Projecting the Los Angeles Lakers' 2015 Free-Agency Big Board

Ehran Khan@@ekhansworldContributor IIIMarch 27, 2015

Seducing Kevin Love will be the Lakers' top priority this offseason.
Seducing Kevin Love will be the Lakers' top priority this offseason.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers will enter the 2015 free-agent frenzy with a bundle of cap space and an ambitious shopping list.

Even with Kobe Bryant's albatross of a contract hanging around their necks, the Lakers only have about $37 million in salaries committed for next season. (This figure rises to around $46 million if the team picks up the option on Jordan Hill's final year.)

With next season's salary cap estimated to be around $68 million, that's enough room to fit in a max contract and more, so money will be no object when the Lakers attempt to woo free agents this summer.

Let's take a look at who should be the top three entries on their big board.

No. 1: Kevin Love

When the Minnesota Timberwolves dealt Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers last offseason, nobody could envision Love bolting for L.A. just one year later.

After all, with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving alongside, Love and the Cavs were set up to preside over the meek Eastern Conference for the rest of the decade—and be in title contention every single year.

But all that optimism has started to unravel.

It feels like every day a new report, like the one from the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, breaks about the friction between Kevin Love and LeBron James in Cleveland's locker room. Every honest quote and innocuous Instagram photo is dissected for possible hidden meanings and antagonizing subtexts.

Love and LeBron James have a frayed working relationship, to say the least.
Love and LeBron James have a frayed working relationship, to say the least.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

And above all, it feels like Love is just really bummed out to be doing what he's doing with the Cavs,

Here is a guy who put up a 26-13-4 nightly line just one season ago, just standing in the corner waiting for the ball to be swung his way just once every few possessions.

Chris Bosh embraced the role of third wheel with the Miami Heat, but it becomes clearer with every passing game that Love will never get there. Nobody could deny Bosh's importance to the team. He was the linchpin to the Heat's aggressive, blitzing style of defense, and he could still take over games when James and Dwyane Wade rested.

With Love, on the other hand, sometimes it almost feels as if the Cavs are winning in spite of him. He's a net minus defensively, and on offense it's sometimes hard to distinguish him from Mike Miller. He's even been benched in fourth quarters!

Its a no-win situation for Love. If the Cavs win a title, he will get none of the credit, and if they fall short, he will get all of the blame. Nobody with Love's talent would want to waste their prime years in that type of environment.

That's why the Lakers have a real shot at signing him this summer. They should throw everything they have at him.

Love has been underutilized in the post, where he is still a skilled player.
Love has been underutilized in the post, where he is still a skilled player.Jason Miller/Getty Images

Love has become weirdly underrated, as his talent has been minimized in Cleveland. People want to discredit his accomplishments in Minnesota because he never won anything, but they go too far.

You've never won anything until you have, and mediocre players don't do what Kevin Love did last year—it doesn't matter who they're playing for. He is an elite player, and no team should hesitate in building their team with him as a cornerstone.

No. 2: Goran Dragic

The Lakers certainly would have liked to trade for Dragic at the trade deadline, but they didn't have the assets to get the deal done. As a result, Dragic is now a member of the Miami Heat.

But similar to Love, his new surroundings might not be favorable enough for him to sign long-term.

After a slow start in Phoenix, Dragic has come alive in Miami.
After a slow start in Phoenix, Dragic has come alive in Miami.Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Bosh and Wade are creeping up toward their mid-30s, and now both have serious health issues to deal with. Miami is holding on to the seventh seed in the East, but it's only three games away from being 11th. Missing the playoffs is a real possibility.

Dragic has indicated that the Lakers are a team he could envision signing with as a free agent. He would finally solve the point guard problem that has plagued L.A. for the past decade.

Many want to write off his spectacular 2014 campaign as a fluky, career-year aberration, but Dragic really is an All-NBA caliber guard.

His stats were depressed in Phoenix this season trying to integrate himself within the three-point-guard merry-go-round the Suns dabbled with, but his skill level did not really decrease, as ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton elegantly broke down.

