make an impact.
Although the Lakers will definitely need some help in terms of shoring up their defense, they cannot hope to stay competitive without re-signing Gasol. While he is by no means an elite defender, Gasol can still rebound the basketball and is still a defensive presence in terms of taking up space in the lane.
It's also important that Bryant has a partner in crime that he feels comfortable playing with for his last two years. The size of Bryant's $48 million, two-year extension with the Lakers indicates that Bryant will continue to be the focal point of the franchise for potentially the last two years of his career. With that being said, there is no player in the league who has more of a rapport and trusting bond with Bryant than Gasol.
Jodie Meeks has probably been the most consistent performer on the roster this entire season. While he isn't as dynamic as Nick Young, he is more steady, and you know what you can expect from him on a nightly basis.
Averaging 15 points on 46 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from three-point range, Meeks is an efficient scorer and is a terror from the perimeter. He can also take it to the hole, although he is by no means a dominant interior presence.
Like Young, Meeks tends to get tunnel vision and doesn't necessarily make his teammates better with his passing or his penetration. However, he is a great scorer in terms of his ability to hit open shots and move without the ball. With a good point guard or facilitator running the offense, Meeks is a great weapon to utilize.
The contribution that makes him stand out from peers like Young and Xavier Henry is his ability to be a great defensive presence when he feels like it. While he was much more of a defensive terror during his days on the Philadelphia 76ers, he is still capable of being a pest on the defensive end. Of course, playing for D'Antoni, who doesn't really preach accountability on defense, has lessened his efforts on defense.
Regardless of this, Meeks remains a very consistent player who has yet to reach his full potential. While he doesn't seem like he possesses as high of a ceiling as Young could potentially reach, his ability to defend and take good shots makes him a more ideal fit for the Lakers if Bryant can return to form and dominate the ball like he used to.