Following a disastrous season that saw a championship-hopeful tumble to a 33-49 record, the Lakers will enter NBA free agency with plenty of renovations to make.
With a whopping six players from the previous year’s roster set to hit the open market on Thursday’s start of free agency, the team will need to get to work, and fast, on patching up the holes. However, they’re going to have to get it done on a strict budget.
Outside of minimum deals, the Lakers will enter Friday's bidding frenzy with only the $6.4 million taxpayer mid-level exception in spending power to find upgrades and augment depth at multiple positions.
One of those areas of need is in the frontcourt, specifically for a traditionally-sized 5. Although both LeBron James and Anthony Davis logged more of their possessions at center than ever before, the team will still be wise to add some big bodies on the roster to absorb some of the wear and tear that comes with an 82-game regular season.
Although their financial resources are limited, the following three options could fit the bill for the Lakers.
Mo Bamba: The Floor-Spacer and Riser
Although the flashes have been enticing, things have yet to fully “click” for Mo Bamba in Orlando.
Between poor roster construction around him, injuries and frequent fluctuation in playing time — often because of his own play — the former sixth overall pick has found himself swimming upstream through the first four years of his surprisingly advanced career. This past season, however, wound up being his strongest to date as things finally seemed to start to fall into place.
Bamba’s success came as a near direct result from finally being able to resolve two of the biggest question marks in his game through his first three seasons: one, if he could stay healthy, and two, whether he would be able to effectively space the floor.
After missing nearly half of the previous year and averaging just 15.9 minutes when he did see the floor, the 24-year-old played in a career-high 71 contests for the Magic this past season and his minutes average skyrocketed to over 25 per contest.
More consistent reps may have factored in helping Bamba find his shooting touch as well. Not only did Bamba let it fly from deep often — 44% of his shot profile came from downtown — but he was wildly efficient when he did so.
Bamba drilled 38% of his 3-point attempts overall, and 40% of his above-the-break chances according to Cleaning the Glass this past season. His 39.3% hit rate on catch and shoot threes was second only to Karl-Anthony Towns among centers with at least 200 attempts.
Beyond the welcome floor-spacing Bamba would provide the Lakers at the center spot, he also would help shore up their interior defense. With his still otherworldly 7’10” wingspan, Bamba has ranked in at least the 91st percentile at his position in block percentage in every year he's played thus far.
The unicorn-adjacent big is currently still a restricted a free agent, and even if does hit open waters, may ultimately prove to be out of the Lakers’ price range this summer. But if the team has a chance of reeling him in, Bamba checks enough boxes to warrant all the line the Lakers can give him.
Isaiah Hartenstein: The Workhorse
Isaiah Hartenstein is the Toyota Prius of free agent centers.
He’s reliable, safe and damn useful in the right (economic) setting. He’s not the sexiest name on the market, but if his season with the Clippers is any indication of future performance, he probably deserves to be among them.
Hartenstein is burly when he needs to be and light as a feather when it’s appropriate. He has good hands, feathery touch around the rim and impressive playmaking feel. During the season, Zach Lowe even referred to him as “one of the best passing bigs in the game.”
Whether it’s operating as a dribble handoff initiator, carving up four-on-three short roll advantages, throwing darts to corner shooters or hitting his fellow big sidling into the dunker spot, Hartenstein has shown the ability to do it all. His 18.9% assist percentage ranked in the 92nd percentile among centers last season.
The 24-year-old also impacts defense in a fashion that doesn’t rely on outlier athleticism or highlight plays. A jack of all trades, Hartenstein provides significant contributions when he’s on the floor without being a true master of any singular skill like Bamba is when it comes to both shooting threes and blocking shots.
The Clippers were a superb +9.1 points better per 100 possessions with Hartenstein on the floor last season. During those minutes, the team’s defense allowed an eFG% of just 48.8% (league average was 53.2%) and 57.8% shooting at the rim (Clippers’ 58.1% mark led the league on defense this year) according to Cleaning the Glass.
Among players who contested at least 300 attempts within six feet of the rim this season, Hartenstein allowed the fifth-stingiest mark, siting behind the likes of Rudy Gobert and Jarrett Allen. Hartenstein’s ability to deter shots at the rim would be an incredibly helpful for a Lakers’ team who ranked 26th in opponent’s finishing numbers within four feet.
Hartenstein felt like a lock to return to the Clippers following his strong season, but with the team reportedly bringing in John Wall with their own taxpayer midlevel money, the center may be looking for a new home this summer. He will have no shortage of suitors, and the Lakers would be smart to be among them.
Thomas Bryant: The Reunion/Reclamation Project
If the Lakers have any actual chance in signing either Bamba or Hartenstein, it will likely cost them their sole non-minimum exception to do so.
There is also a very strong argument to be had that their money should not be used on a center at all, and would instead, be better allocated for a more dire area of need like obtaining help at the wing.
The most realistic route then for the Lakers in terms of acquiring center depth on a budget would be to take a flier on a less proven player. Enter old friend, Thomas Bryant.
Bryant, who made his way to the Lakers in a 2017 draft-night trade, showed glimmers of promise within the team’s G-League system before ultimately making his way to Washington. It was with the Wizards where Bryant turned potential into tangible results.
In his first few seasons with his new squad, Bryant morphed into one of the most exciting and hyperefficient young centers around the league.
He gobbled up paint points at will (ranked in the 90th percentile or better among bigs in FG% at the rim in three of his last four seasons) and proved to be a legitimate spacing threat, converting 38% of his accumulated threes in his first three years in D.C.
Unfortunately, Bryant tore his ACL last year, derailing his momentum. He was able to make his return to the floor this season, but played in just 24 games and also struggled to rekindle his shooting stroke, making just 27% of his 3-point attempts.
Although the injury was a serious one, Bryant will likely still be one of, if not the most intriguing buy-low candidates this summer. At only 24 years old, Bryant represents a prime value-play for teams looking for their next diamond in the rough, especially if his long range jumper sees some positive regression towards his career mean of 35%. He’s exactly the kind of low-cost player with a wide range of outcomes that the Lakers desperately need to keep mining.
The Honorable Mentions: JaVale McGee, Damian Jones, Robin Lopez and Dewayne Dedmon
The Lakers desperately lacked a consistent lob threat and athleticism at the 5-spot this year; each of the former Lakers above could aptly address that issue.
Alternatively, Lopez and Dedmon are both serviceable innings-eaters who could take on some of the traditional wear and tear responsibilities that Davis has attempted to desired steering away from in the past. Both being veterans on what will likely be a much younger squad than last year’s assuredly adds value (as does getting to spend a season with Lopez’s Twitter account).
I'm just going to start telling people most of the teams I've played on have won a NBA title, and when they ask how that feels, I'll just say "Special".— Robin Lopez (@rolopez42) May 1, 2022
It's technically true.
Strapped for resources, the Lakers’ best avenue to retool during free agency is to be creative, but also, forage the market for skills that were absent on last season’s roster.
Perimeter shooting, interior defense and more than anything else, players who consistently provide effort are key attributes that can pay major dividends at what will have to come at a fraction of the cost.
There are very few options that can check multiple boxes that the team will be able to afford, but if they are strategic enough, the whole will hopefully be greater than the sum of its parts.