Playing Keep or Cut with Each Los Angeles Lakers Free Agent
The Los Angeles Lakers are heading toward one of the most uncertain offseasons in franchise history. After finishing with the worst regular-season record in more than half a century (27-55), the Lakers only have three players on guaranteed contracts for 2014-15: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre.
The rest of the guys are poised to become free agents.
As a result, general manager Mitch Kupchak has plenty on his plate. Heck, L.A. hasn’t even decided on a new head coach to replace the departed Mike D’Antoni.
The coaching search clearly won’t be rushed. The Lakers will find someone willing to patrol the sideline. Filling out the roster for next season, however, is going to be a much more difficult task for the front office.
L.A. can sift through the free-agent pool to bring in fresh faces, but deciding upon guys to bring back or let walk will continue to be a priority.
Obviously, that will depend on whether those Lakers free agents will be affordable. Guys like Nick Young, Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill all played with impressive consistency throughout the season. Opposing GMs will no doubt take notice and aim to sign those targets in order to improve their squads.
Can the Lakers afford to keep their valuable free agents, or will they sign more lucrative deals elsewhere?
Honorable Mention: Kendall Marshall, PG
Kendall Marshall is technically a free agent because his contract (worth approximately $900,000 for 2014-15) is non-guaranteed.
The Lakers, however, can pick up that cheap team option to keep the North Carolina product on board. According to a tweet by the Los Angeles Daily News’ Mark Medina, Purple and Gold plan on doing just that.
Injuries ravaged L.A.’s point guard spot last season. Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all went down at the same time, which left management no choice but to address that gaping wound.
Marshall looked like a completely different player when given 38.5 minutes of action per game during January. In D’Antoni’s offensive system, he averaged 11.9 points, 11.5 assists, 3.6 rebounds and shot 44.1 percent from beyond the arc.
His presence didn’t help Los Angeles win many games—it went 3-12 during 2014’s first month—but he showed that he could at least be a competent backup point guard at the NBA level.
The Lakers plan on keeping him, according to Medina, so there’s no reason to think they won’t.
Ryan Kelly, PF/C
The Lakers have an opportunity to extend a qualifying offer to Ryan Kelly, thus making him a restricted free agent.
If they choose to do so—and there’s really no reason why they shouldn’t—chances are the Lakers will retain the Duke product through 2014-15.
Kelly didn’t receive many opportunities until later in the season when injuries began to derail L.A.’s campaign. The big man had bright moments—like a 26-point, six-rebound game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 5. Like most rookies, though, he had his fair share of struggles—such as the 3-of-11 shooting night with five fouls against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 6.
The 23-year-old still has work to do before he becomes a consistently viable NBA player. Nevertheless, the front office would be smart to keep him around.
After all, 6’11” big men who can shoot the three-ball are hot commodities.
MarShon Brooks, SG/SF
MarShon Brooks was one of two players acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for veteran point guard Steve Blake. He burst onto Lakerland’s scene early by scoring 23 points in just 26 minutes during his fifth game as a Laker, but his opportunities didn’t last.
Brooks played 11 minutes per game in March and just 5.2 minutes per contest during the season’s final month. A fair amount of DNP-CDs were sprinkled throughout.
D’Antoni stuck with his usual tight rotations, leaning on Wesley Johnson and Nick Young as the primary swingmen. Brooks was the odd man out, but maybe management saw enough of the 25-year-old to warrant keeping him.
His youth and upside are appealing, but ultimately the Lakers will have Bryant and other free-agent swingmen worth a closer look.
Wesley Johnson, SF/SG
During the month of November, it appeared as if Wesley Johnson had channeled his inner Ray Allen.
In the season’s first full month of action, the former No. 4 overall pick shot a scorching 45.7 percent from three-point range. His previous high from downtown was 35.6 percent during his rookie year with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010-11.
Fans may have thought that the Syracuse product turned a corner, but he came crashing back down to earth.
