Despite Free Agency And Trade Rumors, Lakers May Have To Rely Upon Young Core For Another Season
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The seemingly non-stop free agency and trade rumors about superstars who will be joining the Los Angeles Lakers this summer have many fans convinced it is going to happen. This might be an appropriate time to remember that speculation is just that.

It is entirely possible the Lakers roster in a couple months will look much like it did last season. What is sometimes lost in the frenzy is that there are more attractive destinations than Los Angeles for top free agents who want to compete for a championship right away.

There are some playoff teams who have more assets to pull off a major trade than the Lakers. Despite the daily rumors, no one knows what is going to happen. It is possible the Lakers will be unable to complete any major trades or signings despite the best efforts of the front office.

Would it be so terrible if the team had to go through another season with a roster that was largely unchanged? By all appearances, many fans wouldn’t mind at all.

The young Lakers showed marked improvement this past season. Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart will all be between the ages of 21 and 23 when next season begins.

Could it be that they will come together in the fall as the Lakers’ new starting lineup?

Unfortunately, we did not get much of a preview of this lineup during the season. With early rotations relying more heavily on the veterans and with injuries to Ball, Ingram and Hart later on, the young core rarely got a chance to all share the court at the same time. Still, there were many positives.

Ball averaged 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 7.2 assists, which are good statistics for a rookie. He would have received greater recognition but for the fact he was limited to 52 games because of injuries.

And, of course, due to the spotlight on another rookie who plays the same position: Ben Simmons, who appears to be a once-in-a-generation talent at point guard.

Ingram’s statistics improved dramatically from his rookie season. His biggest deficiency as a rookie was scoring, or lack thereof. But he went from 9.4 points per game on 40 percent shooting from the field and 29.4 percent from 3-point range in 2016-17, to 16.1 points per game on 47 percent shooting and 39 percent from deep this season.

He was coming into his own before Justise Winslow’s foul resulted in Ingram suffering a groin injury that, along with a concussion, threw the remainder of his season off course.

After starting the season coming off the bench, Randle became a dominant player on both ends of the court. He had never shown stellar effort on defense but significantly improved his conditioning last summer, showed up to training camp in top shape, and thus was able to make a sustained effort.

On offense, he regularly scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds per game after the All-Star break. Kuzma and Hart were the 27th and 30th picks in last summer’s draft, but you would never know it from the contributions they made.

The former scored 30 points in his last full game, a thrilling overtime win against the playoff-bound San Antonio Spurs. With Ingram, Ball and Kuzma all sidelined, Hart scored 30 points in the final game of the season to lead the Lakers to a win over the rival Clippers.

Some fans would prefer that the Lakers give the young core another season to mature before any big personnel moves are made. They would be content to see a starting lineup featuring Ball and Hart as one of the best rebounding backcourts in the league, the long and athletic Ingram and Kuzma at the forward positions, and raging bull Randle at center.

Of course, the Lakers front office has other plans as they start to reshape a roster that consisted primarily of players who are now free agents or subject to a team option that can (and likely will) be declined.

The favorite scenario for the front office is that the Lakers sign their top two free agent targets, LeBron James and Paul George. Should that occur, it is unlikely that the Lakers could or would match the type of contract offer(s) Randle is expected to receive.

With James a small forward and George capable of playing shooting guard and small forward, it would likely make Ingram and/or Hart expendable.

The second scenario is that the Lakers only sign George. He is used to playing 35 minutes a game, and that could still make Ingram expendable. Or George could play guard and Hart might be the odd man out. At best, one or the other would be coming off the bench.

The third scenario is that the Lakers trade for Southern California native Kawhi Leonard, who, when healthy, is arguably the best two-way player in the NBA. This would cost the Lakers at least two key members of their young core, plus their first round pick in the 2018 Draft.

The front office did not act when superstars Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, and Chris Paul were traded last year. But another 11th-place finish in the West this past season might push Johnson over the edge if the team is unable to sign a top tier free agent this summer.

The fourth scenario is that the Lakers do not sign any top free agents and do not complete a blockbuster trade, either because they value Ingram and Kuzma too highly, the Spurs decide to keep Leonard, or they are outbid by teams with more assets to trade.

Should this occur, Randle will likely be re-signed and the young core will remain intact. Right now, this fourth scenario leaves the Lakers with the aforementioned Ball, Ingram, Randle, Kuzma, Hart and 21-year-old Ivica Zubac (if the Lakers keep him), but not much else.

The free agency pickings are slim this summer, and the best options may be those the team featured last year, Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Isaiah Thomas.

To maintain financial flexibility, the Lakers presumably will only offer a one year contract and that is the biggest hurdle. Lopez and Caldwell-Pope may not be All-Stars but they were good enough this year to receive a multi-year offer.

Aside from his physical condition, Thomas likely would also want a multi-year contract. It’s also believed Thomas wants to start, and it is unlikely that there will be an opening for him in that role with Lakers.

With the possibility that this year’s young core could become next season’s starting unit, the biggest question would be the center position. Randle, who is listed at 6-foot-9, is fine at center in a small ball lineup.

But he was most effective at power forward when Lopez was playing outside stretching the floor, taking the opposing center out of the paint and opening the area around the basket for Randle.

Of course, Kuzma at power forward could stretch the floor even better than Lopez, but can Randle be counted on to guard centers who are much taller than he is like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic?

Johnson will make a better pitch to free agents than did Jim Buss, certain stars might be available in a trade, and solid veterans like Caldwell-Pope, Lopez and Thomas might be talked into returning.

Anything could happen, but the odds do not favor the Lakers. There are teams that are more attractive destinations for free agents because they are already in the playoffs and ready to compete for a title.

At least two of those, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, have a wealth of assets that the Lakers could not match in compiling a trade package.

If, despite Magic Johnson’s best efforts, no big moves are made this summer, many fans would be content to see Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, Randle and Hart in the starting lineup. If they stay healthy, and continue to improve, the Lakers will be in the mix for a playoff spot next season.

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