Different starting lineups and constantly shifting rotations have been a fact of life for the Lakers this season, as everything from injuries to the varying effectiveness of the Lakers' frontcourt players and even the whims of Mike D'Antoni have produced a situation that could generously be described as chaotic. This has especially been the case at the power forward spot, as no other place on the roster has been more impacted by the above factors. The team's point guards and wings would one way or another find their way onto the floor, but there were only so many combinations to fit into the four spot. Were the Lakers going big? Small? Prioritizing shooting, speed, or rebounding? Choosing any one of these led to the denial of others and someone in the frontcourt rotation losing time as well as ultimately a role in the rotation altogether.
Thankfully, we have come out of this morass with at least one good result: Ryan Kelly emerging as of late as a decent rotation big who is not only a good fit from a schematic perspective, but also a pretty solid basketball player. Despite missing the entire summer and most of training camp due to injury, Kelly has still managed to be productive, hitting shots from outside in addition to displaying a smart floor game set up by his advanced ballhandling ability. Best of all, Kelly has shown signs of life on defense, his lack of conditioning and strength causing problems from time to time, but his length -- seriously, this needs to be emphasized more: Kelly is nearly 7'0'' with a 7'0'' wingspan; by the standards of the modern NBA, he's pretty big for the four -- and penchant for taking charges enabling him to make plays on that end.
In an admittedly awful rookie class, Kelly ranks sixth in PER (13.25) and should he continue at this current pace, has a solid shot of being the first Laker in seventeen years (!) to be on the All-Rookie team. This is a pretty impressive feat, again, for a guy who has basically had to spend most of his rookie year getting into shape and learning how to adjust to pro level basketball on the fly. While prognosticating Kelly as a starter next year is a tad bit too much optimism, the expectation he will continue to develop well with an actual summer to work on his game notwithstanding, he almost certainly will be a key part of the rotation. Moreover, he has a qualifying offer for next season, so that would put him ahead of basically every other option by default even if his play didn't already justify it.
The issue is that there's almost no one else on the roster who could be considered a consistent rotation player at the four. The Wesley Johnson experiment has provided uneven results and while it's an interesting look to throw out there from time to time should the team decide to retain him, there are no other frontcourt players that the team likely plans to keep beyond Robert Sacre, who isn't a four. The only player who could have caused this calculus to change was Jordan Hill should he have continued on his torrid pace from early in the year, but after that fizzled out, he proved that his ceiling is probably just that of a particularly good energy player. Given the Lakers' limited cap flexibility for long-term deals, it's practically assured that he will be going elsewhere.
So, where does that leave the Lakers? The free agent market at the four is incredibly limited, the likes of Dante Cunningham or Michael Beasley probably being the best selections available on the cheap. Shawn Marion might be an option, his familiarity in D'Antoni's system and still solid play being great points in his favor, but it is unlikely that Dallas doesn't try very hard to retain him. The Lakers could also very well end up drafting a four, whether it's a full-time power forward in Julius Randle, a player who could occupy either forward spot in Jabari Parker and to a lesser extent, Aaron Gordon, or Noah Vonleh, who might have to play the four a bit as his body fills out. Randle in addition to Gordon, the latter of whom probably ends up as a four when it's all said and done, would settle this question definitively for the Lakers going forward, but any other option would keep the door open to an addition at the four.
As a result, the best thing the Lakers could likely pursue in a scenario in which the team does not draft a four is a stopgap player that can occupy a rotation spot and still allow the team to maintain flexibility for 2015. There's no need to commit significant money for what will likely be an imperfect solution at the position and the Lakers shouldn't feel compelled to fill every hole on the roster either. Any long-term money that is doled out needs to go where the Lakers believe it can elicit the greatest possible value and given the free agent market, this is emphatically not at the four.
Thankfully, there's a ready made solution made available because of the Lakers' cap space, although not in the manner that you initially might have thought. The value of cap space is not limited merely to signing free agents, but also to fun things like being able to place bids for players that are amnestied, of which there's only two realistic candidates that remain: Carlos Boozer and Kendrick Perkins. Considering that only one of those two plays the four and isn't one of the worst players in the league, who we are referring to should be readily apparent.
Boozer has declined significantly this season, his PER (14.5) and TS% (48.5%) reaching career lows as Taj Gibson takes more and more of his place in the Bulls' rotation, although this is a significant contributing factor towards the Bulls being willing to amnesty him in the first place. Whether Chicago ultimately pursues Carmelo Anthony or not, moreover, they also want to open up both playing time and payroll flexibility to bring over their 2011 first round pick in Nikola Mirotic, who per Draft Express, is the best player in Euroleague right now. However one parses the Bulls' situation, it is hard to envision a path that doesn't have them cutting ties with Boozer in the offseason.
This shouldn't detract from the notion that Boozer can be useful for the Lakers, however. He won't have to shoulder anything remotely close to the 26.5 usage rate he's maintained with Chicago this season; he can hit shots in the pick-and-pop, the steady decline of his accuracy the past two seasons notwithstanding; and he cleans up the defensive boards. His defense is certainly awful and he's nowhere close to the offensive force he was a few years ago, but none of that means that he can't be good depth at whatever price the team that manages to get him for in the bidding process.
That's the rub, as the Lakers actually have to come out of the bidding process as the winners when some fifteen teams plan to have cap space this offseason. Granted, less than half of those teams would likely have interest in Boozer, but because of the manner in which the bidding process works, it behooves teams to put forth even a token offer if they have the slightest desire to get him. And although it works in the Lakers' favor that they would only have to pay Boozer for one year for whatever winning bid they offer up, thus still preserving 2015 cap flexibility, they need every last cent this offseason to help re-sign their own free agents and have some room to go after other free agents. It's hard to predict what a winning bid in this kind of process would look like, but it would be hard for the Lakers to go above three to four million or so.
Regardless, it does provide an option for the Lakers to pursue and would help buttress their frontcourt rotation when it really needs depth of any kind. For much of the same reason that he's currently getting playing time, Kelly should have a significant role on next year's team, but it doesn't hurt to have a veteran option to take the pressure off if necessary. He may very well end up being the starter should the Lakers strike out in both the draft and in free agency insofar as getting a four, something that could be a good thing if he takes the next step in his development. This noted, you guard for the worst, a lesson this season has imparted all too painfully, and the more options you have present, the better. No one is calling Boozer a perfect option in this regard, but considering the Lakers' situation, he may be the best option available to them.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.