The Los Angeles Lakers have built themselves a nice young core for the future, but they will need some proven players in order to take the next step back toward contention.
While this team obviously has a long way to go before it can start thinking about championships, especially after winning just 17 games this past season, one smart free-agent signing could expedite the turnaround. Additionally, it won't hurt to add a high-profile star to keep fans after Kobe Bryant's retirement.
The front office will probably keep its eyes open for any top player willing to come to Los Angeles, but it won't be easy luring the biggest stars to town. Here is the latest on some of the top names set to become free agents on Friday.
Just about everyone in the NBA wants Kevin Durant, but the problem is he can only go to one team. Even worse news is the former MVP has already narrowed down his choices while setting meetings with his finalists.
Sam Amick of USA Today reported Tuesday that Durant's team has already set meetings with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat to go with his own Oklahoma City Thunder. Amick also implied the Lakers can kiss any thought of signing the forward goodbye:
Those meetings will matter – the key word there being 'meetings.' If your team doesn’t have one by now, you shouldn’t be feeling too confident about your place in the Durant race.
Despite years of speculation about Durant possibly signing with his hometown Washington Wizards or the Los Angeles Lakers, a person with knowledge of his situation told USA TODAY Sports that those two teams are not expected to land a meeting with the former MVP.
Getting the 27-year-old Durant to come to the Lakers was always going to be a bit of a hard sell. All the teams listed are legitimate title contenders—especially if they brought in one of the best scorers in the world. A player in his prime isn't necessarily going to want to lead a still-rebuilding team when so many other options could help him win a title immediately.
However, the presence of the Clippers on this list is concerning for the organization. The city's other team is taking advantage of the enormous market presented to its players, and the Lakers are somehow getting left behind. This doesn't indicate a dramatic shift for all free agents, but it isn't a good sign.
Durant would have been able to carry the Lakers at least to the playoffs if he had signed with the team, but instead the squad will have to rely on a similar player in the recently drafted Brandon Ingram.
The Atlanta Hawks are another team reportedly going after Durant in free agency, but they have their own All-Star to try to lock up in Al Horford. This won't necessarily be easy because, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, the Lakers are one of the teams hoping to steal the center away:
Horford is often overlooked in Atlanta as a non-flashy but consistent producer down low. He averaged 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season while being named to his fourth All-Star Game, solidifying himself as one of the best centers in the league.
If the Lakers are able to sign him, he would represent a monumental upgrade over Roy Hibbert, who started 81 games last year but averaged just 5.9 points per contest.
Additionally, Horford developed an outside shot for the first time in his career last season, knocking down 88 three-point shots after making just 21 in his first eight years in the league combined. With Julius Randle still developing his shot, the pair would complement each other well offensively.
While there is clearly a lot of competition to sign the 30-year-old, adding the center would make a big difference in the 2016-17 season.
As good as Horford could be at center, perhaps the best free agent the team could sign is Hassan Whiteside.
With Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell all growing as players and Ingram entering the lineup, the offense should be a lot better next season. What the team desperately needs is defense, especially in the low post.
This is where Whiteside could represent a huge upgrade after leading the NBA with 3.7 blocks per game in 2015-16. His presence in the paint causes mayhem for opposing players and makes the entire defense better. Meanwhile, his other numbers of 14.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game aren't too shabby, either.
Whiteside represents the true two-way center the team lacks, which is why he is a top target for the Lakers this offseason, according to Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:
The Los Angeles Lakers plan to aggressively pursue Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside when NBA free agency starts, according to league sources.
With rim protection and perimeter shooting ranking as the Lakers' foremost areas of concern heading into the open market, sources told ESPN that Whiteside has emerged as a priority target.
There will obviously be a number of other teams involved in recruiting the center this summer, including his own Miami Heat, but he won't necessarily choose to stick around without good reason.
"I really don't think it's about loyalty," Whiteside said this week, per Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel. "I think it's just about the best situation for myself, and that's what I think it is."
Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders attempted to clarify what the 27-year-old player meant:
While fans are always thinking about hometown discounts and loyalty, this type of mindset humanizes the players as real people with real concerns.
As for the Lakers, they won't be able to offer the most money, but they do present a quality situation of a team on the rise and an ideal role for Whiteside going forward. This could be enough to lure the center across the country on a long-term deal.
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