For a team in the midst of a rebuild, every summer provides an opportunity to gain momentum. It’s a chance to supplement the team with new draft picks and test if a young core has emerged as an attractive partner for potential free agents. If everything goes to plan, an offseason can serve to dramatically accelerate a team’s trajectory.
For the Lakers, this summer has the feeling of a critical inflection point that may define the team for years to come. The team has already seen its fair share of changes – the Black Mamba has finally retired, Byron Scott has been mercifully let go, and Luke Walton looks poised to usher the purple and gold into the modern era of the NBA. Adding to the chaos, the Lakers potentially have a top three pick in the draft and Jim Buss’s self-imposed deadline for title contention expires in 2017. With all that in mind, how should the Lakers approach free agency?
Although there are certainly splashier names out there, I would argue that the Lakers should put their effort into signing Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli from the Golden State Warriors this summer. Don’t get me wrong – if Durant wanted to take the Buss family’s money with a max contract, I’d be all ears, but I don’t believe he’s coming through that door. With the cap jumping and half of the NBA able to offer a max contract, even some coveted free agents like Batum may not be realistic targets for the Lakers.
Instead of swinging for the fences with a proven All-NBA performer, the Lakers may be better served with younger players that fit their rebuilding timeline. By targeting potential breakout players with a larger role, the Lakers could build for the future and set themselves up for a LaMarcus Aldridge-type signing down the road. Ezeli and Barnes both have championship experience and have exhibited the kind of talent that indicates they could explode with more minutes.
Depending on your view of the futures of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle, it’s tricky to say with confidence just what kind of assets the Lakers should be targeting, but I think Kupchak should at least pretend they are long-term solutions at their respective positions until proven otherwise. That leaves gaping holes in the rotation at small forward and center, which just so happen to be the positions that Barnes and Ezeli play.
Before getting into their individual performance, it’s important to note that these young players would be valuable additions for the coach as well as the roster. They would be able to provide continuity for Luke, helping teach the Warriors offensive system and setting an example for the young Laker core when it comes to ball movement and rotations.
Harrison Barnes is only 23 years old, but he’s already the kind of high IQ player that would really help the Lakers with his off ball movement. At 38% for his career, he’s a legitimate threat from three and shot over 40% last season. He would add a sorely needed shooting punch to the wing. He’s shown the ability to bully smaller opponents in the post and can be an elite small-ball power forward in smaller lineups. He’s not a great defender yet, but he’s quick and moves well laterally. He is going to make max money somewhere this summer and Golden State may not want to pay him, particularly if Durant heads to the Bay.
Festus Ezeli, while also a solid prospect , is a bit more of a gamble than Barnes. He can defend and rim protect at a high level already, which make him a perfect complement to Randle. Although he has a reputation for brick hands on offense, he’s gotten better and has even flashed skills as a finisher. This season he has been a small sample size monster, with a stat line of 15 points and 12 rebounds on 54% shooting per 36 minutes. There’s no doubt that the potential is there, but Ezeli’s asterisk comes in the form of injury risk. He missed the entire 2013-14 season and only managed 46 games in each of the last two seasons. Similar to Barnes, someone will pay Ezeli tens of millions of dollars this summer if the Warriors don’t manage to retain him.
In the end, Barnes and Ezeli represent just one path forward for the Lakers in this summer’s free agency, but it’s a compelling one. Both are talented young players that could fill important holes on the Lakers roster and shine with larger roles than Golden State could afford them. While these may not be paradigm-shifting signings like Lakers fans have come to expect, it’s the kind of smart team building that could pay dividends for years to come.