Biggest Needs for LA Lakers During Free-Agency Season

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistJuly 5, 2014

Biggest Needs for LA Lakers During Free-Agency Season

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    On the heels of a successful NBA draft night, the Los Angeles Lakers have entered this summer’s free agency with renewed determination.

    The Lakers drafted power forward Julius Randle from Kentucky with their No. 7 pick and then went ahead and bought the No. 46 pick from the Washington Wizards, choosing 6’5” point guard Jordan Clarkson from Mizzou.

    Whereas once the front office seemed to approaching a forward-thinking rebuild with a slower, more conservative approach, there now appears to be a greater commitment to making sweeping changes quickly—if certain major components fall into place, that is.

    After the draft was over on June 26, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak addressed the team’s thinking in regard to going after elite free agents, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles: "We're prepared. If any of those players do want to make a move, we're prepared. And if we get word, when we're allowed to get word, we will go all out."

    With a threadbare roster, the Lakers will be looking to fill all their positional needs this summer, but it starts with the type of players that Kupchak was referencing as “those players”—the summer’s major stars.

    LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony represent the top of the food chain—all other moves will either complement both or either of those acquisitions, or will constitute Plan B.

LeBron James

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    When LeBron James decided to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat, everything changed in the summer’s free-agency season.

    The best player in basketball was now available—for teams that could both afford him and could present a cogent reason for his consideration.

    James is playing the situation close to his vest as well as systematically. Rather than indulge in meetings with prospective suitors, he’s having his agent Rich Paul take all the preliminary meetings in Cleveland, as reported by Sam Amick for USA Today.

    Paul’s friendship with James dates back to high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, and he is also one of the four founding partners of the management group LRMR Marketing. The other three are James, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims. Collectively, they call themselves the Four Horsemen. Paul cut his teeth in the agency world at powerhouse CAA and then went into business for himself, founding Klutch Sports Group, headquartered in Cleveland.

    Paul’s top client is James, naturally.

    As per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, Lakers general manager Kupchak and chief operating officer Tim Harris flew to Cleveland Friday to meet with Paul, one day after meeting with Carmelo Anthony.

    Kupchak’s job is to move the yardstick forward and get into position to go for the score.

    Signing James is tantamount to the Holy Grail in basketball—an elusive and penultimate goal. Pairing James with Kobe Bryant would be almost mythical in its achievement. They are, simply speaking, the two biggest names in basketball.

    James may very well end up re-signing with the Heat. But the Lakers are going hard after him because they'd have to be out of their mind not to.

Carmelo Anthony

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    The second-biggest name in this summer’s free agency is Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks.

    Unlike James, Melo has embarked upon his own cross-county blitzkrieg of meetings with teams including the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Lakers and finally, his own team—the Knicks.

    Anthony has long been linked with the Lakers' free-agent aspirations—he is one of the league’s superstars after all and is also close friends with still-reigning Purple and Gold franchise cornerstone Kobe Bryant.

    According to Dave McMenamin and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, the Lakers’ presentation was spearheaded by team president Jeanie Buss and also included her brother—executive VP Jim Buss—as well as GM Mitch Kupchak, COO Tim Harris, Lakers legend James Worthy, executives from the team’s Time Warner Cable SportsNet network and even movie producer Joel Silver. The Lakers reportedly made it clear that they were prepared to offer the maximum four-year, $95 million contract. The parties also discussed what would be involved in lesser deals in order to sign LeBron James as well.

    Bryant was supposed to be in the presentation but was not able to return in time from a family European vacation after the meeting time got moved up. According to McMenamin, Bryant planned to see Anthony later personally.

    Melo’s meetings weren’t over, however. There were still two meetings with his current and perhaps future boss—Phil Jackson, the president of basketball operations for the Knicks. According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, Jackson and other Knicks brass offered their star a max deal of $129 million over five years to return. Under current CBA rules, no other team beside the one that owns a player’s Bird rights can offer more than four years.

    But do the Lakers really need Anthony? Put it this way—LA is currently without a small forward, and Melo is the best combo forward available after James, so yes, they do.

    Pairing Anthony and Bryant would account for a lethal scoring punch. If you could somehow add James to the equation, the result would be beyond what any Lakers fan could hope for.

Pau Gasol

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    The Lakers' own top free agent Pau Gasol is one of the league’s biggest prizes right now, after James and Anthony.

    The Lakers met with Gasol on Tuesday, according to Dave McMenamin, hoping to find a way to package their two-time champion with the likes of another major incoming star such as Carmelo Anthony.

    Plenty of other teams are interested in Gasol, including the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks. In fact, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, hours before meeting with his own team, the New York Knicks, Carmelo Anthony reached out to get Gasol’s phone number in an effort to recruit him to New York City.

    What a byzantine world free agency is.

    The Lakers would like to bring Gasol back in hopes of partnering him with Bryant, Steve Nash and a big-name free agent such as LeBron or Anthony. They might not be quite as interested in Gasol if they can’t land another superstar.

