The Ideal 2015 Free-Agent Fit for Los Angeles Lakers at Every Position
After abstaining from trade-deadline moves, the Los Angeles Lakers will look toward the summer in hopes of building a contending roster.
First up will be the NBA draft on June 25, followed by the free-agency period, which unofficially begins July 1. And while the draft holds the promise of young prospects for the future, it’s the free agents who can make the most immediate impact.
First up will be the NBA Draft on June 26. The Lakers have the possibility of retaining the top-five protected pick they owe the Phoenix Suns. They are also owed a first round pick from the Houston Rockets, and will have two second round picks as well.
The draft will be followed by the free-agency period which begins July 1. And while the draft holds the promise of young prospects for the future, it’s the free agents who can make the most immediate impact.
The Lakers have needs at every position. But choosing ideal fits has to take more than the abstract into account. In other words, there are players who might technically be available but will be all but impossible to sign. LeBron James fits firmly into this category.
That means idealism has to be tempered with practicality when it comes to building a roster.
With only a handful of guaranteed contracts in place, Los Angeles will have the money to sign at least one max-salary player.
The mission is clear: appeal to quality players who can help reverse the team’s downward trend, and back up promises to them with plenty of cold hard cash.
All stats from ESPN or Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Goran Dragic, PG, Miami Heat
The two most obvious names when it comes to available point guards are Rajon Rondo and Goran Dragic.
Both are intense competitors, and each will be an unrestricted free agent when the 2014-15 season ends.
But while both ball-handlers will be 29 years old when next season begins, Rondo has three more years of NBA wear and tear on his tires, as well as a history of injuries.
And while it's true that Dragic played in the Slovenian and Spanish leagues before coming to the NBA, those seasons are much shorter.
According Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, the Lakers pursued Dragic unsuccessfully during the recent trade deadline:
The Lakers expressed a 'ton' of interest in guard Goran Dragic, according to an NBA source familiar with the situation. But the Lakers 'just didn’t have assets,' the league source said.
The Phoenix Suns ultimately traded Dragic and his brother Zoran to the Miami Heat. And while Goran will still be a unrestricted free agent this summer, the Heat will hold his Bird rights and will thereby be able to offer a five-year contract worth upward of $100 million while other teams will be limited to a four-year deal in the $80 million range.
Regardless, the Lakers, like the Heat, were on Dragic’s preferred list of destinations, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, and will make their best pitch to the Slovenian guard during free agency.
And, there may be reason for optimism.
Per Medina: "A person familiar with Dragic’s thinking said he 'loves the opportunity' to join the Lakers and sees them as a 'perfect fit' when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer."
With a combination of speed, experience, versatility and a seeming desire to wear purple and gold, the highly efficient left-handed scorer would be an ideal fit in Los Angeles.
If the Lakers fail to land Dragic, they will likely go hard after Rondo.
Wesley Matthews, SG, Portland Trail Blazers
The Lakers still have one of the NBA’s premier shooting guards in Kobe Bryant, but even management is cognizant of the need to plan ahead.
As general manager Mitch Kupchak said Friday, per Lakers.com: “At some point we have to start a new run, and that’s definitely going to include Kobe next year.”
If Los Angeles wants a true rising star, it need look no further than Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls who is having a breakout season.
The 25-year-old turned down a reported $40 million contract extension in order to become a restricted free agent, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
But hopeful suitors like the Lakers might be out of luck.
The Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh reports the Bulls "fully expect to sign Butler to a max deal next July before another team even gets involved."
Given Butler's RFA status, Chicago can and will match any deal.
If that’s the case, the Lakers should consider going after Wesley Matthews, a 28-year-old overachiever who joined the Utah Jazz as an undrafted rookie in 2009. Matthews wound up starting 48 games for the Jazz and then signed with the Portland Trail Blazers the following season as a restricted free agent. He has been a solidly efficient and dependable starter ever since.
The 6’5” shooting guard will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and is currently averaging 16.1 points and 3.6 rebounds. He’s also the team’s leading three-point shooter, converting 39 percent of his 7.5 attempts per game.
That is a skill set desperately needed by the Lakers.
