The NBA season will conclude Sunday with either the Golden State Warriors or the Cleveland Cavaliers emerging as this year’s champion. This is exactly the scenario everyone expected last October when the season began. For fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, it seems like an eternity since their season ended over two months ago.
Most Lakers fans are interested in the playoffs but frankly are more focused on this week’s NBA Draft and the free agency period which starts in two weeks. Still, there are lessons to be learned from the Finals which may impact what the Lakers do personnel-wise over the next month.
1. Be Wary of Harrison Barnes
There have been rumors all year that the Lakers will try to sign restricted free agent Harrison Barnes. It makes sense since he is a small forward on a team with no starter at that position. Barnes has a reputation for hitting outside shots and playing defense, which are two things the Lakers need to improve on. Other positives include the fact that he just turned 24 which means he can grow with the team’s young core.
But there are cogent reasons to be wary of Barnes in free agency. First, he has been inconsistent and never more so than during this Finals matchup with the Cavaliers.
In games three and four, he made 12 of 22 shots helping the Warriors jump out to a 3-1 lead. However, in games five and six, he also shot 22 times but made a dreadful two baskets. In his last game, he had a mere two rebounds and no assists. With the defense focused on Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Barnes is missing wide open shots.
This is fairly typical of Barnes’ career, and after plenty of playing time over four full seasons, is it realistic to expect he will get much better? Barnes is a good acquisition at the right price, but he is not worth the substantial offer it will likely take to get him to say yes and steal him from the Warriors, especially if the Lakers draft Brandon Ingram who plays the same position and has higher upside potential.
2. Be Wary of Festus Ezeli
Someone has to play center for the Lakers next season, and at this point; it is anyone’s guess who that might be. The team is expected to make a strong pitch to sign either Hassan Whiteside or Al Horford, but there will be plenty of competition for both players. While there is always a chance, it is entirely possible, and indeed likely, that the Lakers will lose that sweepstakes to teams which are more playoff-ready.
Another center who is often mentioned as a possibility for the Lakers is Festus Ezeli; another Warriors’ restricted free agent. Ezeli has been in the league since 2012 and has never been a starter. This year, he averaged a mere 16.7 minutes per game during the regular season, which means he played sparingly. His average has dipped to 8.7 minutes per game in the playoffs, which means the Warriors do not consider Ezeli an integral part of the team at this moment.
Ezeli is an imposing 6’11,” 265 pounds. His supporters feel he has the potential to be a solid defender and rebounder. Indeed, in limited action this year, he averaged 5.6 rebounds and offensively made 54.6% of the limited shots he took. Yet Ezeli will turn 27 at the start of next season and has been injury prone. There is no empirical evidence to suggest he is worth a max contract or anything close to it. If that is what it takes to pry him away from Golden State, it is better that the Lakers pass.
3. Lakers Will Eventually Have to Land Superstars
The Lakers have aspirations of returning to championship contention sooner rather than later. If they continue on the path they’ve started, building from the draft, it may be their best long-term option, but they will not be a contender anytime soon. In most instances, even with very good players, it takes them at least four or five seasons to begin to be ready to lead a team deep into the playoffs.
As this season demonstrates again, a team needs multiple superstars like LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and the Splash Brothers to compete for a title. Will D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and/or Brandon Ingram (the Lakers’ presumptive draft choice) ever become the equal of the players mentioned above? At best that is a 50/50 proposition, and we won’t know for a few years.
To become a title contender again, at some point the Lakers will have to trade for a star player or acquire one (or more) in free agency. It may occur this year, or it may have to wait. They will try for free agent Kevin Durant next month, but that is unlikely to work. They could explore trading for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, but that would probably require gutting the rest of the roster which is too steep a price.
This year, the Finals feature two players (Barnes and Ezeli) linked to the Lakers in free agency. The Lakers have a lot of money they must spend under league rules, but paying top dollar to these players would be a mistake. The front office must be patient and not overpay for marginal talent. Furthermore, it is clear that to become a real contender the Lakers will eventually have to acquire a superstar or two in free agency or by trade. It may happen this summer, or it might take another year or two for the right superstar to come along. Until then, hopefully fans will see steady improvement which will make it easier to attract the great players who are willing to move to a new team.