When the Lakers decided to acquire a third star and the mega-salary that comes with that class of player, they functionally limited the ways they could fill out their roster by greatly restricting their flexibility. Maneuvers that put them in a position to be hard capped (like using the full mid-level exception or acquiring a player via sign-and-trade) were out the window. They’d have the taxpayer mid-level at their disposal, but that’s only one salary slot, and only goes up to $5.9 million (ultimately used on Kendrick Nunn). After that, the rest of the team would be filled out with minimum-salaried players or holdovers from last year’s team.
(Sidebar: Don’t get me started on letting Alex Caruso walk for nothing or not prioritizing simply keeping him AND Talen Horton-Tucker. I understand the luxury tax implications to going that route and that things have since been framed as an either/or scenario. Not only do I not accept that premise, I do not care about the pocketbooks of those who own this team. If the Lakers rake in $30 million fewer in profits this season, so be it. The Lakers would not only be a better team with both on the roster, but would have another avenue for upgrades via the salary ballast one or both offered in a potential trade. Alas, I digress.)
Despite all that, it could be argued the Lakers did about as well as they could filling out their roster considering the remaining resources at their disposal. With each minimum-level signing, the Lakers targeted and got a rotation level player who possesses a skill set that could be complementary to one or more of the team’s stars. In a vacuum, none of the signings could really be criticized very harshly and, honestly, I don’t think anyone was really thinking that way in the wake of any of the agreements being announced.
Ultimately, though, even if you wanted to complain, beggars can’t be choosers. The Lakers had to seek out a certain class of player and did well enough in getting the guys they did. From Dwight to Ariza, Melo to Monk, Bazemore to DeAndre to Ellington to Rondo, each player has a role to fill and, in an ideal world, with a fully healthy roster, I think all would be slotted appropriately and would work well around the team’s stars in order to make them competitive night to night.
Here’s the thing about the NBA, however: Things are rarely, if ever, ideal. The Lakers have already suffered some key injuries and, with their depth already compromised, one of the areas that was already less stocked has taken a big hit: The type of big wing to slot between LeBron and AD defensively, and help Russ fit in by spacing the floor some offensively.
Review the list of players the Lakers added this summer again and two things should jump out at you right away. First, there’s a lot of guards on that list. And, second, there’s not a lot of size there. The only players signed who are above 6’4” this offseason are Dwight, DeAndre, Melo, and Ariza. None of backcourt players offer much size and, when combined with the lack of defensive versatility of the non-AD bigs (and, in Melo’s case, defensive ability in general), the Lakers simply lack the type of defensive size that would allow them to fully play to the style that best fits this roster.
Of course, this is where Ariza’s signing is important. He’s the guy who is already on the roster who could step in and help fill this current void. Not only is he the right size, but he’s a defensive-minded player who is a career role player (aka, the type of guy used to doing dirty work). He’s in the exact mold of guy I’d love for the Lakers to have right now, and I’m sure he was signed for these exact reasons.
Ariza, however, is 36 years old, only played a partial season in Miami last year and did not go to the bubble to play with the Blazers the season before that. In other words, relying on him as the lone player who could fill this role probably isn’t wise. He’s been a part-time player for over two seasons, and him bucking that trend could not be viewed as the most likely outcome this year.
Again, I don’t want to throw an abundance of blame at Rob Pelinka here. I think he did well in getting the players he did at the cost he did. But the lack of roster balance is damaging all on its own, and is even more impactful now that Ariza (and to a lesser, but also meaningful extent, THT) is unavailable to play. The team simply needs that size on the wing that then allows LeBron and AD to be deployed in the ways that best help the team (or even them as individuals).
At this early stage of the season, there’s little chance the team is going to make a trade or be able to find the type of big wing who can help. My guess is that they’re going to wait on Ariza to return, take stock in what they have, and then make decisions at that time.
I’d argue, however, that these roster imbalance issues aren’t going to magically go away simply because Ariza eventually comes back. Maybe THT — who the Lakers talked up all summer as their hoped-for wing stopper — helps in this area too, but the Lakers still feel at least one big wing short, if not both a big wing and a more rangy PF type (à la Markieff Morris) who can hold up as a small-ball center in some lineups while also stretching the floor offensively.
Eventually, then, I see this team needing to make a consolidation type of trade that swaps out two or more of their guards for one more big wing and/or that PF-sized player who can slot between LeBron and AD on both sides of the floor while also promoting better spacing lineups for Russ. Fact is, this team is already showing the hazards of not just dealing with injuries, but the limitations of having too many small-ish guards on the roster who cannot be expected to hold up defensively in the ways that Frank Vogel will need them to.
But this is the Lakers’ reality right now. And while I think it’s fair to praise the front office for getting as much talent as they did in the free agent minimums market, we also shouldn’t mistake that for them not needing a few more moves if they hope to reach the lofty goals their splashy offseason reinforced in the first place.