From the moment that Chris Kaman was signed in the offseason, the Lakers knew that they would have to deal at some point with a frontcourt glut during the season. It had been made evidently clear during the past season that Mike D'Antoni considered both Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill to be centers in his offense, as the latter could not effectively space the floor and the former preferred to be on the low block as versus the elbow. It was not that Kaman was not considered good value for the mini midlevel as a perfectly serviceable center that fit Mike D'Antoni's system due to his deadeye accuracy from midrange, but that there was very limited space for him to actually play because this would mean sharing the court with another player on the team whom D'Antoni thought was a center.
Accentuating the problem is that D'Antoni has been rather unwilling to run two center lineups in favor of using Shawne Williams and Wesley Johnson, both of whom can stretch the floor more ably than any of the Lakers' five men, at the four. Hill's presence in the starting lineup has been the notable exception to this rule, but the mere fact that Williams, the least productive member of the rotation by PER or whatever measure you care to use, gets minutes is indicative of how awkward of a fit Kaman is into this rotation.
There are varying motivations that could be assigned to such a move: that Kaman was the best possible value for the mini midlevel or that Mitch Kupchak and the front office was subtly encouraging a policy of possibly tanking by using their only significant tool for signing free agents on a largely superfluous player. There's another that might become apparent from this point forward now that free agents signed in the offseason can be traded in that Kaman was possibly signed to facilitate the trade of a center on the roster, whether himself or any of the other three.
Yes, three other centers, as Robert Sacre's emergence as a surprisingly competent frontcourt defender and adept roll man has given the Lakers four centers all of whom arguably deserve playing time and could be useful in the rotation of another team. With the exception of Robert Sacre, all of them are on expiring contracts and needless to say, it's unlikely that the Lakers are going to retain all of them in the offseason. As the common aphorism goes, trade from strength, and the Lakers do have a big hole at point guard to fill considering that all three of theirs are currently injured.
The important factor, however, is that this is a clear case of the Lakers needing to perform proper asset management and turn excess players into useful pieces for the future. And to their credit, this appears to be what they are doing in evaluating what players they need to keep on the team or not per ESPN LA's Dave McMenamin. Combine this with the recent rumors going about on the Lakers' willingness to explore trades with teams such as New York and the well-publicized rift growing between D'Antoni and Pau Gasol and you have a ripe environment for something possibly happening in the near future.
To evaluate this, let's go through each of the Lakers' four centers, assess their possible future on the team, and whether trading them is a worthwhile endeavor.
This is easiest for Sacre, who really, really shouldn't be traded anytime in the near future. What once appeared to be somewhat of a quizzical extension by Mike Kupchak this past offseason now looks like a fantastic move, as Sacre is under contract for less than a million dollars a year through 2016. Sacre's overall upside is limited because of his lack of athleticism, but bigs who play positional defense as well as Sacre does -- seriously, if Pau bothered to play defense as half as well as Sacre, the complaints would far less vociferous -- and understand the simple concept that you get results if you roll hard to the rim in this offense are very valuable.
With the Lakers strapped for flexibility because of Kobe Bryant's extension, having a highly inexpensive asset like Sacre has a great deal of value. Moreover, you can't exactly trade Sacre because his salary is so minuscule that it carries almost no weight when matching salaries in trades. This requires Sacre to be packaged with other players and limits the team's ability to get something for him in a trade in the first place. With all this in mind, if you want to bet on a Laker who is going to be on the roster in the 2015-16 season aside from Kobe, it would be hard to bet on anyone besides Sacre.
From the moment Sacre proved that he was a competent player, Kaman immediately became expendable and that makes him the most eligible trade candidate of the four centers. To top this off, his contract is very affordable, he can plug right into nearly any team's rotation at the five, and he's made surprisingly few waves despite being buried on the bench the past few games. This probably wasn't the scenario that was immediately envisioned by the front office, especially after Kaman and Pau kicked things off splendidly from a chemistry perspective in preseason, particularly in Horns, and Kaman's excellent accuracy from midrange and good synergy as a roll man -- sensing a theme here? -- made him a great fit for D'Antoni's offense.
The primary issue, however, is that it's simply unlikely that the Lakers keep him in the offseason unless he's willing to come back on a one-year deal so the Lakers can preserve their 2015 space. This consideration alone trumps everything else: the Lakers plainly aren't going to be competitive this year in a hyper competitive West, so again, in the spirit of proper asset management, the Lakers need to move any piece they don't consider to be relevant in the long-term and that includes Kaman.