Matthews might not have the same level of heat as Butler right now, but he’s also not a max-contract player. If signed, he could allow the Lakers flexibility to add other high-level players.
Jeff Green, SF, Memphis Grizzlies
The Lakers are in desperate need of an upgrade at the small forward position. However, free agency will not be rife with realistically available top prospects this summer.
Do not be tempted by the thought of LeBron James jilting his hometown team again—that would be folly.
It doesn’t get any easier going down the list.
Restricted free agents like Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, Tobias Harris of the Orlando Magic, and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors will likely be kept by their respective teams regardless of cost.
And then there’s Luol Deng of the Miami Heat who has a player option. But even if Deng does opt out, he is growing long in the tooth and doesn’t fit in with the Lakers’ desire for youth and longevity.
Green has always been more of a complementary player than a star, and his outside shooting is suspect. Yet he has great length at 6’9” and brings an athleticism and versatility the Lakers could sorely use.
The Lakers have shown an interest in the past. According to Sam Amick of USA Today Sports, management explored sending Jordan Hill and a first-round pick to the Celtics for Rondo and Green in December, but the trade was ultimately unsuccessful.
Is Green the ultimate fit? Not when it comes to building a fantasy super-team.
But the 28-year-old former No. 5 draft pick would be a substantial upgrade over current Lakers question mark Wesley Johnson.
Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks
In an ideal world, Kevin Love would come to Los Angeles amid trumpeted fanfare, and life would be good again.
But there has been no indication of reciprocal interest by Love. When asked by ESPN’s Dave McMenamin if there is “any scenario where the Lakers would be an option,” Love replied a definitive “No.”
So now we turn to idealistic pragmatism.
Paul Millsap is undersized at 6’8”, and at age 30, he certainly does not represent a Lakers youth movement.
But he works as hard as any big man in the business and lays down solid numbers at 16.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Millsap has started every game for the Atlanta Hawks this season, and he has been a large part of their runaway success in the Eastern Conference.
He will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer. His dogged workman attitude would be a nice fit with Byron Scott’s old-school defensive philosophy.
If all else fails, the Lakers have some in-house options. ESPN LA's Jovan Buha reports that Julius Randle will be ready for summer-league action, according to Scott, after missing his rookie season with a broken leg.
Los Angeles also has to decide what to do about some of its other big men.
Jordan Hill is having a career year, but his $9 million team option is an expensive price tag during free agency.
The hard-working Ed Davis will decline his player’s option of $1,100,602 in order to negotiate a long-term deal but would like to stay in Los Angeles, per Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.
And Carlos Boozer, who has given a solid effort since being acquired off waivers from the Chicago Bulls, will be an unrestricted free agent.
All three players hold value for the Lakers—if they can be retained for reasonable prices.
DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers
If the Lakers are going to take a major swing for the fences, why not do it in their own backyard?
DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers will also be an unrestricted free agent, and there is no doubt new Clippers owner Steve Ballmer wants to keep him. But according to Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, offering up a max contract could also push the team over the luxury-tax threshold for the third consecutive year—leading to the dreaded repeater tax.
And yes, he’s pitiful at the free-throw line. But he’s also the NBA leader in field-goal percentage at 72 percent, and nobody else is even close.
The 6’11” center is currently in his seventh NBA season at age 26. He still has a good number of peak years ahead of him.
He’d also like to expand his offensive repertoire. During an interview with Ben Golliver for Sports Illustrated, the Clippers big man said:
When you get older, you want to expand your game, become an offensive player and threat for your team. Whenever and however old I am, whenever [my contract is] up again, I want to be more of a threat offensively for the team that I’m playing for.
Jordan has good cause to feel this way. Because despite his off-the-charts close-range accuracy, he is only attempting a paltry 6.4 shot attempts per game.
It’s time for Buss and Kupchak to take aim at their Staples Center co-inhabitants.
Offer a boatload of money to DeAndre Jordan and tell him he’ll be allowed to expand his game—while wearing the legendary purple and gold.
Yes, the Lakers would allow the big man to become more of an offensive threat—much, much more. He needs only to sign on the dotted line.