Top 5 Offseason Moves for the Los Angeles Lakers After Playoff Elimination
It's hardly the ending the Purple and Gold envisioned for their attempted championship defense, but with their stars beset by injuries and their supporting cast battling inconsistencies, they're off to an early summer vacation and a tricky offseason to navigate.
LeBron James, who battled a high ankle sprain, and Anthony Davis, who couldn't shake a nagging groin strain, need more help to rejoin the championship race next season. How that help makes its way to Hollywood is a puzzle for general manager Rob Pelinka and his staff to solve.
The Lakers already have more than $76 million of next season's payroll tied up between James and Davis, plus another $26 million owed to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. Bargain shopping would seem to be a must, but can L.A. find its missing parts in the clearance section?
By weighing the roster needs and accounting for all the various avenues to improvement, we have pieced together a five-step blueprint to carry this club through a critical offseason.
1. Leave No Stone Unturned in Third-Star Search
There's a reason every NBA team with win-now intentions is racing to construct basketball's next Big Three. And it's not just the simple math equation stating that three stars are greater than two.
Rather, it's the injury protection that third star provides. The precise kind of protection the Lakers didn't have this season, which is why they were doomed when their dynamic duo went down. L.A. was 23-13 with Davis and 19-17 without. The splits were even wider with James, as the club was 30-15 when he played and just 12-15 when he didn't.
The Lakers need a better insurance policy next season. James used to be an ironman, but now he's a 36-year-old who has suffered significant injuries in two of the past three campaigns. Davis has always been a familiar face on the injury report. His career-high for a single season is 75 appearances, and he has only topped 68 outings twice.
Beyond that protection, though, L.A. just needs extra options on offense. The Lakers finished the season 24th in offensive efficiency. The six squads beneath them didn't even sniff the postseason. Shooting is a massive need for this team. Adding another shot-creator is just as critical.
The Lakers made an attempt to add Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline, per The Athletic's Jovan Buha and Bill Oram. They should chase the tenacious floor general again, though he can only arrive via a sign-and-trade. If he's interested in such an arrangement, though, he could cure a lot of this roster's ills.
Same goes with James' close friend (and first-round foe) Chris Paul, who intends to decline his $44.4 million player option, per B/R's Eric Pincus. Pair any two of James, Paul and Davis in two-man actions, and L.A. could have an unstoppable formula for half-court offense.
2. Pick a Young Guard (Or Two) to Pay Big
In terms of name recognition and numbers, Dennis Schroder is L.A.'s highest-profile free agent. But the Lakers should want no part of his next contract, unless it lands way below expectations.
L.A. clearly values what he brings to the table. The Lakers gave up Danny Green and a first-round pick to get him from the Oklahoma City Thunder. They entrusted Schroder with the third-most minutes (32.1) and shots (12.5) per game on the team. They even offered him a four-year, $84 million extension, which he declined, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst (h/t Pro Basketball Talk's Dan Feldman).
Given L.A.'s cap situation, replacing Schroder won't be easy (unless a sign-and-trade for a Lowry or Paul type is in the works). Even still, the Lakers should be leery about paying what it costs to keep him. They actually fared 1.4 points better per 100 possessions without him.
Rather than overpaying Schroder, the Lakers should be ready to pay a substantial sum to keep one or both of Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker. League executives think either one could fetch a new deal "averaging above $12 million per season," per B/R's Jake Fischer, but those are better long-term investments than committing nine figures to Schroder would be.
Caruso is an easy fit as a role player alongside superstars. He competes defensively, knocks down stand-still jumpers (40.1 percent from three this season) and makes good decisions with the basketball (2.8 assists against 1.3 turnovers).
Horton-Tucker is the kind of high-upside lottery ticket the Lakers need—and they seemingly know it, as he was reportedly the sacrifice they wouldn't make for Lowry, per Buha and Oram. Horton-Tucker is already an active, lanky defender with the handles to free himself and the vision to find open teammates. Give him a trusty three-ball (career 28.5 percent), and he might soon be worth the kind of coin someone is about to pay Schroder.
