It was never realistic to think that Kevin Durant would sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. He needs to win right now, and not waste a single second of his precious prime waiting for the young Lakers to grow up. There is no getting around that problem, regardless of how enticing as the trappings of Hollywood may be.
That said, Durant declining to meet with the Lakers isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Over the past few summers, the Lakers have been notorious for letting attainable players slip through their fingers while they wait for stars to ultimately turn them down. Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, and DeAndre Jordan all said no eventually, but by the time they did many of the secondary targets on the market were long gone.
Now, with Durant off the board before free agency begins, the Lakers can focus on spending their $66 million in cap space elsewhere. The competition will be incredibly fierce given the fact that the majority of the league has a max salary slot due to the TV-deal driven spike in cap space, but the Lakers may be in a position to turn the tables this year and lock up talent while others are waiting for Durant to make a decision.
So now that Durant has given them their freedom, who should the Lakers go after with their mountain of cash? I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 targets, ranked in order:
*Note: The Lakers have historically avoided restricted free agents, so I’ve left them off this list. Apologies to Harrison Barnes. Also, positional needs were a heavy factor, so no starting-quality point guards here.
With Andre Drummond bound by restricted free agency, Hassan Whiteside is arguably the best center available this summer. He led the league in blocks (3.7 per game) by a wide margin and is an athletic finisher at the rim. In terms of finding a potential pick-and-roll partner for D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson to play off of, there is no one better on the market.
The Lakers are Skellington-thin at the center position, with rookie Ivica Zubac being the only one on the roster when free agency begins. Whiteside does have some question marks about his maturity, so Los Angeles would have to be sure to add several strong veterans to the squad as well, but that’s something they will look to do regardless of whether or not they sign Whiteside. Coach Luke Walton would also have some challenges integrating Whiteside into his offense, as the big man is a reluctant passer, and doesn’t have a very well-rounded post game.
Still, those are minor complaints when factoring in the massive positives that Whiteside brings to the table. At just 27 years old, he offers the best combination of youth, athleticism, and fit for the rebuilding Lakers. He will have plenty of suitors (I estimate at least 10 teams that would happily give him a max deal), but the incumbent Miami Heat will be one of the franchises waiting for Durant, so it’s not out of the question for the Lakers to swoop in if they put on the full-court press the moment free agency opens.
2. Al Horford
A four-time All-Star, big man Al Horford would instantly give the Lakers an inside threat and a proven veteran voice in the locker room. He isn’t the rim protector that Whiteside is, but Horford’s 1.5 blocks per game and savvy positioning make up for it, all while providing a much more versatile offensive repertoire.
In fact, last season Horford expanded his range all the way out to the three-point line, where he connected at a 34 percent clip. Given power forward Julius Randle’s struggles with his jumper, Horford’s range would go a long way towards creating the spacing that Walton’s offense will need.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, it’s doubtful that Horford has Los Angeles very high on his list of preferred teams. At 30 years old, he doesn’t have time to wait for the Lakers young core to grow up around him. Like Durant, he will be looking for a team that will give him an opportunity to win now.
Landing Horford would be one heck of a coup for the Lakers, but it’s unlikely unless they can convince another star to join him.
3. Nicolas Batum
Even though the Lakers drafted a small forward in Brandon Ingram, they are still going to need an experienced wing player if they are going to increase their win total next season. Batum may not be great at any one thing, but his versatility would be a perfect fit for Walton’s offense.
When the situation calls for it Batum can hit the three, attack off the dribble, or create for teammates by making the right pass. He can even spend some time initiating the offense as a point-forward or slide over to play shooting guard. Batum’s seven-foot wingspan allows him to play bigger than he actually is defensively, and that length comes in handy when switching pick and rolls.
Essentially, Batum is the NBA’s duct tape, able to fix just about anything.
Unfortunately, the Charlotte Hornets appear to be determined to keep Batum, and even if he decides to consider other teams his options will be plentiful. Still, the Frenchman is such an excellent fit for what the Lakers are hoping to accomplish that it could be worth fighting off a few other suitors to sign him.
4. Bismack Biyombo
Moving back to the center position, no player increased their value during the playoffs more than Bismack Biyombo. The big man from the Congo stepped up for the Toronto Raptors when Jonas Valanciunas was injured, becoming a force on the boards while ferociously protecting the rim.
However, during the regular season, Biyombo’s averages of 5.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks didn’t exactly scream starter, and certainly didn’t suggest that he should be awarded a contract of over $15 million per year. His playoff explosion has flipped the script, and someone is going to bet big that he can sustain his production as a full-time starter.
Biyombo is an atrocious passer, but he makes up for it with his ability to protect the rim and finish pick and rolls. Unfortunately, outside of finishing dunks, Biyombo’s offensive game is about as dependable Rafi from The League.
Still, when it comes to rim protectors, few are better than Biyombo, and the fact (?) that he is only 23 years old means that he would be a great piece to grow alongside the Lakers’ young core.
5. Chandler Parsons
When it comes to versatile wings, Chandler Parsons is one of the best. He scorched the nets from three last season with 41 percent accuracy, while chipping in a solid amount of rebounds and assists. When defenders close out to the arc, Parsons has the ability to either attack the rim off the dribble with his surprising athleticism or make the correct pass when the defense rotates.
