The Lakers don’t have much to play for the rest of the season. The playoffs are out of reach, their star player is in and out of the lineup, and their best youngsters are shut down. At this point, all that’s really left is evaluating who makes the team next year.
Los Angeles has seven players who will be unrestricted free agents this offseason in addition to the team’s 2 two-way players, who will be restricted free agents. That’s a total of nine players who the Lakers will have to decide whether to keep alongside LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Moe Wagner, and Isaac Bonga.
Although this season has been miserable, and it would be nice to erase as much of the stench of it as possible, there’s a strong chance that some of this crew makes it back for a second go-round in 2019-20. Here’s a ranking of which free agents Los Angeles should try to keep around for next year.
I’ve gone into this at length before, but Bullock makes perfect sense logically next to LeBron James. He is a low-usage player who takes upwards of 60 percent of his shots from three-point range. Prior to joining the Lakers, he was canning 40 percent of those, and it stands to reason that figure will revert back to the mean after an uncharacteristic 33 percent stretch since the trade deadline. Bullock also can guard secondary wing threats with his size, slotting him nicely next to Ball and Ingram.
Furthermore, assuming Los Angeles goes for a max-level free agent, they’ll have limited opportunities to sign a player to a middle-level contract, one that could be useful in salary-matching purposes for a trade. Because the Lakers have Bullock’s Bird rights, they could sign him to whatever value contract they want. That makes Bullock the best possible free agent to retain for L.A., both because of his play on the court and his salary cap utility.
Perhaps the lone Laker who has actually upped his stock in recent weeks, Caruso has made a convincing case to be the team’s backup point guard, or at least in the rotation. He has a +3.9 net rating, which seems impossible since Los Angeles has gone 2-12 with him in the lineup. Caruso is a smart cutter who has a knack for playing off the ball with James or whoever is running the offense, allowing him to take 68 percent of his shots at the rim. He has a low turnover rate, and his true shooting percentage is 63.9 percent, making him the ideal complementary player.
Most of Caruso’s value comes on the defensive end, however, where he provides energy at the point of attack reminiscent of Lonzo. He was the first player in the NBA this season to have 5 steals and 3 blocks coming off the bench. The Lakers have made Caruso a two-way player for consecutive years, and he has earned the opportunity to make it in the big league full-time.
The G-League guys play hard! Williams is a little undersized to play five, but he’s active, moves his feet well on defense and can check perimeter players in a pinch. He has a long way to go on offense, but has some handle even if it leads to some awkward hooks around the rim. He makes the most sense as a repeat two-way player for Los Angeles.
KCP was a perfectly reasonable Klutch tax this season after putting up career numbers in his first year as a Laker. Unfortunately, his shooting regressed, and with it went his previously high effort level on defense. The KCP of 2017-18 is definitely worth keeping around, albeit at a much lower number than he is currently making. However, it seems like that year was an anomaly, and he projects to look more like the disinterested version of himself from this season going forward. There is still value when he shoots well, but it’s hard to bank on that happening consistently.
Stephenson doesn’t really add anything to the Lakers, but unlike most of the vets that were brought in this year, I never got the sense that he wasn’t trying. That doesn’t mean he was a good basketball player: His natural instincts definitely lead him into some crazy situations on the court. But he wasn’t the worst thing to happen in Los Angeles this year, and the air guitar cam is not a bad legacy to leave behind.
There is a theory of Mike Muscala as a contributing basketball player that makes sense. He shot 41.8 percent on three-pointers in 2016-17, showing promise as a stretch five, a Channing Frye-lite for the Lakers. Muscala shot 37.1 percent on threes the next season, then 34.2 percent in Philadelphia, and 20.8 percent for the Lakers, where he has sported a minus-21.4 net rating. It might be time to retire the idea that Muscala as a sweet-shooting big man and just give that role to Moe Wagner.
The reason why Muscala is slightly higher on this list is because people around the league have been criticizing the Los Angeles front office strongly for the illogical trade that brought him to the Lakers for Ivica Zubac. Would Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka rather let Muscala go and accept the fact that they made a horrible decision, or will they double down on their error and keep him to prove a point? Keep in mind, the team has Muscala’s Bird rights as well, so they can throw a lot of bad money at him.
Zion’s going to need a backup, right?
In all seriousness, McGee isn’t good enough to be a regular starting center, and he hasn’t shown the willingness to accept a supporting role, so he doesn’t need to come back.
Per Cleaning the Glass, James has a differential of minus-5.6 when he shares the court with Rajon Rondo. If you can’t play with James, you don’t belong on the Lakers. It’s really that simple. There’s also the matter of Rondo’s inattention on defense, his assist-hunting at the expense of good offense, and his inability to locate the bench. Luke Walton may be enamored with Rondo, but it’s probably best for everyone if both of them are not with the team next year.
Chandler doesn’t appear to have the physical stamina to play a full season, and the Lakers can’t afford to waste a roster spot on someone who won’t be able to take the court. We’ll always remember November, Tyson. That was definitely not a goaltend against Atlanta.