There might be a scenario where Caruso and Horton-Tucker are too cost-prohibitive to keep together, but the Lakers should try to fit both in the budget and must retain at least one of them.
3. Invest in Outside Shooting
When the Miami Heat assembled a roster around James, they placed two stars alongside him and surrounded them with long-range snipers. When the Cleveland Cavaliers got a second go-round with the King, they copied the blueprint.
The Lakers have gone a different direction. Rather than supporting James with spacers, they've sought out playmakers and size. Last season, the model led to a world title. This year, it could bring about serious changes to the supporting cast.
This roster was bad at shooting. From volume to efficiency, it was all awful for the Lakers, who ranked 25th in three-point makes, 24th in attempts and 21st in percentage.
James actually paced the club in average triples with 2.3, which ranked outside of the Association's top 50. Kyle Kuzma and late-season addition Ben McLemore were the only other players who averaged 2.0 threes per night, but they, like James, shot below 37.0 percent from distance. So did every other rotation player other than Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol.
In the modern NBA, a lack of shooting may not be a fatal flaw on its own, but it's in that neighborhood. Of the five teams to average fewer threes than the Lakers, only the Washington Wizards made the postseason, and they didn't secure their spot until the second Play-In Tournament game.
L.A. obviously needs to attack this in free agency, but other assets could be invested in this department, too. If the draft board breaks right, the Lakers should think long and hard about spending the No. 22 pick on a sniper. But it might be worth scouring the trade market for shooters as well, perhaps using Kyle Kuzma as trade bait to find a better fit.
4. Don't Get Carried Away with Andre Drummond
When the Lakers landed Andre Drummond on the buyout market, they wasted no time communicating their belief in the big fella.
They started him for his first game with the team and the 20 others he got in before the end of the season. They kept him in that opening group for their first five playoff contests.
Before L.A.'s Game 5 loss to Phoenix, ESPN's Dave McMenamin reported on The Lowe Post podcast that the Lakers "have signaled to everyone listening" that Drummond is "part of the future moving forward with the franchise," (h/t Brad Sullivan of Lakers Daily).
Wanting a future with Drummond is fine in a vacuum. He has his flaws—defending in space, zero offensive range—but he gobbles up rebounds and is a fairly reliable finisher from close range (career 53.8 percent shooting).
Saying that, it's hard to tell what Drummond might have done so far for the Lakers' decision-makers to consider him a no-doubt part of this group going forward. It's also fair to wonder whether that stance softened at all since L.A. plucked him out of his starting spot in Game 6 and never put him in the game.
Yes, he has name recognition, and his resume features a pair of All-Star trips and a boatload of boards. But is he someone who can consistently impact winning? His stat sheet isn't convinced. For his career, his clubs have only been 0.3 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.
Again, this doesn't have to mean the Lakers are done with Drummond. But the price tag matters, as does his projected role. L.A. should be extra cautious about counting on him to be a full-time starter and paying him as such.
5. Extend Frank Vogel's Contract
Head coach Frank Vogel just finished the second season of his three-year contract with the club. The Lakers would be wise to ensure he'll be around longer than that.
In his first season with the team, he helped steer it to a world title. In his second, he devised the NBA's No. 1 defense despite James and Davis missing a combined 63 contests (of an abbreviated 72-game campaign, no less).
Obviously, Vogel knows which strings to pull defensively. His old Indiana Pacers teams consistently ranked among the NBA's 10 best defenses and twice led the league in defensive efficiency (2012-13 and 2013-14). While he lost his Midas touch during his two seasons with the Orlando Magic, their defensive woes may have stemmed as much from personnel as anything.
The Lakers have a good thing going with their skipper, and they should want to keep it that way. It sounds like they're planning on it.
"The Lakers, I'm told, plan to initiate contract extension talks with Frank Vogel this offseason," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported on NBA Countdown in late April (h/t B/R's Paul Kasabian).
L.A. has some tough decisions to make this summer. Whether Vogel should get an extension isn't one of them.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.