The playoffs are out of reach, Kobe Bryant will not make a return this year and the team's best course of action may be losing every one of their games for the remainder of the season. Not much to watch for in the last 18 or so games, is there?
Out of all the Lakers on the floor, who do you need to "see the most from" in regard to potentially re-signing him for next season? Why?
The Great Mambino
In the last 18 games of the season, there's no question that the Lakers need to see the most from MarShon Brooks in order to properly gauge his offseason value in free agency...or if he's even worth paying attention to.
Brooks essentially is a poor man's Nick Young. He is streaky shooter who is far more comfortable with the ball in his hands than without. He has the size and athleticism to be an at least average defender, yet hasn't been properly internally motivated to do so. Brooks can spot up or shoot the ball off the dribble, a skill that might not seem rare, because many players think they have both qualities, but few actually possess them. He has all the tools to explode offensively at any minute, like a slower and more deliberate Jamal Crawford, and yet hasn't harnessed that destiny to date. He's shown it in little spurts since coming to the Lakers in the Steve Blake deal, but has been anything but consistent. Over the next month, he needs to show the Lakers a bit more life on both ends of the floor and what he's capable of doing in a bench role. Nick Young could easily depart this summer via free agency for a richer deal elsewhere, so Brooks would be the logical successor as a scorer in reserve.
While Pau Gasol is obviously going to be a big issue going into free agency, I doubt the team needs to see more from him in order to know what his proper value is to them. He is what he is at this age: a very good and versatile offensive player, but a liability on the defensive end if not flanked with athletic perimeter guys and a shot blocker. What he's worth is a conversation for another day, but I suspect that the Lakers already know what that is.
If this question had been asked closer to mid-season, my immediate response would be to further evaluate what Jodie Meeks can offer to this team long-term. But given his overall play this season, it's fair to assume his price tag after this season will be a bit too high for the Lakers to pursue him. Aside from the obligation to evaluate the team's most recent additions of Bazemore and Brooks, the Lakers need to see the most from Ryan Kelly to better understand if he has a meaningful role in the coming years.
Kelly, who was projected to struggle to find a spot in the league, turned out to be a second-round gem for D'Antoni's system. He can spread the floor, has enough of a handle to get by slower defenders, and--at least so far--stays within his role. He has a qualifying offer of $1 million for the 2014-15 season. Specifically, the front office needs to evaluate his value to the team when D'Antoni is no longer the head coach. We know he can be the traditional stretch-4 that D'Antoni is so inclined to use in his lineups, but can he play at this level for another coach in another system? He has a good feel for where to be on the court, something even Coach Thibodeau pointed out earlier in the season. It's not every day a team finds reliable contributors in the second round--Kelly, ideally, should be given as many minutes as possible so the front office can try to determine how he can fit without D'Antoni.
He has played 30+ minutes in the last two games, but was below 20 minutes per game for a stretch before that. While rotation consistency isn't a strong suit for D'Antoni--not exactly all his fault given the injuries--the hope is to see Kelly on the floor for a minimum 25 minutes per game the remainder of the season. As he showed against OKC, Kelly is not just a spot-up shooter, but has the court vision to find the open guy. The talent is clearly there, but a lack of consistent playing time as of late has affected his per-minute production. The Lakers know Kelly should have a spot on this team next season, but the exact parameters of role are yet to be determined. Who the coach is will play a critical role in that evaluation.
The easiest answer is likely the two most recent additions, Bazemore and Brooks, who appear to have some potential talent and won't likely garner much interest in free agency; however I am going to go with Wesley Johnson. Johnson is an intriguing player. He has all the tools to be an excellent defender with his athleticism and long wingspan (listed as 7'1"). While offense is not his particular strength, he has exhibited a very solid shooting stroke, hitting almost 37% from deep on over 200 attempts so far this season. Packaged together he has the makings to be an excellent three-and-D type player, the exact type of player you want to fit around your superstars.
Recently D'Antoni has been experimenting with Johnson at the PF position in true small fashion. The results have been mixed. He held his own against LaMarcus Aldridge defensively while consistently getting transition hoops by beating him down the floor (not to mention the game winning basket). However when faced up against Anthony Davis he struggled mightily. It's clear that D'Antoni thinks Johnson may be useful in a Shawn Marion type of role as an undersized PF but I think we need to see more of it. The biggest problem for Johnson though is his poor rebounding rate. Johnson's rebounding rate is only 7.7%, roughly half of Marion's 15-16% during his time in Phoenix. The Lakers are one of the worst rebounding teams in the league and Johnson has been a contributor to that result. The rebound rate around 8% isn't terrible for a small forward, but as a PF it becomes a big problem.
Can he defend enough of the power forwards in the league to be able to play that position regularly? Is he going to improve on the glass where the Lakers are quite weak? Can he continue to exploit the slower players matched up against him by running in transition and making decisive cuts to the basket? If he can do these things he could be a solid piece going forward as a three-and-D player who can play both forward positions. Those types of players are needed in order to build a contender.
This question primarily has to do with the players who are going to become unrestricted free agents this upcoming offseason, so even if Kent Bazemore and Ryan Kelly were borderline retention candidates--and they're not; both have more or less played themselves onto next year's squad barring a big offer in restricted free agency--they don't really fall under the purview of this question. As a result, I really think that we're parsing who among the wing rotation is the best option to keep going into next year, as what was once a huge weakness going into the year now has a number of options for the Lakers to look at.
Of these guys, I think that the stakes are highest for Xavier Henry, who arguably has the most upside of the wing options available. Wesley Johnson, for instance, is really a finished product at age 26 or at the very least, has reached the peak level he conceivably can reach. He might end up being a good retention candidate as a versatile backup wing who works well in this system, but it's unlikely that he can really change his fortunes with his play to finish the year. Henry, on the other hand, is still only 22 and injuries have depressed his play enough in past seasons to still provide hope to the notion that he can turn the proverbial ship around for his career.
To further that notion, he'll have to prove that faith in his upside is justified by more or less playing well down the stretch of this season, doing the things that have made him successful this year in attacking the rim and getting to the line (as well as hopefully making some of those free throws). Whether it's making reads on his drives instead of barreling into the rim, adding some finesse such as a floater, or something similar, the Lakers need affirmation that bringing him back next season will be a good thing for the team in the long-term since they'll probably have to give him a multi-year deal in the offseason in order to keep him around.
This separates him from someone like MarShon Brooks, who can likely be retained via a minimum offer deal should the Lakers deign to do so due to his poor play this year. Henry has established this year that he's worthy of attention from other teams in free agency and could end up being a solid depth signing on the wing that could pay further dividends for teams down the road. As a result, we require bona fide evidence that this will be the case so they can feel justified burning precious parts of their cap space in an effort to keep him.