You’ve done it too, haven’t you? You’ve gone into your internet browser of choice, navigated to YouTube, and then typed in “J.R Smith highlights”. Don’t lie, now. Be honest with me. If I pulled up your search history, I bet there’s a “Dion Waiters highlights” in there too. Did you check on Marvin Williams as well? Tyler Johnson? Michael. Kidd. Gilchrist??!!
In the wake of Darren Collison choosing to stay retired, the news cycle quickly shifted to these names (among others) as potential additions to the Lakers roster as buyout candidates for the stretch run and playoffs. A week after the trade deadline, some of these guys are already off the market, with Williams joining the Bucks and MKG heading to Dallas.
The others are still out there though, lurking, like a wrinkled $10 bill on the street just waiting to be picked up.
It was reported that the team would work out J.R. Smith, who has been available since the Cavs sent him on sabbatical over a year ago before waiving him. Smith has a history playing next to LeBron. They won a title together — with Smith playing a key role — in that magical 2016 season. Meme-creating plays aside, Bron and J.R. are seemingly still on good terms.
It’s also been reported they are expected to have exploratory conversations with Dion Waiters, recently cut loose by the Grizzlies after being traded from Miami as part of the Andre Iguodala deal. Waiters also has a history with LeBron, though not nearly as positive of one. He was actually shipped away in the deal that brought Smith to Cleveland (along with former Laker Timofey Mozgov). Waiters was also a former client of Rob Pelinka, and a current client of Rich Paul, so there’s other bonds that tie.
As for Johnson, there have been hints the Lakers might be interested in taking a look at him, though I have my doubts.
Whether any of this interest is real or not, strong or tepid, the theme among these players is clear. They’re all guards who have a mix of shot creation ability and 3-point range who could soak up some minutes on the perimeter. None are point guards, but in a lineup with Alex Caruso (or, I suppose, Rajon Rondo), they could handle the ball for stretches without having to bear the full burden of organizing sets, but could be leaned on for scoring punch in groups with Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma — one of the Lakers biggest needs.
All are qualified for such a role, some more than others. If I were ranking the options, they’d probably be Waiters, Smith, and then Johnson. The thing is, though, I’m not sure any of these rankings matter. I’m actually not even sure the Lakers are going to get any of these players. It’s why this isn’t some long post about the merits of each guy. Should the Lakers actually get someone, you’ll hear my thoughts then. But, “expected to workout” and “exploratory conversations” are a ways off from a deal. Let’s not put the cart before the horse like so many of us did with Collison.
What does matter, though, are fans having realistic expectations for any player the Lakers might bring in, should they move in that direction. And while I hate to be a wet blanket, I’m here to tell you those expectations should be low.
Believe me, I too get excited about the prospect of adding new players whose skill sets would seemingly plug some of this team’s holes. It’s easy to get lost in what a player brings to the table to raise the overall quality of the team, and not focus on the flaws or why they were let go from their original team in the first place. It really is the nature of being a fan, and I’m just as susceptible to this as the next person.
I also think it’s natural to look back at buyout examples that have worked and try to translate those situations to the team we root for. I mean, just a couple of seasons ago the 76ers grabbed Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova after they were bought out, and both became rotation players and important contributors to that team’s success down the stretch. Both those players had their flaws, but the 76ers integrated them into their system, mitigated some of those flaws, and got the best versions of those guys — to the point that both played important minutes for Philly in the playoffs.
This, though, is the exception, not the rule. More often than not, players who join teams after being bought out face too many obstacles to become meaningful contributors, particularly in games with real stakes. They come into new situations, with terminology, schemes, teammates, and coaches that need to be adapted to. This takes time and comes with a steep learning curve that most players simply cannot get over. And, in a lot of cases, it’s impractical to expect them to.
In getting back to the Lakers, then, consider that this team only has 29 games left in the regular season. On top of that, they’re a team whose roster is heavy on veterans and, thus, does not practice as often as other teams, limiting the time to get new guys up to speed. Consider, too, that the type of role the Lakers need most is for someone to be a key hub offensively, not just as a scorer, but as someone who can be a shot creator for teammates both within the framework of the offense and via sheer talent outside of it. These are heavy burdens that require a certain amount of synergy and togetherness that is fostered through reps.
It’s hard to remember it now because the Lakers have such a strong record and jumped out to a fast start, but it took time for this team to really find its stride on the offensive side of the ball. For the first part of their season, it was their defense that carried them, while their offense lagged behind. Over the course of the year that improved, but it took tweaking and players settling into their roles while gaining comfort with each other before they became the top-five offense they are now. To think that a lead ball-handler type or high usage guard could come to the team and not only blend in seamlessly, but elevate the rest of the roster is a really tough ask.
This is to say nothing of the fact that buyout players typically come with some sort of baggage that made the team buying them out take that measure in the first place. And while that’s not true of Williams or Kidd-Gilchrist, it’s certainly true of Waiters and Smith — who not so coincidentally are the players who remain unsigned and are the names most frequently brought up as targets for the Lakers. It’s far from a guarantee that either player fits in cleanly or avoids bringing some of that baggage with them to whatever team that picked them up. Even if that team is led by LeBron and Anthony Davis.
Don’t get me wrong, if the Lakers were to sign Smith, Waiters, or any other player currently available, it would not be doomed to failure by any means. Those guys have talent and there’s a strong infrastructure and culture within this organization to absorb guys in and give them space to be who they are, while also steering them towards the version of themselves that could help this team. That’s actually one of the strengths of what the Lakers have built this season.
That said, expecting things to play out that way is a step too far, and one that is too optimistic considering the uphill climb that would await.
So, Lakers fans, I say this as much for your benefit as I do as a reminder to myself: Do not put too much hope in the buyout market. As tantalizing as that new player can seem in a YouTube mix, or as clear as an upgrade as they might look to be, the odds of things going as smoothly as they’d have to for a new player to make a real difference for this team achieving its goals simply aren’t that high.
Luckily for the Lakers, they’re a damn good team and a true title contender already — even with the holes they’d be looking to fill. So, as it goes with most things in life, when it comes to the buyout market — if the Lakers actually do sign someone — you can hope for the best, but should probably expect something less than that.
Darius Soriano has covered the Lakers for 12 years at forumblueandgold.com, co-hosts the Laker Film Room podcast and writes a weekly column for Silver Screen and Roll. You can follow him on Twitter at @forumbluegold (just don’t ask him to change his avatar).