Johnson made just 27.5 percent of his treys during December and 34 percent in January. He had solid performances in February and April, but the overall package left a lot to be desired. Consistency simply isn’t one of Johnson’s strengths.
He’s a good character guy, a hard worker and a solid locker room presence. The Lakers, however, need someone on the wing who can either lock down a starting role or catch fire in limited minutes.
Johnson doesn’t fit the bill in that regard.
Xavier Henry, SG/SF
Much like Johnson, Xavier Henry had problems with consistency. The major difference between the two, though, was that Henry couldn’t stay healthy.
The 23-year-old played slightly more than half the season (43 games). He endeared himself to fans with a 22-point outburst against the Clippers in the season opener, but those big-time scoring sparks happened once in a blue moon. He eclipsed the 20-point plateau just five times after the fact.
Henry has had a hard time carving a niche as a pro after being taken 12th overall in the 2010 draft. His stint with the Lakers showed early promise but hit a wall due to injuries.
Henry is still very young, so he may be worth another go-round with L.A. at the right price. His injuries, however, act as a significant red flag.
At least Lakers fans can look back fondly at his highlight dunks.
Kent Bazemore, SG/SF
Kent Bazemore was the other piece brought over via the Blake trade with the Golden State Warriors. After one-and-a-half seasons spent at the end of G-State’s bench as a renowned cheerleader, he finally got a legitimate shot to showcase his skills with Los Angeles.
In 23 games with the Lakers (15 starts), the 24-year-old averaged 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He shot 45.1 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from deep.
He showed flashes of being a very solid player. Honestly, he already did during the NBA Summer League last year.
The Lakers need to find multifaceted talents, and Bazemore fits that mold. He can score, crash the glass and set up teammates with good looks. If given an opportunity to learn and grow under Bryant, Bazemore could become a special player a couple years down the line.
Jordan Farmar, PG/SG
Jordan Farmar returned to the NBA after spending the 2012-13 season overseas in Turkey. When healthy, he was a difference-maker under Coach D’Antoni.
Although the 27-year-old played just 41 games due to recurring hamstring troubles, he averaged 10.1 points, 4.9 assists, 2.5 rebounds and shot 43.8 percent from beyond the arc.
More importantly, however, was the fact that Farmar established himself as the leader of L.A.’s revamped second unit.
After finishing tied for 29th in bench points during 2012-13, per NBA.com, the Lakers subs ranked second in that category this season by scoring 42.3 points off the sideline on average.
Farmar’s ability to score and run the offense was a huge reason for the turnaround.
With Bryant, Nash and (presumably) Marshall set to return, Farmar may not be the best fit. The Lakers, however, will need to keep plenty of depth behind their aging starting backcourt.
Farmar can handle the ball or play off it at the 2-guard spot. In either scenario, he brings plenty of value. He just needs to stay healthy.
Chris Kaman, C
There’s no question that former All-Star Chris Kaman can still play at a high level. For evidence of that, just check out Kaman’s box score from a March 30 contest against the upstart Suns. He finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and six assists, becoming the first Laker to post that stat line since Shaquille O’Neal.
His status as an imposing interior presence is still intact, but Kaman didn’t exactly establish himself as a leader.
In fact, according to a tweet from Medina, the veteran big man didn’t talk to his coach for three weeks during the season.
It became increasingly clear that Kaman wasn’t fond of D’Antoni. He rarely played after being brought in to fill a big role. Still, he wasn’t setting a good example for the young players around him.
Of course, D’Antoni is now gone. That may be a factor that weighs in on Kupchak’s decision to keep or cut Kaman.
There also aren’t many centers available via free agency or the draft; so keeping Kaman is a solid plan of action. Ultimately, however, he may choose to join up with an established contender elsewhere.
The Lakers should keep him if there's mutual interest, but I'm not sold there will be.
Verdict: Keep (if he's interested)
Jordan Hill, PF/C
Jordan Hill is another intriguing name among the Lakers’ crop of free agents.
