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Lakers Free Agency: What can LA do about their center woes this summer?

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Does Los Angeles need help in the middle?

Lakers Free Agency: Centers

Can the LA Lakers address their big man problems in free agency?

Posted by Silver Screen and Roll on Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Los Angeles Lakers spent heftily on centers last offseason, lavishing around $77 million on Timofey Mozgov and Tarik Black combined. They also boast a promising young pivot in Ivica Zubac, who they were able to acquire in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft.

For most teams, that would mean they were unlikely to target a center in free agency, but given that Black may not be back and the Mozgov signing looks like a bust, the Lakers may improbably have to acquire another big man this offseason.

Should they go after a center this summer? If so, who should they put on their list? We asked our motley crew of writers for answers in the first installment of our offseason roundtables on who the Lakers should go after in free agency.

Do you think the Lakers should sign a center this summer?

Daman Rangoola

Absolutely not. The Timofey Mozgov contract remains an albatross that will hang around the franchise's neck for the length of his deal, but I think that has taken away from the fact that Mozgov is still a fine starting center and the Lakers have enough depth to handle the rest of the minutes at the position.

To invest a single additional dollar into this position will be an outright mistake.

Jameson Miller

Nope. The monetary reasons alone provide fertile ground for almost too many clichés to choose from. You don’t throw good money after bad — I can think of 64 million reasons why the Lakers shouldn’t sign another center this offseason — and so on and so forth. But that’s only the half of it.

Yes, investing anything other than peanuts in another center would be a mistake, but really, the team’s top priority right now in terms of centers should be the continued development of Ivica Zubac and, to a lesser extent, Tarik Black, with any additions coming in the latter stages of the NBA draft or as necessary evils in a trade netting them a star.

The CDP

Absolutely not. The Lakers have a wealth of riches there — aside from paying Mozgov a king's ransom to serve as the traditional center — Zubac and Tarik Black will ably fill out the rest of the rotation. Realistically, the Lakers are also going to use both Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle there in small ball lineups from time to time as well.

If you look at the salary cap as an opportunity to allocate resources to establish starters and depth across positions, the Lake Show has over allocated to this position if anything. The way the league is going, even really solid traditional centers may be able to start, but are likely unplayable in end of game scenarios. Watching the NBA playoffs has been instructive, as highly regarded centers like Marcin Gortat, Greg Monroe, and Jonas Valanciunas have been in and out of the lineup.

Ben Rosales

Sure. Tarik Black is a likely cap casualty, Thomas Robinson doesn't really have the defensive consistency to be a full-time smallball option, and most importantly, the team lacks a stretch big who at the very least can run pick-and-pop with D'Angelo Russell or Jordan Clarkson and at best space the floor from behind the arc. Mind you, internal development might fill this need through some combination of Ivica Zubac, Julius Randle, or Larry Nance Jr. but at the moment, none of them really provide the consistent spacing that the team's ballhandlers ideally need in order to operate. Signing a cheap option who can hit threes and form the basis for five out lineups with Luol Deng or whomever of Randle or Nance can figure out how to shoot should be a free agent priority.

Alternatively, the team really should be on the lookout for someone who can fill the smallball five role via providing excellent defense on switches while still being a rim runner on offense and ideally offering some rim protection as well. Randle and Nance got a lot of time here but neither were all that effective, so hedging in this respect with someone who's more capable would give Luke greater license to run lineups he's more comfortable with and offer us some clarity on how the young guys in the frontcourt fit long-term (read: someone's probably getting traded).

Again, internal development might provide dividends here, as Randle could acquire greater defensive awareness (a la the Charlotte game last December) or Nance could uncork some greater utility on this end, especially in rim protection.

I should also note that these needs probably mean that Black will be let go since he unfortunately fills neither, obviously lacking range and sufficient foot speed to switch as often as Luke would probably like his centers to do in smallball groupings.

There was a reason that the team gave Yi Jianlian a shot in training camp (aside from his super duper awesome contract that could have provided the meat for entertaining trade scenarios for months) and that was the hope, however forlorn, that he could both space the floor and be sufficiently mobile on defense as to execute the heavy switching scheme Luke prefers.

What do you think they should do with their big man minutes?

