For the last 19 years, the Los Angeles Lakers have not been major players for the biggest free agents. At the beginning of that period, much of their cap space was tied up in the gargantuan contract the team used to sway Shaquille O'Neal into leaving the Orlando Magic, and then to keep the team's most recent superstar, Kobe Bryant, in a Lakers uniform for his entire career.
With Bryant announcing his twentieth season will be his final one, for the first time in years the Lakers will have cap space to lure multiple top tier free agents without the specter of the team still revolving around Bryant. The Lakers are currently projected to lead the NBA in cap space this offseason with a free agent class headlined by names like Kevin Durant, Al Horford, and Mike Conley all theoretically up for grabs. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has plans to recruit free agents this summer, and told Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News that the Lakers' young players will be central to that process:
"We have to develop our core players," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in an interview with Los Angeles News Group. "When you're recruiting a veteran free agent, especially a free agent that may have to take less money to come to your city, they want to know who they're going to play with."
"It's hard to convince a veteran free agent to come to L.A. because they're going to love our No. 2 pick (Russell). Or they're going to love playing with our seventh pick from a year ago (Randle)," Kupchak said. "But we're hoping that all three of these guys can develop and go into the offseason so that we can say to prospective veteran free agents, ‘Listen you've seen them play this year, come play with them.'"
Kupchak is right that the Lakers' younger players will have to show signs of living up to their potential if the team is going to use them as a tool in the recruitment of a marquee free agent. NBA careers are short, so while the Lakers' young trio of D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson looks like a solid nucleus going forward, a veteran star is going to want to see how those players can help him win now.
While that group has shown flashes of promise, the only way those players can show their potential is by getting on floor. Kupchak acknowledged the importance of those players getting time to develop, but also said their playing time is not his decision:
Meanwhile, Kupchak insisted that he trusts Scott's decision to feature Randle and Russell off the bench despite what those two mean to the team's future. Randle has averaged 28.4 minutes per game as a starter, while logging 24.2 minutes per contest as a reserve. Russell has appeared in 28.3 minutes per game as a starter, and has played 27.3 minutes per contest as a reserve.
"It's a fine line," Kupchak said. "You have to earn your minutes. But you have to play to get better. Which comes first? Generally speaking, they were going to play X amount of minutes no matter what. But that's not my decision."
By most measurements, Russell and Randle have earned their minutes, playing at the very least as well, but by most evaluations better, than the players ahead of them in the rotation. Combine that play with the importance of their development to both the Lakers' recruiting process this offseason and the fact that if such high draft picks don't pan out the team will be in pretty poor shape with or without free agents; and it is often hard to see why the two youngsters find their playing time so limited in some games.
However, the last five games have seen Randle (27.9) and Russell (26.7) first and second, respectively, in usage rate on the team. So even if the two's overall minutes are not where most would like them to be, they are at least getting opportunities to have the teams' offense flow through them during their floor time. That being enough to lure Durant or another big name is still unlikely.
All stats per NBA.com