The Los Angeles Lakers are in the final stages of their march toward the offseason, still locked in last place in the Western Conference.
It won’t be long before the team exits its dreadful 2015-16 campaign and says goodbye to the Kobe Bryant era. The offseason will usher in more changes, including a probable lottery pick in the NBA draft, plus welcoming and releasing free agents.
L.A. will be flush with money to spend and will have its eyes set on the best available players to help a rebuild that has, so far, been painfully slow. But there will also be Lakers whose contracts have run dry—a grand total of seven in all, most of whom are nonessential to any future success.
This brings about the necessary decision of whom to let walk. (Not that the worst players on a 15-58 team will have a lot of offers awaiting them.) Sometimes you just have to cut the cords and wish these players the best of luck in an uncertain basketball world.
The first axe should fall quickly on the biggest tree in the Lakers’ losing forest. Roy Hibbert joined in a lopsided trade from the Indiana Pacers this summer, the only cost being a future second-round pick and the assumption of his $15.5 million salary. The hope was Big Roy would become a much-needed defensive stopper, leading to future employment in purple and gold.
Instead, the center’s production has mirrored the team’s own downward trajectory—his 6.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game are a shadow of his prime. And sadly, this is only the behemoth’s eighth season in the league.
The hulking 7’2” enforcer once specialized in the art of verticality—timing his straight-up jump at the basket to deter incoming rim attackers. But his game was quickly fading in Indiana, and they were right to shed his contract.
By all accounts, the two-time All-Star has been a positive presence and mentor to others during his time with the Lakers.
“You have to develop the young guys,” Hibbert said, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “They want to win, learn and be sponges.”
But the Lakers need more than a giant with good intentions. They need a mobile athlete who can get his feet up off the ground.
Robert Sacre is another big with a positive attitude. But the 7-footer hasn’t contributed much else through four seasons in Los Angeles. In fact, his production is going backward; during just 20 games this season, he's averaged 3.1 points and 2.4 boards.
Those are his lowest stats since his rookie year.
That said, the dual citizen of Canada and the U.S. had a quasi-outlier game recently, scoring 10 points without a miss during a loss to the Sacramento Kings on March 15. NBA Canada took proud note of the feat.
Sacre was the last pick of the 2012 draft for L.A., a four-year hustle player out of Gonzaga. He’s not completely devoid of function, able to hedge defensively in the pick-and-roll, even if he’s not exactly fleet of foot. But he’s not much of a shot-blocker or rebounder and rarely goes to the hole with authority, preferring a baby jumper instead.
There won’t be much clamor for Sacre’s services on the open market, and another non-guaranteed minimum-salary contract would keep him hanging as an insurance chip. But management should first try to find a prospect with more upside.
Ryan Kelly has had just one semi-decent season in the NBA—his first. Drafted as the Lakers’ 48th pick in 2013, the former Duke NCAA champ was part of Mike D’Antoni’s regular rotation during his rookie year.
But despite Kelly’s obvious profile as a 6’11” stretch 4, his usage shifted dramatically under D'Antoni’s successor, Byron Scott. Last season, the sharpshooter with a history of foot and hamstring problems was repurposed as a lumbering small forward. More recently, he has been barely used at all, save for frequent D-League assignments.
It’s not as though Kelly was destined to be a star, but the past two years have been a curious misuse of his skill set nonetheless. At this point, he seems to have lost the confidence he displayed early in his career. It’s probably best to let him walk—maybe Kelly can get a fresh start elsewhere.
Metta World Peace
Metta World Peace fought his way back into the league this season after an absence of nearly two years. And while the 36-year-old has logged plenty of DNPs during his comeback attempt, he has seen increased action of late, chiefly as a result of Bryant’s chronic shoulder pain.
World Peace has lost the quickness that made him such a feared one-on-one defender throughout his long career. But he still plays a bruising game and gives his full effort whenever he’s on the floor.
The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year has also benefited the team in other ways, serving as a mentor to younger players such as Julius Randle. Per Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, World Peace has a definite interest in coaching one day. Those around him recognize that potential.
“He’d be a good coach,” Bryant said. “He’s extremely intelligent and communicates very well and is not afraid to hold guys accountable.”
The Lakers should let World Peace walk as a free agent. But they should hire him back as a player-development coach.
Who Should Stay?
There will be other Lakers to consider this summer, such as sophomore starter Jordan Clarkson. The 6’5” combo guard has continued to show his worth despite a rare off night Sunday against the Washington Wizards, in which he shot just 1-of-7. Regardless, management needs to re-sign the restricted free agent—he’s a core component of a team in transition.
Tarik Black and Marcelo Huertas will also be up for grabs.
The 6'9" Black has been woefully underused as an undersized center and should be brought back to a more consistent role. Huertas—the league’s oldest rookie at 32—is a floor-savvy point guard who offers excellent court vision at a bargain price.
The Lakers will say goodbye to a historically bad season with mixed feelings—pangs for a departing five-time champion in the retiring Bryant, and hope for better days ahead. But part of the forward-thinking vision also means cutting away the deadwood in order to make room for new growth.
Statistics are courtesy of NBA.com and are current as of the start of games March 28.