With their worst season ever in the books, the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans have been left watching the playoffs from the outside for just the ninth time in franchise history. If the team wants to avoid doing the same thing next year,the front office will have to make good use of the team's league-leading 65.8 million in cap space this summer.
In that spirit, the Lakers brain trust must be watching the first round playoff series between the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Hornets like a starving man in an all-you-can-eat buffet. While Nicolas Batum's injury makes the series slightly less compelling, he and Heat center Hassan Whiteside are both free agents that would seamlessly fill the Lakers' holes in the middle and on the wing.
Charlotte has struggled thus far against Miami, but Batum has still shown a lot of the value he brought to the team during their unexpected run to 48 wins. He's struggled from distance so far (shooting 27.3 percent on three-pointers so far after making 34.8 percent of them during the regular season) but has still had value for Charlotte as a secondary creator alongside Kemba Walker.
Batum is not the type of player team's are going to isolate against a set defense, but the Frenchman is a really useful option in dribble hand-offs like this one:
A large part of the Lakers' struggles this past season was how many players they had that were primarily comfortable isolating. Batum's regular season usage rate of 21.5 would have ranked fifth on Los Angeles this year, yet he was still able to put up 14.9 points, 5.8 assists, and 6.1 rebounds in the regular season for Charlotte, in large part because of relentless and purposeful motion like the kind demonstrated on the play above.
Batum's prowess as a defensive rebounder (16.6 percent of available defensive boards during the regular season) and ability to work as a secondary ball handler also allows him to push pace and get easy looks in transition. He did not get the rebound on this particular play, from the second quarter in the Hornets' second game against the Heat, but Batum received a quick outlet and got the Hornets into their early offense against an unprepared defense and was able to use his brief hesitation to get right to the basket:
Batum was dealing with an ankle injury heading into the postseason, which is likely at least partially responsible for his three-point shooting struggles and defensive difficulties against the Heat. At 27 years old, there is no reason to think that this sprained ankle will be an issue for him going forward if the Lakers were to offer him the four-year max deal he'll be seeking. As a supplementary scorer and ace defender, the team could do a lot worse in a starting small forward over the next four years.
On the other side of this playoff matchup, the Lakers couldn't do much better to address their needs at center than signing Hassan Whiteside. The Heat center finished third in defensive player of the year voting behind only Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green, two of the best defenders ever, and he is a harbinger of doom on that end.
Whiteside can struggle to defend pick-and-rolls due to his sheer size, but he's not a total disaster by any stretch. When he gets help pressuring the ball by his guards fighting over screens, he can show to slow down the ball and then recover. On this play he was even able to pick off Walker's pass:
The other knock on Whiteside is he tends to jump for blocks too much, but good luck to any defenders thinking they are going to get off a clean shot around the rim without even throwing a pump fake:
Whiteside may be big, but he's not a total plodder. He was able to show on Batum at the free-throw line to force a kick out, then amble back into the paint to swat the shot and end this Hornets possession.
This mobility and athleticism has helped Whiteside defensively during the season and in the playoffs, but it's offense where the former D-Leaguer has really killed it against Charlotte. Miami has scored a ludicrous 139.3 points per possession on offense with Whiteside on the floor over two games against the Hornets, the second-best mark on the team behind Dwyane Wade*.
*among players to play over 2.2 minutes per game. Shout out to Briante Weber the gawd.
Whiteside ravaged the Hornets defense primarily out of pick-and-rolls. His combination of soft hands and finishing ability have made him an irresistible target for the Miami's guards:
Whiteside can even collect and put the ball on the floor briefly if not significantly pressured:
He's also a strong offensive rebounder, and when teams don't box him out adequately, he can make them pay faster than you can say "Kobe assist":
Not only has Whiteside's success allowed the Heat to post the most efficient offense of the postseason, but their offensive rating of 132.3 is an insane 19.8 points per 100 possessions better than the Golden State Warriors' historic offense during the regular season. Basically (over a two-game sample size), the Heat have scored at the rate one would expect if the 1996 Chicago Bulls got in a time machine to play against the Warriors, but instead decided to team up with them.
Whiteside's smooth touch around the rim, dynamism as a roller out of pick-and-rolls, shot blocking, youth (26 years old), and lack of miles make him a beautiful fit for the Lakers' roster going forward. While his theoretical frontcourt mate Julius Randle's perfect partner would be able to shoot at least a little bit (Whiteside shot acceptably from outside the paint during the regular season but is much better served around the rim where he shot 66.3 percent), he is so good that the front office should be thinking more about which teammates fit best alongside him.
Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell fit the bill. Both members of the Lakers' young backcourt look best while running pick-and-rolls, and with all due respect to Tarik Black, Ed Davis, and Brandon Bass; Whiteside would be far and away the best dance partner they have ever run it with.
And while the Roy Hibbert debacle should have taught Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss that one solid defensive center does not a good defense make, Whiteside is much more capable of flying around and cleaning up for this young team's mistakes than Hibbert was suited to do.
The Lakers reportedly have everything Whiteside wants in a free agent suitor, and they should give it to him this summer. The team even has enough cap space to offer both the max with some cash to spare, and while that may not be the pipe-dream haul many Lakers fans have been hoping for over the last several years, it would be a more than respectable team and one that could contend for a playoff spot at least.
That's the type of growth towards respectability free agents look for when choosing a destination, with internal growth allowing for even higher heights as the Lakers' young players develop. Following the three worst seasons in the history of the Lakers, that's really the best anyone can ask for.
All stats per NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.