In a fashion, Mike D'Antoni's exit from the Los Angeles Lakers a year ago might have been the death knell for Ryan Kelly's tenure in Los Angeles. Everything that has happened since is merely playing out the string towards the inevitable conclusion. Byron Scott's distaste for the nature of modern basketball has been well-documented here and elsewhere, but nowhere was it clearer than the team's insistence that playing Kelly as a small forward was either a productive use of the team's time or something remotely beneficial for his development. With the Lakers' selection of Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick, the Lakers have, whatever your views on Nance may be, made a significant investment toward the very position that Kelly plays.
Was this a justified outcome? For all his faults, Kelly was and is seemingly a fair representation of the modern four man: a player who can step out and space the floor while also having sufficient ball-handling ability to put the ball on the floor and create plays. Grantland's Zach Lowe astutely noted that even the concept of a "stretch four" is slightly outmoded because of the sheer speed of perimeter defense nowadays. Not only do you have to provide spacing, you have to be able to, as Lowe puts it, "catch the ball, pump-fake a defender rushing out at them, drive into the lane, and make some sort of play." Needless to say, that describes Kelly's game almost perfectly, and Mike D'Antoni was able to bring out those gifts in Kelly's rookie season.
Perhaps Kelly's subpar defense and rebounding was too much of a liability despite his obvious fit in the modern NBA. After all, the corollary to the notion that four men have to be more multifaceted on offense nowadays is that you have to be able to defend those very same dynamic fours, and in this respect, Kelly was woefully inadequate. Slow-footed and with a relatively weak core, Kelly wasn't great on defense despite his excellent size for a four, and this was especially the case on the defensive boards. There's little doubt that Kelly would hugely benefit from a shot-blocking center behind him who could both erase his mistakes and clean up the boards for him.
And while that fit might be present somewhere else in the NBA, it certainly isn't present right now in LA. This is what makes the Nance pick particularly fascinating since the Lakers went out of their way to select a player who almost completely lacks Kelly's weaknesses defensively while still preserving some of his best attributes on offense. Indeed, where Kelly is a relatively poor athlete, Nance is a superb athlete in the vein of his father, a former NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion. Along with the tremendous vertical athleticism that implies, Nance covered huge swaths of ground on defense, confirmed by a 10.89 lane agility time at the combine, best among all bigs who did the athletic testing. Although Nance lacks Kelly's refinement on offense, he did manage to put up a 1.215 PPP on catch-and-shoot jumpers, demonstrating signs he could space the floor. Where he really shines is as a tremendous finisher around the rim, finishing at a staggering 81.8 percent clip.
Even if you don't believe that all of that adds up to a player worthy of replacing Kelly, the simple reality is that Nance will be on the team on a guaranteed contract moving forward. The window of opportunity for trading the pick disappeared the moment they decided to select him in the draft; the likely possibility that Nance was significantly higher on the Lakers' board than most other teams' significantly decreases Nance's value. As a result, the Lakers are, for better or worse, committed to a certain degree to developing Nance and keeping him around, thus making Kelly highly superfluous. For all of Kelly's faults, moreover, he does have value in today's league, and it wouldn't be surprising to see some team, especially the more analytics-minded ones, step up as suitors.
The main issue then becomes what would be the right price for the Lakers to take, presuming that the above assumption about suitors being available isn't totally unfounded. Should Kelly stay on the team, the most likely outcome is that the Lakers decline his qualifying offer for the 2016 season in order to maximize their available cap space for the summer, so they probably should be happy to get back even a token asset. On the more optimistic end of the scale, they perhaps could use Kelly in a similar fashion to what several parties wanted to do with the No. 27 pick: dump Nick Young's contract with Kelly as the carrot. Given that Kelly probably has significantly less value than the 27th selection, that's a rather unlikely outcome, but nevertheless one the Lakers probably should explore.
Altogether, the state of affairs that has led Kelly out the door is an unfortunate one, even if Nance does look like a more promising prospect than he did upon first inspection. Kelly was never going to be a star, but we did get a solid taste of how he looked under a coach who had a semblance of how the modern NBA worked on offense in D'Antoni. That Byron would proceed to crush Kelly's value to the team into oblivion was an outcome that could have been avoided, the fact that his failures helped lead the team to D'Angelo Russell notwithstanding. At any rate, there are quite a few (more important) dominoes that have to fall in free agency before Kelly draws any attention on the Lakers' radar, but by the time the dust settles, it would be surprising if he was still in LA.
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