Maybe the Los Angeles Lakers Aren't Screwed After All

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJuly 8, 2015

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No LaMarcus Aldridge. No DeAndre Jordan. No Greg Monroe.

No problem for the Los Angeles Lakers? Not quite, especially in light of how badly L.A. appeared to botch its first meeting with Aldridge.

To their credit, the Lakers bounced back from those early blows. They secured a second meeting with Aldridge, though to no avail. Once the All-Star forward committed his future to the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers moved swiftly to strengthen their roster and put themselves in a better position to take small steps forward soon and quantum leaps down the line.

Without a major free agent to soak up their cap space, the Lakers used it instead to absorb the $15.5 million left on Roy Hibbert's deal, the Pacers announced Thursday, per NBA.com. L.A. is sending a second-round pick to Indy in the swap.

That's a pittance for a player of Hibbert's pedigree. Beyond his two All-Star appearances, Hibbert remains one of the league's premier rim protectors. He held opponents to just 42.6 percent shooting at the hoop last season—the fourth-best mark among players who faced at least seven attempts at the rim per game.

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The Lakers, on the other hand, allowed their foes to shoot 60.1 percent within five feet of the bucket. Surely, Hibbert's height (7'2"), length and superior grasp of the league's rules regarding verticality will come in handy on a team that finished second-to-last in defensive efficiency in 2014-15 and doesn't figure to feature anyone stingier, outside of Hibbert, next season.

To be sure, Hibbert's decline in the Circle City wasn't without cause. For one, he's proven fairly feeble when it comes to both mental fortitude and offensive efficiency.

In 2013-14, Hibbert practically fell off the map after a fantastic first half of the season. He went from looking like the prohibitive favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year to getting a quick hook from Frank Vogel as Indy sweated out a first-round series against the short-handed Atlanta Hawks. Hibbert's slow feet and weak offensive approach made him a liability for the Pacers, though he did fare better against Washington and Miami later in the same postseason.

The Pacers, though, may have played a part in their big man's fall from grace. Even David West, who turned down $12 million in Indy to sign for the veteran's minimum in San Antonio, felt the team didn't do right by Hibbert, particularly after all but shoving him out the door during the team's exit interviews.

"You know, obviously Roy wants to play, he knows he's unpopular right now," West told WTHR's Bob Kravitz. "But we talked, and he's going to be a professional. He's always been a professional. He's had his ups and downs, but he's always been a pro and been diligent about his work. He's working to get better. He's going to fight. He's not going to be one of those guys who's going to become a locker room issue."

Perhaps, then, a change of scenery will be just what the doctor ordered for Hibbert. Rather than fall behind in the Pacers' uptempo revolution, he'll be empowered on the court by an organization that knows a thing or two about the value of skilled, veteran centers.

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(Then again, Hibbert could wind up as Kobe Bryant's latest whipping boy if it turns out he can't take the heat.)

A new place in Byron Scott's old-school offense may or may not be the cure for Hibbert's shooting woes. Truth be told, Hibbert's offensive efficiency (or lack thereof) has long been an issue.

In each of the last three seasons, he's shot under 45 percent from the field. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only two other 7-footers in NBA history have logged as many subpar shooting seasons while averaging at least 20 minutes and nine field-goal attempts per game: Andrea Bargnani and Walter Dukes, who played for Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s...back when everyone and his mother shot poorly.

But the Lakers likely won't look to Hibbert to be a force in that regard. If Bryant's healthy, he'll take a plurality of L.A.'s shots. The Lakers' youngsters figure to follow Bryant in the pecking order (i.e. Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson), as does their biggest free-agent signee: Lou Williams. The team officially announced the deal Thursday but did not release the terms. According to RealGM's Shams Charania, the pact will be for three years and $21 million.

While some free agents have shied away from Bryant in recent years, Williams seems ready to embrace the experience of playing alongside a living legend.

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"I’m looking forward to just being around him," Williams told Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy. "Greatness is contagious. For him, at 36 years old, to be able to still compete at a high level and have success in his career, you have to respect that. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pick up some things from him.”

