In many ways, what has transpired this season so far for the Lakers has been splendid for their long-term prospects, the recent weeks of suffering from watching their feckless play notwithstanding. Yes, it is primarily because the team is moving towards having one of the league's worst records and a great shot at a fantastic draft class in the summer, but also since it should force a change in how the team views its short-term future with Kobe Bryant on the team. As yours truly covered a few months back, Kobe's extension has greatly hamstrung the team in terms of its flexibility this summer and limited their ability to sign players from what at the time was an interesting corps of role players as well as chase the star free agents they so greatly desired.
Well, the luster of the Lakers' role players has waned considerably as of late, some due to injury, others to a drop in effectiveness, and in many cases, a combination of both. The poster child for this change has to be Jordan Hill, who went from borderline All-Star candidate to his familiar energy role player label in the space of a few weeks. The rest of the board has experienced a similar drop in productivity with the possible exception of Jodie Meeks, who inexplicably has continued his improvement from last year by becoming quite the dependable offensive option. Regardless, the bottom line is that it has become cheaper to retain the role players the Lakers want to keep barring another drastic turnaround in their fortunes between now and the end of the season.
The flip side is that no one from this group has emerged as anything other than a decent backup. Frankly, it was an overabundance of optimism to think that their ceiling could be anything to the contrary, but that was the power that the Lakers' initial 10-9 start exerted on the imagination. As a result, the Lakers will have to fill essentially every starting rotation spot save for shooting guard this offseason and next. This isn't an especially new line of thought: even when the 2014 free agent class was being held up as the great panacea for the Lakers' woes, the thought was the entire team would be rebuilt around Kobe and the new free agent acquisitions. Two max signings in 2014 or one in 2014 and another in 2015, the Lakers had the flexibility to pursue either strategy.
Kobe's extension has tied their hands in terms of which max free agents they can conceivably add, but it is still mostly true, except with a new twist in that it is very likely their big 2014 addition will come from the draft and not free agency. Barring LeBron James donning the purple and gold, the player who can have the biggest impact on the Lakers' franchise over the next five years isn't able to legally buy a drink right now. The issues befalling all of these prospects right now, whether it is Andrew Wiggins' perceived lack of aggressiveness, Joel Embiid's raw game, or Jabari Parker's struggles against more athletic defenders notwithstanding, they will become a key cog in whatever new core emerges in the next few years as the face of Lakers basketball.
So, what do the Lakers do in 2014, then? They could make a game effort at LeBron or try to hoodwink Carmelo Anthony into accepting a salary that is not completely ridiculous -- which won't happen since New York will offer him an awful lot of money to stay -- but their targets are likely the tier below them. We have discussed the probable choices there, whether it is Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe, or Gordon Hayward, although this tends to miss the underlying point. With the draft pick, the Lakers will have made their proverbial big splash in 2014. It doesn't mean that all of the aforementioned names aren't worthwhile pursuits; quite to the contrary, they should still focus an awful lot on that market.
It does mean, however, that they shouldn't feel compelled into walking into a deal that they don't feel best meets the needs of the franchise in terms of their flexibility in 2015 and beyond. There's no need to justify all this effort to clear cap space for 2014 and onwards by feeling that they are obligated to sign someone. Yes, Mitch Kupchak has said repeatably that the team won't spend just for the sake of spending, but that only goes so far. If the Lakers had a draft pick in the teens, there would be a much greater sense of urgency to add someone significant this summer to make the team moderately competitive next season in Kobe's twilight years. This doesn't necessarily imply that the Lakers would have made a bad signing, although the definition of that would have been narrowed since their priorities would have been different.
In this light, if the Lakers have any reservations about giving big offer sheets to any of these free agents, they can simply refrain from doing so. Their goal should not necessarily be to sign a big free agent, but to get good value for whomever they do end up getting. The Lakers have so many holes right now that they could look around just about anywhere save for where their draft pick is projected to start at. Obviously, that's far away in the future, but at least in the current top seven, there are two point guards (Marcus Smart, Dante Exum), two wings (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker), two power forwards (Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon), and one center (Joel Embiid).
The merits of each of them aside -- don't worry, there will be plenty of discussion of that in the future -- they also change the choices the Lakers make in free agency. We can assume that the draft pick will solidify whatever position he ends up filling for the foreseeable future and that the Lakers will likely get one of the big 2015 free agents, Kevin Love the most prominent of the bunch, but Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, and others are included in a pretty deep free agent class. These two pickups, the 2014 draft pick and the 2015 free agent acquisition, will join with Kobe as the three prongs of what hopefully should be a contending team for the remainder of Kobe's contract, after which Kobe leaving will open up a ton of space for someone in 2016 whose nickname has something to do with spiders.
