Much of the chatter regarding the Lakers’ two empty roster spots has been about big men. Damian Jones made quite the impression during his two 10-day contracts, though the metrics suggest recapturing 2019-20 nostalgia was his greatest contribution. Now, the hearts and minds of Lakers fans (and some players) have focused in on Andre Drummond, who completed a buyout from the Cleveland Cavaliers Friday.
However, there is a theory that the Lakers would be better suited allocating their resources elsewhere, and as The Athletic reported Thursday, “the Lakers are also expected to be in the market for another defensive wing player.”
This is probably the route the Lakers should be taking, and there are a few reasons why.
First and foremost, the Lakers have a starting center who returned to the lineup Thursday, Marc Gasol’s offensive rating was 118.8 in the first quarter against Philadelphia. It’s no coincidence that his return saw the ball zipping around in the half court, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looking like himself again.
Although Gasol wore down throughout the game, as he regains his conditioning there’s no reason to believe the Lakers don’t have their starting center position taken care of, especially because his defense has been consistently excellent. His defensive rating of 106.3 is nearly identical to L.A.’s league-leading mark, so he’s not as much of an issue there as the consensus seems to think, and has mostly been a plus.
Combine that with Montrezl Harrell excelling off the bench and Anthony Davis slotted to play the 5 during the postseason, and there simply aren’t many minutes in the Lakers’ rotation for a traditional center who doesn’t have the versatility to play next to another big. Now, if the Lakers could somehow get their hands on another stretch big who also could hang defensively in their system, that’s a different conversation.
The real hole in the team’s rotation, however, is another big wing who can guard top perimeter scorers. Tobias Harris has turned into prime Tracy McGrady against the Lakers, as our own Christian Rivas said on the latest Silver Screen & Roll podcast, and much of that has to do with the fact that Harris repeatedly gets switched onto players five inches shorter than him in the post and can simply shoot over the top of them. That would also be also be an issue against teams like the Nets, Clippers, and Suns.
LeBron James and Davis are the team’s best wing defenders, but Davis has to man the paint in smaller lineups, and it’s a lot to ask James to guard the opposing team’s best player all game while being the alpha and omega on the offensive end, especially when both will be returning from serious injuries. The Lakers have good perimeter defenders in Dennis Schröder, Wes Matthews, Alex Caruso, and KCP; they’re just a bit too small for some situations. Kyle Kuzma has been effective against bigger wings, but the Lakers could certainly use another player of that size for matchups against players like Harris, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Devin Booker.
But the Lakers closed most games last postseason with Davis at the five, and the goal moving forward should be optimizing those lineups. Clearly, the team has some concerns about their current perimeter depth considering their willingness to trade two starers at the deadline, so there is interest in finding another wing to give the Lakers some size while maintaining their versatility.
The question now becomes who the Lakers can acquire to fill that role. The team has to sign a 14th player within eight days (two weeks after the expiration of Jones’ second 10-day), and the buyout deadline is April 9, meaning players waived by that date are eligible to play in the playoffs with another team. That means there is some time to wait out losing teams, but not much.
Otto Porter should be the top player on L.A.’s list. It’s hard to remember since the Wizards haven’t been in the playoffs since 2018, but at 6’8, Porter was a valuable floor spacer who could muscle up against bigger perimeter threats. Back injuries have sapped Porter of much of his juice, but it stands to reason that he could recapture some of his earlier form in shorter stints since he’s continued to shoot well from distance and post above-average defensive ratings despite being in an out of the lineup. The encouraging sign for Porter is that he’s played 25 games after only 14 last season, and was active leading into the trade deadline.
Porter isn’t technically available yet. However, he was moved to Orlando at the trade deadline, and the Magic have telegraphed their intentions to tank pretty brazenly, so he should be hitting the buyout market soon enough.
The Lakers should also keep an eye on any Rockets becoming available. Houston is another team with eyes on a high draft pick, and there are some interesting wings who are due to be free agents who might not be part of the Rockets’ future. Ben McLemore can shoot and switch, and he has playoff experience. Sterling Brown is another wing who plays bigger than his 6’5 frame, and he fits with the Lakers’ ethos of faster and stronger. Danuel House is under contract next season, but maybe there’s a Markieff Morris situation where House agrees to give enough money back so that Houston parts way with the 27-year-old.
Moe Harkless is a name that’s been bandied about since last year’s buyout deadline, but Kings GM Monte McNair made it clear that he expects Harkless to be a part of Sacramento’s push for the play-in. It’s also too bad the Lakers didn’t make a run at Kenrich Williams at the trade deadline, as the 6’7 forward is quietly having a kick-ass season in Oklahoma City playing both forward spots.
The Lakers might consider giving a call to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom have severe offensive limitations, but do fulfill the requirement of “defensive wing”. It’s unclear if the Lakers have enough shooting on the floor do overcome the lack of gravity the two have as shooters. However, each is a legit stopper in his own right, despite having played in some pretty bad defensive ecosystems.
During the 2019-20 postseason, the Lakers outscored opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions when Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee played. That figure jumped to plus-12.1 when the team went small. The Lakers can only continue to play that way if they have enough wings to supplement their superstars, and they appear to agree. So while most of the attention has gone to the team’s search for another big, looking for a wing is the more important task for the front office.