And with Hill is where the boundaries between those two goals begin to become harder to distinguish from one another, as there is a fair argument for both trading Hill and keeping him as a useful piece of whatever upcoming core the Lakers are building. Hill's production has tailed off since his explosive start, but his per minute numbers are still excellent, a 21 PER and top six rebound rate pointing to what is still a very good player. His frenetic style limiting his effective playing time to spurts and possible injury worries offer a bit of a damper on this optimism, as while he's still a starting caliber player, he relies heavily on other players to produce in areas outside of rebounding.
This notwithstanding, he potentially could offer excellent value for the Lakers if retained a reasonable price. Something around 3 years/$20 million with a team option or non-guaranteed money at the end of that deal would be the ballpark the Lakers are searching for, as with a max contract player acquisition looking more and more unlikely this summer outside of some outside shots at restricted free agents, the Lakers might end up with room to spend on their own players. Sans the glut of players at the five, Hill would be free to get the playing time commensurate with his talent.
The flip side to this line of thought is that Hill is arguably the Lakers' most attractive piece of trade bait. He is still fairly young, offers upside, and in a league dominated more and more by statistical analysis, the importance of what Hill does well shines all the more brighter. If the Lakers have any inkling that the above salary figure is nowhere near the ballpark that Hill would be willing to accept or that bigger offers will be forthcoming in the offseason, they need to transform him into another asset as soon as possible. There's no hard and fast rule for what this needs to be, but picks and young players on rookie deals would be the best options, naturally.
If you want a direct consequence of the Kobe extension, Hill is the easiest one to diagnose. The Lakers absolutely cannot overpay Hill in free agency if they want to maintain sufficient space for the 2015 offseason, so they have to be very careful in determining whether keeping him past the deadline, something that should be a much easier call than it is. It's an unfortunate reality for Hill, who has clearly developed well in a Lakers uniform and is an asset the team should hold onto, but it might make more sense for the team to move him given their newfound financial restraints.
The influx of Pau trade rumors will no doubt become nauseating the next few weeks as the burgeoning rift between Pau and D'Antoni has brought what many believed was a fait accompli this offseason into the open: Pau isn't coming back to the Lakers this offseason. He's a declining player heading into his mid-30s whom the Lakers can't tether their cap to for the next few years and unlike Kobe, who fits that same description, Pau doesn't carry anything remotely close to the same institutional heft. That the philosophical differences with D'Antoni are so severe that Pau's not going to bother to roll hard at the basket or even give a game effort towards working in his system in general only emphasizes how his departure is more or less assured, especially since D'Antoni is very likely to stick around past this year.
The problem, as Blake pointed out a few weeks ago, is that trading Pau isn't an easy task, as his enormous expiring deal and the Lakers' general unwillingness to take on 2014-15 salary makes it a difficult proposition. The lessening focus on 2014 has alleviated some of these concerns, as it would actually benefit the Lakers' 2015 plans if they take on salary that expires after next season as that would open up cap space then. Still, there aren't a lot of salaries sufficiently large to make such trades plausible in the first place, which conveniently, Blake has also written about. The rumor du jour is Tyson Chandler, which makes sense from the Lakers' perspective given how much Chandler improves the Lakers' interior defense, fits well into D'Antoni's system, and expires in 2015 to the tune of nearly $15 million in space.
So to summarize, the Lakers have four centers, one of which they shouldn't trade and whose small salary prevents him from being the main part of a trade anyways (Sacre); another they should trade and is the most likely candidate to be dealt (Kaman); a 50-50 candidate who has a lot of value both as a trade option and as part of the team (Hill); and a player they should trade but might not come across the right deal for him (Pau). If we have to venture a guess at the moment, Kaman is likely dealt fairly soon and Pau will find a suitor as the deadline gets closer. Never underestimate the front office and coaching staff that think that in their system, they can salvage Pau and turn him into something resembling his All-Star form.
Moving one or two of these four also aids the evaluation process for the remaining two. This is especially the case if the Lakers keep Hill, as he will have all the playing time in the world for the team to get a proper hold on what his worth will be in the offseason. Trading Kaman or Pau sooner also gives the Lakers more time before the trade deadline to perform the aforementioned evaluation for Hill. As for Sacre, more minutes for him simply serves the more mundane function of giving a young player more reps, which is helpful for his development.
To be honest, this approach applies to every other non-Kobe player on the roster, Jodie Meeks chief among them as a primary trade candidate, but resolving the frontcourt glut and fixing the rotation issues helps out the Lakers no matter what objective they set for the rest of the year. With the team finally at a crossroads and probably on their way to a losing record and a lottery pick, the team can finally start positioning trades for something other than short-term benefits, and it will be interesting to see how Kupchak and the front office deal with these circumstances to say the least.
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