Ah, but you eagle-eyed cap aficionados will rightfully note that there's room for more significant players in this discussion because the draft pick doesn't remotely have the same cap hit at as a max signing. That's a hugely important part of this rebuild because the Lakers will be getting an impact player for at worst a third of the price of a Bledsoe or Monroe, or roughly a fifth of the price of a LeBron or Melo. So even with Kobe's extension, the Lakers have stumbled into a great deal of flexibility in terms of how they approach free agency this summer in terms of plugging holes around the roster. They don't necessarily need a max player; rather, they just need to ensure that they get a dependable starter for one of their position groups since the superstar signing they're shooting for is more likely to come in 2015.
And finally, we can dispense with the buildup and get to what yours truly really wanted to discuss: there's probably no better value signing the Lakers could make this summer than to get Toronto's Kyle Lowry. Although relatively unheralded and usually not finding himself in discussion for All-Star rosters, Lowry is a 19 PER point guard who plays solid defense, hits threes, can run an offense, and is only 27. Last we checked, that kind of player doesn't exactly grow on trees, but the league is so saturated with quality point guards nowadays that Lowry gets nary a mention.
Out of the thirteen teams this summer that are projected to have cap space, only three, not including the Lakers, really have a significant hole at point guard: Milwaukee, Orlando, and Lowry's current team in Toronto. Not coincidentally, Milwaukee and Orlando are also competitors for a top pick this summer, so just as the Lakers could have their interest in Lowry be rendered moot by drafting Smart or Exum, so could both the Bucks and Magic. This only emphasizes the shallow market for a point guard who is not quite elite and how it would be a poor allocation of resources for most teams in the league that already have a solid choice at the one. As such, the Lakers' main competition for getting Lowry is probably from Toronto, as neither the Bucks nor Magic are known as big free agent spenders.
That alone could make Lowry somewhat expensive -- it only takes one team to set a market -- but say for the sake of discussion that the Lakers could nab Lowry for a contract starting at $8 million a year. That locks down the point guard spot, gives them leave to bring back whatever parts of the current team they like, and also provides the freedom to go for small signings as part of their further search for value. After all, Kupchak picked up the pieces of an interesting and fun core that exceeded expectations to start the year with nothing more than the minimum. What does he do when afforded more financial freedom in that effort?
We mention Lowry here primarily because he's likely the best combination of cost and performance that the Lakers will be able to find on the free agent market. This doesn't mean that he's the only good choice available, but it would be hard to top him in the aforementioned categories. Someone like Luol Deng, for instance, would likely be much more expensive seeing that the proposed extension he turned down from Chicago was reportedly $30 million over three years. Any of the big restricted free agents would probably require a max contract offer to separate them from their original team, although if Detroit doesn't trade Monroe, they might be forced to let him go at whatever figure he ends up commanding to avoid dealing with a crowded frontcourt.
Again, someone like Monroe at the max isn't necessarily a worse signing in terms of impact than Lowry. Is say Smart/Monroe worse than Lowry/Embiid? Not really. What the latter brings is much more flexibility to make other moves, however, even if the overall effect on the Lakers' 2015 free agent plans is negligible. The central issue is that the Lakers should spend this offseason rebuilding their rotation and plugging as many holes as they can for the sake of a competitive season as they prepare for a big 2015 acquisition. That's much harder to do with a max signing such as Monroe than it is with someone like Lowry. It's not the wrong move if Kupchak feels that an only 23 year old Monroe will pay dividends for the team or if he's sufficiently adept at picking players off the scrap heap to compensate for the decreased cap flexibility -- or signing them to one-year deals: after all, so long as those players expire in 2015, everything works out splendidly. But we can probably say that in the case of a Lowry signing that it would make things easier on the team to pursue the smaller options they want this summer.
The landscape could very well change between now and the summer, whether due to trades at the deadline or injuries complicating the field, but the simple reality is that the Lakers getting a high pick has produced a paradigm shift for their immediate free agent plans. The notion of drafting a star in a loaded draft class was already attractive enough, but it might end up being the means by which the Lakers end up remaining competitive despite Kobe's massive extension and pay dividends long after he is retired. Kupchak and the rest of the front office are sounding all of the right notes about how to handle this offseason and that making the right signings is of paramount importance. With this draft pick, they now have the opportunity to make good on those statements and pursue their rebuilding with some of the flexibility they had before Kobe's extension.
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