Anything Williams can learn from Bryant would be a plus. At this point, Williams is already equipped to give the Lakers an offensive boost, be it as a spot starter or as their top option off the bench. In his lone season with the Toronto Raptors, the former Georgia high school star averaged a career-high 15.5 points on the way to snagging Sixth Man of the Year honors.

This, just two years after suffering a devastating blow to the ACL in his right knee.

The Lakers, of all teams, should be wary of new arrivals with red flags on their medical records. According to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus, the team had a whopping 339 games missed to injury in 2014-15. That marked an increase from the year prior, when L.A. logged 319 games lost for health reasons, as noted by Lakers reporter Mike Trudell.

At this point, Williams might actually boost the Lakers' all-around durability. He sat just twice last season and could push Nick Young, who played in just 42 games in 2014-15, out of the picture in L.A.

According to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to offload Young, who has three years left on his contract, including a player option in Year 3. That should come as no surprise, given both Young's poor performance in 2014-15 (36.6 percent from the field) and his shaky relationship with Scott, as noted by the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina.

The Lakers should have no such squabbles with Brandon Bass. The 10-year veteran out of LSU, who averaged 10.6 points and 4.9 rebounds for the Boston Celtics last season, is known around the NBA as a consummate professional.

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Celtics guard Marcus Smart told MassLive.com's Jay King of Bass' work ethic:

It's easy to come into this life, the NBA lifestyle, and just lose your mind. But seeing Brandon Bass, a veteran going on his 11th season, he doesn't have to do it, he's already established a name for himself, but he's still getting up, he's still there. It just shows a lot as a young guy. It kind of puts something in your mind like, if he can still do it, I should start doing it.

The Lakers could use that sort of leadership from as many sources as possible. The future of the franchise figures to rest in the hands of the team's two highly touted rookies. The more vets like Bass and Williams can do to impart their wisdom upon L.A.'s young guns, the better off the Lakers will be in the long run.

And there will be plenty of said young guns to soak up those sage words. Assuming the team retains Clarkson, Tarik Black and Jabari Brown—all of whom are signed to non-guaranteed deals for next season—the Lakers will begin 2015-16 with at least six players under the age of 24.

This isn't all to suggest that the Lakers won't still be hurting from all the snubs they've suffered over the past three summers. Realistically speaking, L.A. was bound to have a tough time luring stars in their respective primes to a team in transition, whose future is tethered to a soon-to-retire (and oft-injured) superstar and a trio of unproven youngsters.

As Forbes' Mark Heisler put it: "If it was branding, they could get a new ad agency and launch a promotional campaign. This is about the product. The team will need several successful campaigns—on the floor where results are earned, not bought—to re-establish its place."

The Lakers will have an opportunity to start polishing their brand on the court next season. Hibbert, Williams and Bass may not be basketball A-listers, but they all represent clear upgrades over their incumbent counterparts (i.e. Black, free agent Jordan Hill, Young, Robert Sacre). Those players could help the Lakers rebuild, however incrementally, rather than reload in one fell swoop.

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And if the Lakers' latest moves pan out, they may find themselves in prime position to make a major splash next summer and beyond. A marked improvement over last year's 21-61 sideshow in 2015-16, buoyed by the development of Randle and Russell, could make L.A. a more attractive destination for the likes of Kevin Durant, Nicolas Batum and Compton native DeMar DeRozan, all of whom can or will be on the market in 2016.

The Lakers' impending cap-space bonanza can't hurt, either. With Bryant and Hibbert—who will make close to $43 million combined in 2015-16—coming off the books and the salary cap expected to shoot past $90 million, L.A. will have enough financial flexibility to entice multiple players with max-contract offers.

Of course, the Lakers won't be alone in that regard. Darn near the entire league will be flush with new national-TV money next summer.

But unlike most teams, the Lakers can still score an audience with just about every noteworthy free agent, regardless of the condition of the brand or the on-court product. As Grantland's Zach Lowe warned: "Laugh at their tarnished brand if you want, but these guys still get meetings with everyone. Aldridge had serious interest in them when free agency started, per several sources, and the Lakers will eventually learn from three straight summers of unrequited free-agency love."

If those lessons take hold soon and the team trends upward in the interim, the Lakers' recent problems with winning games and luring big names could soon be relegated to the past.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. All statistics are courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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