Despite spending a fair amount of time in D’Antoni’s doghouse—a role he already occupied as a rookie with the New York Knicks—the University of Arizona product still averaged career highs with 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He posted those stats in slightly more than 20 minutes per contest.
Hill is a difference-maker who doesn’t need a ton of minutes to put his fingerprints on a game. If the Lakers' next head coach decides to increase his role, the organization may be sitting on a goldmine.
The dreadlocked big man is no longer a young prospect. He’ll turn 27 in July. Still, he plays with a youthful exuberance that can’t be taught.
If he’s brought back and given a solid support group to elevate his game even further, he could easily establish himself as a Most Improved Player candidate in 2015.
One underlying problem is that another team may swoop in and offer him a lucrative deal to pry him away from L.A. If that doesn’t happen, the Lakers would be foolish not to bring him back after he posted a career year under less-than-favorable circumstances.
Jodie Meeks, SG
The two-year span experienced by Bryant and Jodie Meeks could not have contrasted any more drastically than it did from 2012-13 through 2013-14.
While The Black Mamba had a fabulous campaign two seasons ago—en route to one of his most efficient scoring years ever—Meeks struggled mightily in his first go-round as a Laker.
One year later, Bryant played just six games due to injury, and Meeks had the best season of his career by far.
With the future Hall of Famer injured, it didn’t appear likely that any Laker would explode for a huge scoring game. Meeks, however, erupted for a 42-point outing against the Oklahoma City Thunder in March.
His play was one of the few things keeping the Lakers somewhat competitive. As a result, the price bump in his next contract may ensure L.A. won’t keep him.
Meeks established himself as a reliable rotational player, but his value takes a significant hit with Bryant back in the lineup.
Another NBA team could use his services more than L.A., which leads me to believe he’ll be gone this summer.
Nick Young, SG/SF
Nick Young, otherwise known as Swaggy P, joined Farmar as one of the key cogs coming off L.A.’s bench.
He played 64 games (just nine starts) and averaged 17.9 points per game. His impressive campaign earned him some straggler votes for Sixth Man of the Year. He likely would have received more recognition had he stayed healthy for a competitive Lakers team.
Next year may be Young’s chance to make more noise.
He’s expected to opt out of his $1.22 million player option for next season, but he’s also said, “This is home. I would be glad to finish off here as a Laker,” per Medina.
Young’s volume scoring off the bench is a huge asset, but so is his versatility as a guy who can step into the starting lineup when injuries inevitably happen.
The Lakers probably won’t be able to keep him at a basement-level price, but Young could maintain loyalty to L.A. when negotiating his next deal.
Pau Gasol, PF/C
Pau Gasol had a tremendous stint with the Lakers that included winning two championships, but it just feels as if his time in Los Angeles is coming to an end.
Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding wrote the following of the veteran in February:
This summer, Gasol will move on to some other NBA franchise where, along with his two championship rings, the fresh fans will respect all that is clearly good in him—much as Lakers fans saw generosity in his heart when Memphis Grizzlies fans only saw Gasol wasn’t selfish enough to prop up a team all by himself.
The experienced Spaniard has been made the scapegoat for L.A.’s shortcomings in recent years. The NBA trade deadline also wouldn’t be complete without a handful of Gasol rumors sprinkled in—2014 was no exception.
While he clearly still has something left in the tank, the Lakers desperately need to get younger. Bringing back Hill to provide frontcourt depth is a start, but L.A.’s No. 7 pick in the 2014 draft may be the trump card.
With that draft position, the Lakers have a prime opportunity to add frontcourt prospects like Indiana’s Noah Vonleh or Kentucky’s Julius Randle.
Both guys could be difference-makers from Day 1, but they need a chance to develop and grow as pro talents. Doing so behind Gasol wouldn’t provide those opportunities.
It’s time for Gasol to sign with a contender whose fanbase will appreciate his skill set as his career winds to a close.
It would be nice to see him stay beside Bryant as his wingman, but the 2015 offseason is just around the corner. Perhaps that’s when Bryant will get a new teammate to chase a final ring with.
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