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How can the Lakers can plug their biggest roster hole?

The Lakers need to shore up their frontcourt depth, especially with so much riding on their superstar big man’s historically fragile feet.

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

Recognize those feet?

If you’re a Laker fan, you’ve likely suffered many a sleepless night over the past several seasons stressing over the health of a certain big man’s lower extremities.

This postseason, Anthony Davis proved that he remains an all-world contributor when healthy, carrying the Lakers to four wins from the NBA Finals, but he has failed to escape a single season with an even relatively clean bill of health since the team won the 2020 championship.

Just this past season, Davis missed more than a month with a bone spur in his right foot — which at the time, he said he’d “probably” need offseason surgery. Without any update since the season on whether Davis would go under the knife this summer, he should presumably be set to start the season with a clean bill of health.

Of course, like any hopeful title contender, the Lakers’ chances are sunk if their best player suffers an injury keeping him out for any sizable portion of the playoffs. However, given his inability to remain on the floor consistently throughout the regular season, the team should be prepared to tread water for some virtually inevitable stretch of games without him.

While the team can’t expect to be as good as they will be when AD plays, there is value to simply retaining continuity through their rotations if any one player misses time. In particular, it is probably unwise to throw a 38-year-old LeBron James in as the team’s primary rim protector for any extended amount of time for both health and performance reasons.

Right now, here’s the list of those among the Lakers’ currently rostered 13 players who spent the majority of their minutes at the 5 last season: Jaxson Hayes. The Lakers have just two centers, between AD and Hayes, and would be wise to add a third — something they are reportedly planning on doing.

Although Hayes will probably provide solid value on a veteran’s minimum contract, he struggled to earn consistent minutes for the Pelicans over four seasons there, and the team was better with him off the floor than on it in every one of his seasons to date. Further, he’s coming off of a season in which he played just 47 games due to a torn UCL in his non-shooting arm. If the Lakers are betting their entire season’s worth of backup big man minutes on Jaxson Hayes, they are absolutely taking a risk on his growth as a rim protector and rebounder, as well as his health. Further, as Laker fans have grown familiar with over the past couple of seasons, players who command veteran’s minimum contracts have an imperfect hit rate as reliable rotation players, so betting the farm on just one of them is probably a gamble the Lakers should not be comfortable doing.

For most of last season, the Lakers carried three centers on the roster, including AD, Wenyen Gabriel, and at least one of Damian Jones, Mo Bamba, and Tristan Thompson. Still, they suffered a meaningful loss at Houston, in terms of the late-season standings, where both AD and Gabriel sat due to injury, leaving the 6’8” Rui Hachimura completely out of his depth as the Lakers’ lone rim protector and starting 5.

With a relatively thin market for big men at this point in the free agency period, the Lakers should look to sign one of the remaining characters with trustworthy NBA experience.

Although Christian Wood is the obvious choice on this list simply from a talent perspective, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers landing him on a minimum deal, especially when he might be able to return to Dallas on the full Mid-Level Extension since Portland matching their offer sheet to sign Matisse Thybulle.

If Wood is off the table, Bismack Biyombo, and Wenyen Gabriel stand out as the two most viable backups worth considering. At 30, Biyombo is a proven rim protector, receiving an A+ for his defensive impact per the B-Ball Index, but is a near-zero at the other end, receiving an F on offense. Especially without the ability to mitigate his limited range with uber-elite shooting and benefit from Chris Paul’s pick-and-roll mastery, Biyombo may struggle to be a difference-maker for the Lakers.

Alternatively, Wenyen Gabriel provides the Lakers with some additional continuity as a member of last season’s roster, played approximately 125% of Biyombo’s minutes. He’s also 4 years younger, and provides a more balanced package of switchable defense, rim protection, and respectable inside-out scoring. He’s a career 31.9% 3-point shooter, but with his age and form, there’s reason to believe he has a chance to begin knocking down wide-open corner threes — something Biyombo will almost certainly never grow into (given the fact that he’s taken a total of three threes in his dozen NBA seasons).

Among the remaining candidates, Tristan Thompson is a big, athletic body, but spent more time in front of an ESPN camera than he did in his 36 non-garbage time playoff minutes with the Lakers. He’s no longer the elite force on the offensive glass he was as a part of the Cavs’ 2016 title team in his pre-Kardashian early twenties, and probably only deserves consideration here after exhausting the possibility of signing one of the aforementioned names.

Omer Yurtseven is more of a flier than anything, and should only merit consideration if the Lakers strike out on the other names — or if, for some reason, the scouting department is extremely high on the former Heat player. He played in only 83 minutes last season, and projects as a fringe NBA player moving forwards. Similarly, Bol Bol just became available after being waived by the Magic, but he’s played considerably more at the 4 than the 5, and has struggled to carve out a sustainable offensive role through four seasons. He’s probably a worthy upside play somewhere, but not on the Lakers’ win-now timeline.

Montrezl Harrell (who incredibly led the 2020-21 Lakers in Win Shares) and Blake Griffin are the biggest names on that list. They are also probably the most available for a reason, as neither cracked 700 minutes over the course of last season. Both former Angelenos are far beyond their respective athletic primes, and never really protected the rim with any force when they were at their bounciest. I would steer clear of either as the Lakers.

Finally, given his impressive touch around the basket and playmaking feel, Colin Castleton deserves recognition as the undrafted Laker most likely to get a chance at cracking the rotation. He’s not much of a rim protector, but the combination of size and skill may earn him a look with the big boys if he continues to show out in Summer League. On a two-way contract, the Lakers can play him in as many as 50 games before they’d have to convert his deal to a full NBA contract (like the Warriors did with Anthony Lamb last season). And since they plan to leave one of their roster spots unfilled, the Lakers can sign another big and wait on the combination of the buyout market and Castleton’s development before deciding what to do with that last spot.

The Lakers will almost certainly sign one of the aforementioned bigs before the start of the season, and if I had my druthers — and Wood is out of the Lakers’ price range — I would do whatever I could to re-sign Wenyen, and if not, then Biyombo. Between Hayes, one of those two, and the possibility of Castleton, the Lakers would be well positioned to plug the biggest remaining hole in their roster and survive the inevitable Anthony Davis better than they did last season.

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.

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