With NBA free agency set to begin on Friday, Los Angeles Lakers fans hope the good fortune the team has experienced the past two months will continue into the next phase of the offseason. They excitedly await the signing of top free agents who will turn the Lakers fortunes around quickly. While fans should always hope for the best, they should likewise not be surprised if this summer turns out to resemble the last two years when the best players returned to their current teams and those few who moved joined squads that were already contending for a championship.
When free agency begins, the Lakers will have the most cap space of any NBA team. While that sounds promising, by all appearances the top players no longer care about living in Los Angeles during the season. They do care about money, but the Lakers can no longer outspend other teams. Prominent free agents want to play with other stars so they can compete right away for a championship. The Lakers have no stars currently and thus have no more advantage than the smallest market team.
Further, the Lakers lack the necessary assets to pull off a major trade, so if they want to make a significant jump in the standings next season, it may require the team to sign two legitimate stars in free agency. While anything is possible, it is very unlikely this is going to happen.
Last year, there was plenty of buzz around restricted free agents Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, but when NBA free agency started they quickly re-signed with their old teams. Marc Gasol did not wait for offers and simply re-joined the Memphis Grizzles, and players like Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight and Tobias Harris followed suit with their respective teams. DeAndre Jordan looked like he was going to move but ultimately returned to the Los Angeles Clippers.
The only true superstar to switch teams last year was LaMarcus Aldridge, who left Portland to join perennial championship contender the San Antonio Spurs.
Most top free agents will again stay put because they are already on playoff teams that are becoming championship contenders, and the money is the same (or better) on those teams. With NBA salaries skyrocketing, it is very attractive to play in a handful of states with no state income tax like Florida and Texas.
Where does that leave the Lakers? They know they have no hope of acquiring Kevin Durant or LeBron James, who will probably stay with their current teams, so the Lakers will maneuver to acquire some combination of Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Nicolas Batum, and/or Harrison Barnes. Batum has already hinted he expects to return to the Charlotte Hornets. Barnes is a restricted free agent whom the team would have to seriously overpay to have any chance to wrestling him away from the Golden State Warriors. Horford may or may not leave Atlanta, a perennial playoff team, but at age 30, he has said nothing to suggest he is interested in the young Lakers.
That leaves Whiteside, for whom the competition will be fierce. Pat Riley, who runs the Miami Heat, has tremendous stature in the NBA community and is brilliant. He is not going to let Whiteside go without a fight.
The competition for Mike Conley, point guard of the Memphis Grizzles, will also be intense. Conley would be a serious upgrade for the Lakers, but for whatever reason, there is no indication that either side is interested in the other. Plus, it makes no sense to sign Conley if the team envisions D’Angelo Russell as their point guard of the future.
DeMar DeRozan and Bismack Biyombo are likely to return to the Toronto Raptors, a team that made the Eastern Conference finals and may challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers if age or injuries catch up to the champs. Festus Ezeli had an underwhelming season for Golden State and an even poorer postseason, but the Warriors are likely to match any offer he receives especially if Andrew Bogut departs.
In the end, though one hopes for the best, the Lakers will probably do what they’ve done the past two years, which is settle for veterans with modest talent. Last summer, Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert, and Lou Williams seemed “okay” on paper. Hibbert played poorly all season, but Bass and Williams had their moments. However, none of these veterans made any difference at all in the standings nor in all likelihood will any comparable free agent signings this summer make much of a difference.
Still, under league rules, the Lakers must sign players and give them a lot of money to use up their cap space. Ironically, two of the most famous players available this summer are former Lakers Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and the team desperately needs centers. Yet both players left the team on bad terms, and it ‘s hard to imagine either voluntarily returning to re-live unpleasant memories.
That leaves a plethora of average options which are similar talent-wise to the players the Lakers signed last year. This includes possibilities such as Arron Afflalo, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee, Allen Crabbe, Timofey Mozgov, Chandler Parsons, Marreese Speights, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Bass, and many other decent journeymen. Most likely the Lakers will end up signing players of this ilk. In such event, success or failure next season will be determined by the continued development of the young players and not by the veterans, who will provide leadership in the clubhouse but will do little to ensure a markedly improved position in the standings.