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Evaluating the Lakers’ Free Agency

By simply improving on the margins and refraining from messing with what worked this past season, the Lakers hit a home run in free agency.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Lakers have locked in a baker’s dozen of players, edifying their existing roster through the draft and free agency, doing away with almost all uncertainty surrounding their 2023-24 roster. At this point, we can be fairly confident of what the Lakers’ roster will look come opening night.

Here’s how things have shaped up so far:

  • Starting Backcourt: D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves

Depth: Gabe Vincent, Jalen Hood-Schifino, Max Christie, Maxwell Lewis

  • Starting Frontcourt: Rui Hachimura, LeBron James, Anthony Davis

Depth: Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaxson Hayes, Cam Reddish

The biggest win here is clearly the Lakers’ retention and expansion of a viable young core.

Not only are they set to run it back next season with a nearly identical group that made the Western Conference Finals last season, they’ve secured some stability in their rotation for the coming years. Rui Hachimura, Gabe Vincent, and Austin Reaves are signed for at least three more seasons, and will be 30 or younger at the conclusion of their current contract. D’Lo will be 29 when his two-year deal expires. On the rise and entering their primes, this group projects to at least contribute to winning basketball for the foreseeable future.

On top of those free agent signings, folks within the organization’s front office have optimism that, in time, Max Christie, Maxwell Lewis, and Jalen Hood-Schifino can grow into high-level fixtures in the Lakers’ backcourt. Between those six players, the Lakers have a solid chance to field an above average middle of their roster until at least 2026.

Before the Lakers really need to lean on their youngest assets, they can call on Taurean Prince as a trustworthy 3 and D wing, Jarred Vanderbilt as a defensive specialist, and Cam Reddish as a low-risk, high-reward flier. In total, the Lakers’ backcourt and wing depth has taken a considerable step forwards in terms of the present and future compared to just last season.

Much more important than just assuring themselves of some roster continuity moving forwards, the Lakers can assure the top of their roster — LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who each could test the open waters of free agency after the conclusion of next season — that remaining in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future is the best thing for their respective futures.

Somehow, the Lakers have restructured a stable foundation from the embers of the Russell Westbrook disaster — leaving LeBron an equally viable alternative of sticking around, as opposed to jumping ship, for the first time after winning a championship with any of his former teams. And if the team can sign Anthony Davis to a max extension — a “primary offseason thing” according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst — they’ll be set to remain competitive, even if LeBron decides to opt-out of his $50M-plus contract and leave L.A. to play wherever Bronny lands in the wake of the 2024 NBA Draft.

Still, even though the Lakers have manufactured a brighter future for the franchise from one of the darkest holes in franchise history, this upcoming season’s roster has a couple of smaller questions that need answering if they hope to get farther, or even as far as they did this past postseason.

While the backcourt/wing-depth is practically etched in stone, albeit with some questions regarding their ability to shoot the three-ball consistently, the Lakers’ frontcourt remains much more of a mystery. Although the team’s two best players both play in the frontcourt, meaning they’ll need less help at full strength, neither of them have been able to avoid major injuries in any of the past several seasons. As of Saturday morning, the only true big on the Lakers’ roster other than Anthony Davis is Jaxson Hayes. This leaves Hayes and two veteran’s minimum contracts plus some change to mop up the season’s center minutes, a huge bet on an unproven/unsigned group.

While Hayes has absolutely flashed the rare combination of size, skill, and athleticism that earned him a mid-lottery selection in 2021, there are very real reasons that New Orleans decided not to extend him the qualifying offer this offseason. Some of those are of Hayes’ own doing. Hayes had the worst on/off differential of any Pelican with at least 500 minutes last season by more than 10 points per 100 possessions. Without getting too deep into the weeds here, he fouls too much without racking up blocked shot totals and is a very poor rebounder for his size and position. Worse yet, he has absolutely given the world reasons to impugn his decision-making, impulsivity, and general character through his off-the-court actions.

Some of those basketball-related reasons go beyond anything within Hayes’ control. The Pelicans followed his acquisition with that of Zion Williamson the following year — pushing him outside the center of the franchise’s attention, and onto the fringes of the rotation. Further, Hayes suffered a pre-season injury which limited him to 47 total games, and measly meaningful minutes. Optimistically, Hayes is only 23-years-old and possesses talent that is scarcely available at the minimum.

With one remaining roster spot, the Lakers reportedly plan to target a another big and keep their final roster spot open, hopefully one who is girthier than Hayes — and ideally — one with a proven motor to help keep up the defensive intensity, especially through the regular season. Wenyen Gabriel would absolutely be a welcome sight to see return in that latter role, if the Lakers can re-up with him on another deal at no more than a few dollars above the minimum.

Alternatively, the Lakers could tap Mo Bamba for a return if he’s available at that price, or target a more battle-tested veteran like Robin Lopez, Bismack Biyombo, Alex Len, Dewayne Dedmon, Gorgui Dieng, Tyler Zeller, or even Meyers Leonard.

Barring some unforeseen trade, the Lakers seem set to enter next season with a team that’s a little better than the one they ended last year with. Considering where they were at the beginning of the calendar year, rebuilding this competitive, cost-controlled roster should be seen as a massive win for this front office. If LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on board for that ride, maybe the Lakers have another couple of chances to bring home number 18.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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