In other words, he’s precisely the kind of player that would be successful in a Golden State Warriors-inspired offense.
The catch, of course, is that Parsons can struggle to stay healthy. In his five-year NBA career he has never played a full 82 games, and last season he appeared in a career-low 61 games and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery.
Parsons is such a good fit that the risk may be worth it. He is just 27 years old and is renowned for his ability to recruit other free agents, which could be helpful as long as he doesn’t bring Dwight Howard with him again.
The one that got away. Two years ago, the Lakers allowed Kent Bazemore to sign a ridiculously team-friendly deal with the Atlanta Hawks after a promising half-season in Los Angeles because they were preserving cap space for the off-chance that Carmelo Anthony would decide to leave the New York Knicks. Now, the Lakers may have a chance to right that wrong, albeit at a much higher price.
Since departing for Atlanta, Bazemore has established himself as a solid 3-and-D player, and at nearly 27 years old the athleticism that he is known for is still very much in play. He can play either shooting guard or small forward, and while he isn’t a dead-eye shooter, his average of 36 percent from three is enough to keep defenses honest.
On a Lakers team that is lacking in plus defenders, Bazemore would immediately become the team’s perimeter stopper and would draw the toughest assignments every night. The fact that he can switch between two positions would give Walton some flexibility, and he would allow Ingram to get acclimated to the NBA without feeling the pressure to produce right away. Bazemore doesn’t have the offensive upside of Parsons or Batum, but he would be an excellent addition for the Lakers, and one that hopefully wouldn’t completely break the bank.
7. Joakim Noah
Noah is a really intriguing option for the Lakers at the center position. His jumper is perhaps the most cringe-worthy thing since Indiana Jones 4, but the rest of his game is straight Raiders of the Lost Ark. His production has slipped a bit, but he is still one of the most versatile defenders in the league, and the intensity and the passion that he brings to every game would go a long way towards setting the tone for the younger players.
Noah’s passing ability is also elite for a big man, which would be a useful tool in Walton’s offense. He may not quite be the All-Star that he was two years ago, but there is plenty of reason to believe that Noah would be an excellent fit with the Lakers.
The catch is that Noah is even more fragile than Parsons, appearing in just 29 games last season, and at 31 years old there is little reason to believe he will become an ironman anytime soon. Rumors also abound that Noah values winning above money, which suggests that the Lakers won’t be high on his list of preferred teams when free agency opens.
In 2005, Marvin Williams was expected to become a superstar in the NBA, taken by Atlanta just ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams with the second pick in the draft. Unfortunately, he never lived up to the hype, but he has carved out a nice career for himself as a role player.
In fact, one could argue that Williams simply arrived in the NBA a decade too early. He’s 6’8” with a 7’3” wingspan, can play multiple positions, and has the ability to both shoot from outside and score in the post. Sound familiar? It should because those are the same qualities that have fans so excited about Ingram.
Of course, Williams was never the scorer in college that Ingram was, but that’s beside the point. Williams isn’t the star the Hawks thought he would be, but his skill set makes him valuable in the modern game.
Williams would be able to play either small or power forward for Walton depending on the situation, and as a former second pick, he knows quite a bit about dealing with high expectations. At 30 years old his best days are likely behind them, but Williams would be a fantastic mentor for Ingram and the rest of the young Lakers will giving them a real boost on the court.
If this was just a list of the top free agents, DeRozan would be somewhere near the top. He is an All-Star, gets the line relentlessly, scores in bunches, has improved as a ball-handler in the pick and roll, and can create his own shot.
Unfortunately, he’s also a terrible fit for the Lakers. One of DeRozan’s biggest weaknesses is his perimeter defense, which makes him a poor partner in the backcourt for Russell and Clarkson, who also struggle to keep anyone in front of them.
DeRozan’s lack of a three-point shot is also a problem, though he makes up for it somewhat with his ability to attack teams off the dribble and score from the mid-range. The bigger issue is that it’s going to take the max to bring DeRozan on board, while the skill set that he brings is already somewhat replicated by the much-cheaper Clarkson, and to an extent, Lou Williams.
I can’t say the Lakers should completely steer clear of DeRozan because he has talent, which is something the Lakers sorely need, but he just doesn’t fit on the court as well as other options would.
10. Evan Turner
Another former second-overall pick that didn’t quite pan out the way most thought he would, Turner could be a steal if he is willing to come to Los Angeles. Like Marvin Williams, the things that kept Turner from becoming a star don’t seem to be quite as big of a deal as they used to.
He can’t shoot the three, but he is good everywhere else, including as a distributor. Turner is a little DeRozan-esque in that he does most of his damage in the mid-range, but he is much better at creating shots for teammates. It’s this ability that allows him to play three positions, including point guard. For a young Lakers team that will need to keep the ball moving, Turner could be an excellent fit on the court, especially if they can land a center who can shoot threes.
Turner’s averages last season of 10.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists reveal just how versatile he is. If he could shoot threes, Turner would be much higher up on this list, but he would also be a lot more expensive.
Turner isn’t likely to require a max contract or anything close to it, making it a little easier to give the 27-year-old a long-term deal. Of course, swiping a player away from the Boston Celtics is just icing on the cake.