Whenever an organization makes a major leadership change — like hiring a new front office executive or replacing their head coach — the natural instinct is to think of who else is going to be shown the door in the wake of that initial change. After all, new executives usually like to hire their own people to work under them and head coaches will often want to shape their roster “in their own image,” replacing some of the current players for ones the new coach thinks would be a better fit.
The general sentiment, I think, is that the Lakers will follow this same path. After replacing Frank Vogel with Darvin Ham as their head coach, coming off the type of disappointing season that makes you want to memory hole the entire year, and a roster packed with players whose contracts are up, the front office has a bunch of reasons to turn over their team and get a fresh batch of players to usher in this new era.
That said, the lens through which the Lakers will need to view their many free agents shouldn’t only be limited to who they’re going to let go of or want to replace, but also which ones should they consider bringing back — if any at all.
Remember, the Lakers’ financial resources in free agency are limited, and finding capable players who are on minimum deals is a reality of their circumstances that they will have to navigate. Further, continuity is still important, and, if all other things are relatively equal (salary, skill set, personality fit, etc), retaining a player who has been here makes a lot of sense. Additionally, it’s always worth considering how a new head coach might connect with and/or explore different ways to optimize a player in order to get more of out them than the previous coach did.
With that said, let’s take a look at a few of the Lakers players who were on minimum contracts last season, would likely be on a similar contract next season, and consider whether they might be a good fit on next season’s team under Darvin Ham. In evaluating each player, it’s worth keeping the following caveats in mind:
- Can they play a rotational role on a team that makes a deep playoff run?
- Do they complement the team’s best players?
- Do they seem like a “Darvin Ham type of player,” based on some of the ideas he mentioned at his introductory press conference?
Now, let’s get to it...
Last season Melo received a lot of praise from Frank Vogel for his professionalism, his commitment to playing the role that was asked of him, and his general demeanor and mindset as a veteran who kept an even keeled perspective in the face of less than ideal circumstances. I’m guessing, if he was brought back, Melo would continue to bring those things and, when combined with his skillset offensively, would be similarly valued by Ham.
That said, Melo is entering his 20th season and the idea that he’d be able to play the requisite defense, particularly in lineups next to LeBron, AD and Russ to be able to stay on the floor vs. top flight opponents is a major stretch. Further, while he’s kept himself in really good shape, Melo’s declining athleticism is surely going to creep into more of his offensive repertoire too, potentially weakening the part of his game that he’d be kept around for in the first place.
Ultimately, then, while Melo was one of the bright spots from last year, I simply don’t see him as an option to return. I’d rather the team go with a younger, more athletic, and defensively inclined player who could help more in the minutes he would play and, if he ends up not playing, would likely accept that type of diminished role better.
In many games last season, Dwight looked pretty much done as a rotation level big. His declining athleticism combined with players of his general style and ilk playing smaller and smaller roles in a downsizing league left him looking like the product of a bygone era. Over the last couple weeks of the season, his legs did show more juice, but one has to wonder if that was the product of the team having nothing to play for and opponents responding with lackluster effort vs. them (and, thus, Dwight), or if the different asks and lineup combinations actually did help him.
I tend to believe it’s the former, and as Dwight’s age further impacts his athleticism, I can’t really see him holding up in a true backup role where he could play every night or, even, three out of every four. Dwight had some of his best games last season after having multiple nights off in a row and that’s a luxury an NBA season doesn’t offer frequently enough to bring him back in a key role.
If this were a discussion about bringing back players to fill roster spots 13-15 on the team, I’d certainly consider Dwight as a fourth big who could play garbage time or come in for a shift once every couple of weeks because of an injury or foul trouble to multiple guys. I think he’d need to adjust his game by shooting way more threes and be content to purely pick-and-pop while selling out on defense in order to sniff success, even in that sort of diminished role. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. So, as it stands, I’d say goodbye to Dwight and thank him for his contributions to the 2020 title.
After beginning the season as a starter, Baze quickly found himself out of Frank Vogel’s rotation and never got a foothold to get back into it. We never really got a great explanation for that, but my assumption was the combination of needing to play Malik Monk (whose offensive contributions and greater long term potential needed more nurturing), Austin Reaves proving he had a better floor game (and really good feel on both ends), and Baze’s questionable decision making on both ends all contributed to him ending up on the outside looking in.
Would any of that change next season? I’m not sure about the decision making. And I’m nearly positive that Reaves will look to take on a bigger role too, not to mention the prospects that Nunn and/or THT could also slot into key roles in the backcourt. Then, if Russ is back, suddenly there aren’t many perimeter minutes left at all, and we haven’t even mentioned the potential return of Monk yet (who would — could? — command a hefty raise over the minimum salary he played under last season).
However, Baze is one player who, I think, could actually be a better fit under Ham than he was under Vogel, and if some of those aforementioned players don’t find their way back next season, could end up in a role where he plays two to three shifts a night focusing mostly on defense and taking open threes. Baze, if nothing else, plays hard, brings a positive attitude to the team, and can serve a role as someone who fills a very specific defensive need in certain matchups (i.e. shooting point guards, particularly those who can come off screens as off-ball workers). And while he’s over 30 and no longer at his peak physical ability, there’s still a lot of tread on his tire, unlike that of elder vets like Melo and Dwight.
Now, is that enough to keep around? As a fourth or fifth guard on a minimum contract, I think the Lakers could do worse. Whether they could do better would depend on several market factors, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss a Baze return out of hand.
We all know that Bradley will play on whatever team Frank Vogel coaches next year.
On a serious note, I just brought up how many guards the Lakers already have on their roster, and how few minutes project to be available to anyone outside the Russ, THT, Nunn, and Reaves group. Bradley is no longer impactful enough to crack that group assuming they’re all back, or, frankly, good enough to be more than a fringe rotation player on a really good team.
And while you could make a credible case for him over Bazemore, you could just as easily make the case that neither should return due to the Lakers’ dire need to seek out bigger, more athletic players in lieu of those who aren’t even 6’4”.
Ellington, much like in his first stint with the Lakers, did not play to his reputation as a high-level shooter often enough this past season. Whether it was the inconsistent minutes, the fact that defenses paid him more attention because of his status as the lone really good shooter on the floor, or some combination of pressure/a down season/him not being as elite of a shooter as his reputation suggested in the first place, I often found myself underwhelmed with Wayne’s output.
Add to that his general weaknesses defensively and, well, I’m not really considering Ellington as an option to return, even at the minimum. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Wayne played hard, showed a commitment to trying defensively, and was a true professional in how he responded to his fluctuating minutes over the course of the season. But, strictly through the lens of “could I see him playing key minutes in a late round playoff game?,” I think that he’s just a tick below the level of shooter required when accounting for his defensive deficiencies.
If nothing else, this exercise tells us that the Lakers have a lot of work to do in reshaping their roster for next season. Yes, there’s potential that they bring back Russ, THT, Nunn, Reaves, Stanley Johnson, and Wenyen Gabriel from last season’s roster. But, even if all of them return, adding them to Bron and AD, the Lakers will still have upwards of seven roster spots to fill. And nearly all of those will necessarily come from minimum-salaried guys, just like this past season.
The fact that none of those other holdovers look like obvious picks to return provides insight into not only why the Lakers struggled last season, but why rebuilding a contender from the depths this team fell to feels so daunting.