Daman

Like many starting traditional centers, I'd imagine Mozgov plays 20-25 minutes a game (more or less depending on matchup) with players like Tarik Black and Zupac Shakur taking the rest of the time in the rotation. By the 2018-19 season, the Lakers will hopefully be starting Zubac, and Mozgov will slide into being a permanent back up.

Jameson

Since with each passing day the likelihood continues to decline of finding out that the entire Mozgov signing was part of year-long Andy Kaufman-esque bit, I’d probably give him the token starter minutes at the beginning of each half, then hand the rest over to Zubac as well as some experimental, high-energy small ball lineups. While certainly serviceable, my confidence in Mozgov’s ability to give the Lakers quality minutes deep into the season is not exactly high, so big minutes for Zu and a center by committee approach will likely be needed.

CDP

I loved seeing Zubac build his confidence and develop last season as a starter, but I think he might benefit from having a larger role off the bench against second units next season. When ready, he should take the starting position from Mozgov, but in the interim I am comfortable with Mozgov as the nominal starter and the two of them sharing the bulk of minutes at the five. With the remaining 10-15 minutes, the Lakers have a decision to make.

Do they want to stay traditional and allot those minutes to Black, who is undersized but has a knack for scoring around the basket? I might propose another path. Depending on the development of Randle / Nance, I would like to see the Lakers experiment and build out what their own lineup of death might look like. If Randle's three-point shot is legit and his defensive focus continues to improve, I could see him playing a Draymond-lite role in those lineups, with Nance, Ingram, Russell, and Clarkson filling out the other slots.

Ben

As one can intuit from my previous answer, my primary choices would be fill-in options who could address either the spacing or defensive needs of the roster on the cheap. Mike Muscala would be a solid choice as a pick-and-pop option who began to flash spot-up chops from behind the arc last season, as would Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson, although they're likely to be too expensive for the Lakers' tastes, particularly Olynyk who will be a restricted free agent this summer. Mareese Speights will most likely decline his player option and has a Golden State connection with Luke, so perhaps the latter could convince him to stay in Los Angeles and provide big man shooting wearing the purple and gold. The apex option would be Serge Ibaka, but he's going to be very expensive with a near-maximum contract demand, so needless to say, this isn't happening.

The final option I'm particularly enamored with but would likely require someone in the frontcourt to be jettisoned via trade is James Johnson, who has had a standout season for Miami playing nearly every position due to their injury woes, including extended runs at center. Extremely strong for his frame and still quite athletic going into his 30s, Johnson pairs this with solid passing chops and what has emerged as suitable outside shooting bonafides. The question of whether this was a contract year and his age are big caveats, but few other options on the market are going to offer shooting, playmaking, defense and positional versatility on the level Johnson does, although again, his addition would likely induce a trade of someone else in the rotation.

This also presumes that the Lakers don't take a big in the draft, as there are plenty of options in the late first (or early second should they lose their own first rounder) who can fill either their spacing or defensive needs. Purdue's Caleb Swanigan would offer an entire shooting package, whether in the pick-and-pop or in spot-up situations, along with solid interior scoring and elite rebounding. His so-so size (despite excellent wingspan), ground-bound game, and poor mobility make his defensive projection a chore, although his positional defense isn’t awful.

Indiana's Thomas Bryant would offer much more defensively, possessing ideal size for a center as well as a three-point shot, but he's far less of a refined offensive option than Swanigan. The more defensive-minded options would be Kentucky's Bam Adebayo and Oregon's Jordan Bell, both of whom are very mobile and could fit well into Luke's scheme, particularly Bell who was one of college basketball's best defenders last season and brings rebounding, rim protection, and switching chops to the fore as a smallball center.

All of that notwithstanding, I think the frontcourt will look fairly similar to this past year, save with the fill-in option like Muscala or draft choice such as Bell taking Black's spot.

Mozgov will probably maintain a token starting role of 15-20 minutes per game, steadily declining as the team grows more confident in Zubac's development, one of Randle or Nance develop the shooting or defensive chops to be a more serviceable smallball center, or the fill-in or draft option intrudes into the conversation.

Zubac growing into his own in particular would likely lead to the complete collapse of Mozgov's playing time, as he would be playing out the string until he's inevitably waived using the stretch provision next offseason.