    After all, there are two concurrent plans at the moment—a veteran championship-caliber squad and a young, athletic rebuild project.

    But for whatever negatives Gasol brings to the table—mainly age, injuries and a certain lack of defensive gusto at times, he’s still the most skilled big man in the league.

    Despite playing in less-than-ideal circumstances under small-ball purist Mike D’Antoni, Gasol put up some strong numbers last season, averaging 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 blocks per game.

    Imagine Gasol with Kobe Bryant, Anthony and/or James, a healthy Nash and rookie Julius Randle.

Chris Bosh

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    If the Lakers can’t re-sign Pau Gasol, options at the center position begin to get limited—there are only so many quality free-agent big men left in a rapidly shrinking pool.

    Chris Bosh—who like fellow teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade opted out of his contract with the Miami Heat—would be an interesting possibility.

    Bosh isn’t a traditional back-to-the-basket center—he plays both frontcourt positions and is at his best when spacing the floor with a highly accurate mid-range jump shot, as well as being a decent shot-blocker on the other end.

    He won’t grab as many boards as some basketball big men, but he would be an interesting pairing with rookie power forward Julius Randle, who is a legitimate glass-cleaner.

    The likelihood is that Miami will find a way to bring Bosh, James and Wade back together. But for now, the reedy frontcourt star is in play.

Trevor Ariza

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    After an impressive season with the Washington Wizards, Trevor Ariza has become one of the summer’s hot free-agent items. While the Wizards would like to bring him back, Ariza will be sorting out interest from other teams, including the Lakers.

    Los Angeles needs a starting small forward and, of course, has also made a run at Carmelo Anthony. Ariza would make a great consolation prize—he was, after all, part of the Purple and Gold’s successful title run in 2009.

    Ariza, who is 6’8” with a 7’2” wingspan, is a legitimate defensive stopper and is also a sneaky force on the offensive end, able to slash through lanes to finish strong at the basket or pull up and shoot from distance.

    According to ESPN LA’s Dave McMenamin and Ramona Shelburne, Ariza was one of Mitch Kupchak’s first calls when free agency began at the stroke of midnight on Monday: “Ariza, coming off a season in which he scored 14.4 points of a career-best 40.7 percent mark from 3, drew interest from the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix, Miami, Dallas, Utah, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards, the team he played for last season.”

    Ariza would fill a need position with the Lakers and would no doubt reunite seamlessly with former teammates Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Nick Young

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    Nick “Swaggy P” Young was the Lakers’ leading scorer this season at 17.9 points per game, and that was primarily coming off the bench as their sixth man.

    He became a crowd favorite in his first year with the team but exercised his player’s option recently, making him an unrestricted free agent. He represents an obvious scoring punch but is also something of a Plan B. If the Lakers are somehow able to pull off signing a major star like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, there will be little money left in the spending pool.

    The financial situation will become even more challenging if Los Angeles can sign a new incoming star and also re-sign Pau Gasol.

    And so, Young falls into a holding pattern with the Lakers, while other teams around the league are free to make their own overtures toward him.

    According to Dave McMenamin, the Lakers have reached out to Young and his representation, but there’s competition from the Atlanta Hawks as well as other teams: “Nick Young heard from Atlanta along with the Lakers, as well as 'several other teams registering interest,' according to his agent, Mark Bartelstein.”

    Now that Jodie Meeks has signed with the Detroit Pistons, the need for Young’s scoring ability becomes even plainer. Young coming off the bench behind a healthy Kobe Bryant would give opposing coaches fits next season.

    At this point, it’s all a matter of seeing who else the Lakers can sign and how much money will be left for the Swaggy one.

Isaiah Thomas

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    The Lakers need some shoring up at the point guard position. The Sacramento Kings’ Isaiah Thomas could fit the bill.

    LA currently has the old and frail Steve Nash as well as second-round draft pick Jordan Clarkson. Management can also exercise an option on Kendall Marshall.

    Thomas started the majority of games for the Kings this season, averaging 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game. He is currently a restricted free agent, but his situation has become somewhat complicated by Sacramento’s signing of former Clipper point guard Darren Collison, per Arash Markazi for ESPN Los Angeles.

    Thomas earned the veteran’s minimum of $884,293 this season and will be due just a modest bump up to $1,148,163 if he stays in Sacramento. It will now be up to other teams to make offers and see if the Kings will match.

    The speedy point guard is only 5’9”, and it remains to be seen whether he would fit in with the rebuilding Lakers, who will move away from the uptempo system employed by former coach Mike D’Antoni.

    Still, Thomas is one of the more intriguing choices on the market this summer and would provide a nice shot of youthful adrenaline as well as scoring power.

    The Lakers have yet to pull the trigger on any major deals, but once the first big signing falls into place, the rest of the roster will start shaping up fast.