Blueprint for Solving LA Lakers' Woes at Center and Wing

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistMay 31, 2016

Could Harrison Barnes follow Luke Walton to Los Angeles?
Could Harrison Barnes follow Luke Walton to Los Angeles?Kyle Terada/Associated Press

Los Angeles Lakers fans have good reason to be excited again, but the team still has major frontcourt holes to fill.

Consider the situation: Kobe Bryant has retired, Roy Hibbert is unlikely to be re-signed (nor should he be) while Metta World Peace is a free agent and more of a mentor at 36.

Also, the underwhelming Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly are unrestricted free agents and, at best, end-of-the-bench contributors.

To say the Lakers need a starting center and small forward is an understatement. And let's not hold out hope that Nick "Swaggy P" Young will miraculously rise like a phoenix from the ashes of his last two immolated seasons, taking glorious wing again.

Fortunately, L.A. has the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft and an obscene amount of money to play with this summer. Additionally, the anointment of boy wonder Luke Walton as the new head coach should add some sway when it comes to luring quality players to Lakerland.

Because let's be real here—Byron Scott was never a shining beacon of light for available players with any aspiration of winning during his lackluster 38-126 tenure.

Small Forward

The Lakers would love Brandon Ingram to drop into their lap.
The Lakers would love Brandon Ingram to drop into their lap.Lance King/Getty Images

Finding a small forward of the future could fall into place first, given the two choices at the top of the draft board.

LSU's Ben Simmons is a 6'10" playmaker who would be an interesting cog in the free-flowing offense Walton is likely to implement. But Duke's reedy Brandon Ingram, with his 7'3" wingspan and classic three-and-D sensibility, would fit even better alongside Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson (all of whom prefer having the ball in their hands).

There has been some talk of the Philadelphia 76ers nabbing Simmons as the top overall pick. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding recently noted, the organization has "great confidence in the upside of Simmons, whose ambidextrous athletic ability at 6'10" and 240 pounds comes with innate basketball instincts."

If that scenario does play out, Los Angeles would be thrilled to get Ingram by default. The 18-year-old needs to pack on muscle, but he's fine playing off the ball and has an incredibly sweet shooting stroke, completing 41 percent of his shots from beyond the arc during his one-and-done season. Ingram also has the lateral mobility to defend opponents and the reach to protect the rim.

During March Madness, the Black Mamba himself was impressed by Ingram, per Laker Nation's Serena Winters:

It's also worth noting that Anthony Brown, last year's 34th pick, showed some promise at the wing this season, playing short minutes for L.A., as well as multiple assignments with the Los Angeles D-Fenders.

But that's not to say the Lakers have to rely solely on neophytes. There's also some pretty decent free agent small forwards who could be in play.

Everything starts with a guy named Kevin Durant. It's certainly not a given that the superstar will leave Oklahoma City, much less sign with a team that finished dead last in the West. But if he does hit the market, the Lakers front office has to make a case for a new era and a modern approach to the game.

The second tier offers a more realistic blueprint, however, even if the mad money will still be obscene in a cash-rich league.

Harrison Barnes is the quintessential chameleon—an immensely talented young starter for the Golden State Warriors who curiously goes missing for key stretches—drifting along the three-point line or coming alive at opportune moments.

Lakers insider Mychal Thompson (father of Klay) recently opined on the subject on his Thompson & Trudell ESPN LA radio show. Diamond Leung of Inside the Warriors transcribed his comments:

I think he's capable of averaging 18 a game here if the Lakers sign him and brought him here. I think he could be more of a featured scorer, maybe a No. 2 option, maybe even a No. 1 on certain nights. He's capable of putting up the high-20s. He's a very good shooter, can get to the basket, very athletic.

According to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, Barnes turned down a $64 million four-year extension last September and will be a restricted free agent, giving Golden State the opportunity to match offers.

The question is: Just how high would either team go? And would Barnes step up to the plate on a nightly basis as a featured option?

Another possibility is Kent Bazemore—an unrestricted free agent with the Atlanta Hawks. Bazemore was traded to the Lakers from Golden State halfway through the 2013-14 season, resulting in an unexpected tear under Mike D'Antoni—from 2.3 points in 6.1 minutes per game to 13.1 in 28.

According to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin, the Lakers were in contract talks to bring the swingman back, but the Hawks were able to close a deal faster, for a mere $4 million over two years. Bazemore is undersized for the small forward position at 6'5" but he's athletic, a good shooter and plays hard at both ends.

Center

Atlanta's Al Horford leaves the Lakers watching.
Atlanta's Al Horford leaves the Lakers watching.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If there's one name that keeps coming up in conversations about the pivot position, it's Hassan Whiteside—the Miami Heat's stat-chomping 7-footer. The unrestricted free agent has bounced around pro basketball, including the D-League, Lebanon and China, before landing in Miami where he averaged double-doubles for the past two years.

And now his paycheck will go from less than a million to eight figures in the blink of an eye.

Whiteside was the league's leading blocker at 3.7 per game this season and snares every rebound in sight with his outrageous 7'7" wingspan. Miami will try to keep him, and the Lakers will roll out the red carpet as well. Then again, L.A. had a chance to sign Whiteside two years ago and passed, despite what the big man thought was a good audition.

"I thought I had a really good workout," Whiteside said, per Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel. "I caught alley-oops, spin lobs, kind of did everything I do now."

Will he give the Lakers another chance or stay true to the team that believed in him? In the end, it could come down to who's willing to prove their love more—with dollar signs.

Other hot commodities include Toronto's 23-year-old backup center Bismack Biyombo and Atlanta's Al Horford—a two-way player with a smooth, versatile game who would add a nice touch of veteran leadership to a very young Lakers team.

Can Festus Ezeli be an effective NBA starter?
Can Festus Ezeli be an effective NBA starter?Pool/Getty Images

And then there's Festus Ezeli, another Warrior who could follow Walton's trail south. The four-year player is a lightly used prospect, having missed his entire sophomore season after right knee surgery plus two months earlier this year due to left knee repair. He's also not much of an offensive threat.

But the Nigerian-born backup center and restricted free agent is a monster on defense, swatting shots and snagging boards at will. And while his shot repertoire is limited, he still throws down point-blank power jams.

It's also worth mentioning the Lakers have the 32nd selection, in June in addition to their prized No. 2 pick. Bigs who could be available to develop include boom-or-bust prospect Thon Maker—a 19-year-old Canadian high schooler by way of the Sudan.

Admittedly, there are a lot of names in this serpentine scheme. So what's the more definitive plan?

The Purple and Gold need balance in addition to youthful promise. Horford brings skill and consistency, while Barnes is a guy who could grow his brand in L.A. Add Ingram's enormous potential, along with a second- round project, and L.A. will have gone a long way toward solving its offseason woes.

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