The 2011-2012 season has come to an end for the Los Angeles Lakers, leaving a plateful of concerns that must be addressed during the off-season. The first and one of the most important of these concerns is deciding what to do with players whose contracts have expired.
Luckily for the Lakers, there are only three players currently on the team whose contracts expired at season’s end. Those three players include center Jordan Hill and forwards Matt Barnes and Troy Murphy.
Of the three, the most likely to return for the Lakers is Hill. A promising young center who showed glimpses of exceptional skills towards the end of the season and throughout the playoffs, Hill holds the most long-term potential of the three. More than anything, he gave the Lakers a big man who could come off of the bench and actually provide some quality play in the paint. Hill’s game is still strewn with inconsistencies, but he wants to stay in L.A. and he fits the bill for a team looking to shed some age.
Barnes has been a solid contributor for the past two seasons with the Lakers. His time in L.A., however, has been hampered by injuries. Not to say that he hasn’t battled through, but his health concerns, inconsistent production and ineffectiveness with the outside shot could force the Lakers to head in another direction this off-season.
Murphy, who was brought in on a one-year “prove it” deal, probably didn’t do enough to entice the Lakers into keeping him around. The aging veteran picked up leftover scraps of minutes that Josh McRoberts dropped and rarely stood out when he was on the court. The Lakers knew they were getting an aging veteran when they signed Murphy, but he didn’t provide the play-making and outside shooting they were hoping for.
Those three might be the only Lakers players who could potentially become unrestricted free agents, but there are still a couple restricted free agents that must be tended to in the next few months.
Second-year small forward Devin Ebanks will be a restricted free agent this off-season, meaning that the Lakers have the option to match any contract that another team offers him. Considering his disappointing 2011-2012 performance and the fact that he’ll receive little interest on the open market, it’s safe to assume that Ebanks will be back in L.A. in 2012-2013 for a reasonable price.
Point guard Darius Morris, a rookie during the 2011-2012 campaign, joins Ebanks as the Lakers’ other restricted free agent. Although he got minimum playing time last season (169 minutes over 19 games) and has his sights set on more minutes during the upcoming season, it’s unlikely that he’ll be with any team other than the Lakers.
As for starting point guard Ramon Sessions, who was acquired mid-way through the season, things could get a little complicated. Currently holding a player option for about $4.55 million next season, it’s unclear as to whether or not Sessions will exercise the option. He made it clear before the playoffs that he intended to not exercise it. That was, however, before a lackluster post-season made him reconsider. He could decide to stick with the Lakers for one more season in hopes of playing his way into a big-time contract or he could test his value on the open market. More than likely, though, he’ll choose the latter and give the free agency waters a feel.
The only other lingering question mark apart from the Lakers’ unrestricted/restricted free agents is center Andrew Bynum, who has a $16 million team-option for 2012-2013 that has yet to be exercised. Whether they expect to stick with the potential-laden big man long-term or use him as trade bait, it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll exercise the option by the June 30 deadline.
Although the rest of the Lakers’ roster is currently under contract, that in no way means that they’ll be wearing purple and gold during the 2012-2013 NBA season.
“There will be some change,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said.
When the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement was finally passed last November, an amnesty clause was added that would allow teams to release one player while effectively removing his salary from the cap totals. Although the Lakers opted not to amnesty anyone this past season, there’s a possibility that they could use the clause to sever ties with one of two players.
Starting small forward Metta World Peace is due to make $15 million over the next two seasons, which could become quite a burden when the Lakers begin searching for more talent to add via free agency this off-season. His untimely suspension prior to the playoffs could make them consider amnestying him, but he played well enough throughout the season to make the Lakers take a hard look at keeping him around for at least one more season.
The other candidate that the Lakers could amnesty is veteran point guard Steve Blake, who is set to make $8 million over the next two seasons. Blake had an underwhelming season for the Lakers in 2011-2012 and continued to display subpar three-point shooting. Especially if Sessions sticks around next season, Blake could become an amnesty casualty after failing to play up to his level of pay for the past two years.
The final remaining concern is what the future holds for power forward Pau Gasol. Due almost $40 million over the next two seasons, Gasol turned in a disappointing post-season that has paved the way for off-season trade rumors. With the emergence of Bynum and the transition away from the Triangle offense, Gasol’s value has diminished considerably for the Lakers. He’s one of the only two players who could yield considerable talent via trade, which might be his fate after the Lakers failed to make it past the conference semifinals for the second year in a row.
The rest of the Lakers players not previously mentioned who are still under contract: Kobe Bryant (signed through 2014), Christian Eyenga (signed through 2014), Andrew Goudelock (signed through 2013) and Josh McRoberts (signed through 2013).
It’ll be an interesting off-season in 2012 as the Lakers begin the process of preparing for a push towards another NBA Championship. The only thing for certain: change is a comin’.