The Slovenian star is still a wizard with the ball in his hands. He is shooting a ridiculous 56 percent on two-pointers, better than Anthony Davis, and is the league's best guard in terms of finishing at the rim.

Dragic is converting 70 percent of his shots inside of three feet, per Basketball-Reference.com. That's an unheard-of number for a guard, and yet he's on track to achieve that feat for the third time in four years. 

His three-point stroke has yet to bounce back to where it was last season, but since joining the Heat, his scoring, assists and—perhaps most importantly—free-throw rate are all trending in the right direction.

The Lakers need somebody to counter all the sublime point guards in the West. Dragic can be that man.

No. 3: Kawhi Leonard

This seems like the biggest stretch.

After all, who in their right mind would leave the haven of Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the NBA's model organization? Especially after making back-to-back Finals, winning a championship and being in the thick of the title race yet again.

But what if the institution crumbles first?

What if Duncan and Manu Ginobili hang it up after the season and Pop follows them out the door? What's left in San Antonio? A soon-to-be 33-year-old Tony Parker who's struggled with injuries all year and whose skills may be in decline?

It may be time for Leonard to leave the Spurs' nest and make his own name.
It may be time for Leonard to leave the Spurs' nest and make his own name.D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Leonard is a Southern California kid (born in L.A., high school in Riverside, college in San Diego) who's the most anonymous star in the NBA. A move to the Lakers could speak to him in more ways than one.

Of course, the biggest hitch in this plan is the fact that Leonard is a restricted free agent, meaning the Spurs can simply match any offer sheet he signs to retain him. But the Lakers have to go after him nevertheless.

The Lakers failed to take this approach last season. Instead they looked on as Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns couldn't reach an agreement for months. They stood by as Greg Monroe signed a one-year qualifying offer with the Detroit Pistons after failing to come to terms.

Restricted free agents are attainable. The Lakers could have been rewarded for their aggression last offseason. They can't make the same mistake this summer. Throw the max at Leonard and force the Spurs to make a decision.

You might wonder if a career 12-points-per-game scorer is worth a max deal. The answer is, unequivocally, yes.

Leonard is a two-way force who's already the best perimeter defender in the league. He's the rare player who can control an entire game just through his defensive prowess.

Leonard's stifling defense can fluster even the best offensive talent.
Leonard's stifling defense can fluster even the best offensive talent.D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry went into great depth on Leonard's insane defensive value. And in his paper submitted to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Goldsberry unveiled Leonard's defensive shot chart, showing that Leonard almost never allowed his assignments to shoot threes and that his assignments shot the ball far less frequently overall than his peers' and with just mediocre efficiency.

According to 82games.com, Leonard holds opposing small forwards to a 12.6 player efficiency rating, well below the league average. That means he makes his average counterpart look like Evan Turner on a nightly basis. And trust me, you do not want to be Evan Turner in front of Kawhi Leonard.

In addition to being a game-changing stopper, Leonard has steadily improved on offense as well, gradually taking up more responsibility on that end of the floor.

He's averaging a career-best 16 points per game, and that's with a torn ligament in his shooting hand bugging him all season and dragging down his three-point percentage.

Leonard's offensive game is starting to catch up to his All-NBA defense.
Leonard's offensive game is starting to catch up to his All-NBA defense.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Leonard is a beast around the rim, converting nearly 72 percent of his attempts within three feet, per Basketball-Reference.com. That's LeBron James territory. He has also more than doubled his number of foul shots per game from 2014 and still knocks down a crisp 42 percent of his corner triples.

Overall, he's simply a fantastic player—a hidden superstar. In fact, the only three guys rated ahead of him this season in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus are Stephen Curry, James Harden and James.

The best part is he's still getting better. And that's the key thing to remember when offering a restricted free agent a massive contract. You're paying for what they will do, not what they have already done.

And Leonard is poised to do big things in his future. If L.A. is smart—and lucky—he may just end up doing them in a Lakers uniform.


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