The Los Angeles Lakers have checked off their biggest offseason task to date, landing the hottest coaching candidate on the market in Luke Walton. While Walton now has an important task of his own to fill out his staff, the Lakers front office can turn its attention to the talent that he will have to work with in his first season as a head coach.
As July draws closer, Los Angeles will have to decide not only who they want to pursue in free agency, but also who they want from this season’s roster to return next year. This will be the first time in 20 years that the Lakers will assemble a roster that does not include Kobe Bryant. Who will be back to start the post-Kobe era?
First, the Lakers do have six players on guaranteed deals through at least next season. Barring any trades, five of those players should be back next season. Those players would be D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., Lou Williams and Anthony Brown.
Opportunities can certainly come up on the trade market this summer, and at least a few of those five could be involved in the rumor mill, but let’s just operate under the assumption of no trades being made and all five players being on the roster next season.
Now, who will be playing in a different uniform next season?
PLAYERS NOT RETURNING:
After the incident with Russell near the end of the season, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Young is a Laker again next season. There was already tension in the locker room, and with the chance to start fresh next year, you just cannot have that around.
He is under contract, with a player option next summer worth approximately $5.6 million, so the Lakers will likely look to trade him this summer. Young rode the bench for the latter stages of the season, so I doubt there is any value for him on the trade market. The team has reportedly tried to offload him at the trade deadline the past two seasons, but were unable to find any suitors. That would probably be the case again this summer.
Without a trade, the Lakers would probably end up using the stretch provision on Young’s contract, meaning that he would be waived, and the remaining $11 million on his contract — including his player option year — would be spread out over the next five seasons, making the salary cap hit at about $2.2 million each year. With the salary cap expected to take a massive leap from $70 million to $92 million this summer, the effect would be so minuscule that Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss should not hesitate to utilize this option.
Kelly was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season as a stretch four in Mike D’Antoni’s system. He found his role rather quickly and filled it particularly well, knocking down shots from the perimeter and even mixing in the ability to attack hard closeouts from defenders. Under Byron Scott, though, he just has not been able to get back to that. Granted, he played out of position virtually all of last season, stuck at small forward, where he cannot succeed at this level.
This season, he hardly saw the floor. Kelly could probably have a bit of resurgence under Walton, who will likely implement some of D’Antoni’s offensive principles, but with Randle and Nance already in the fold, there just won’t be room for him in the rotation. The Lakers could probably bring Kelly back by extending a $2.1 million qualifying offer, making him a restricted free agent, but they would be better suited by clearing the additional cap space.
Speaking of players playing out of position under Scott, Bass struggled early on before finding his footing as a small-ball center for the Lakers. His high motor and surprising explosiveness near the rim made him a serviceable player in a really tough situation. Bass opted out of his contract and is now an unrestricted free agent. I could see some desire for the front office wanting him back, but the veteran can likely latch on with a playoff team and provide them quality minutes off the bench. Additionally, with Bass gone, it creates more minutes for the Lakers’ young frontline.
I cannot remember the last time a player’s stock dwindled so rapidly. Hibbert was an All-Star for the Indiana Pacers in 2012 and 2014, which is why he made over $15 million this season. Now, I’m not sure there is a team out there that will be willing to pay him very much. I think Hibbert did a great job serving as a mentor and support system for the young guys this season, but with the way the game has evolved and how his has declined, he is probably looking at a severely reduced role next season somewhere else.
Metta World Peace
Metta also served as a great mentor for the young guys on the roster, which is probably the sole reason he was signed over Jabari Brown last summer. He is still a fan-favorite because of his personality, but age has caught up to him on the court. If he is playing in the NBA next season, I highly doubt it happens to be in a purple and gold uniform.
I honestly would not be surprised if Sacre is brought back for his fifth season next year. He is a great locker room guy that can be retained on a cheap contract. With that being said, I think his time with the Lakers is over. Sacre has not really progressed over these last four seasons, and the center position needs a massive upgrade in overall talent. He plays hard, but the progression just has not been there, which is why it is probably time to move on.
PLAYERS WHO WILL RETURN:
Of all the players on the roster, Huertas was the toughest one for me to decide on. He will turn 33 years old later this month as he prepares for his second NBA season. Despite being an utter disaster most of the time on the defensive end, Huertas somehow managed to pile up the assists in a lackluster offensive system during the last month-and-a-half of play. He played sparingly throughout the majority of the season (16.4 minutes per game), but when he started to see the floor near the end of the year, he was a nice spark off the bench (Dare I say, a catalyst, even?). Huertas’ fate with the Lakers likely depends on if they can lure another veteran point guard in free agency to help mentor Russell. Still, there is value in his ability to create shots for others, so I can certainly see him back next season.
Extending a $1.1 million qualifying offer to Black is a no-brainer. For whatever reason, he was buried on the bench this season by Scott. Black is a bit undersized for a center, but his ability to play bigger than his height is why he should be the backup center next season. He plays harder than anyone on the roster and is relentless on the glass (11.4 rebounds per 36 minutes this season). Additionally, he is one of only a few players that is actually solid on the defensive side of the basketball, and works extremely well in pick-and-roll action. Barring him signing a lucrative offer sheet with another team — which is unlikely — Black should be another piece of the Lakers’ young core moving forward. Black also has ties with Walton, as the latter was an assistant coach at the University of Memphis while the former was in attendance. That could help encourage the team to retain him this summer.
This one is another no-brainer. Clarkson is a restricted free agent this summer, but the Lakers would be absolutely foolish to let him walk. They can match any offer sheet that he may sign with another team, and they should. Clarkson, having only two seasons under his belt and the Lakers possessing his early bird rights, falls under the Gilbert Arenas provision. This means that teams can still offer him lucrative offer sheets, but the majority of the money on the deal would not come into play until the third season. By signing an offer sheet with another team, Clarkson could only make just under $6 million in each of the first two seasons of his contract before seeing a massive leap to around $20 million for the last two seasons, depending on if it is a max deal or not. For full information on his contract situation, read Eric Pincus’ breakdown for the Los Angeles Times here.
While a lot of fans can argue that Clarkson is not worth the roughly $20 million per year he could make later on in the deal, that is beside the point. The mere $6 million he would make in the first two seasons would allow the Lakers to retain Clarkson while preserving their cap flexibility both this summer and in 2017. That could prove to be a vital asset. The Lakers will need him as part of their pitch to free agents the next two offseasons, as they attempt to sell their young core to a long list of potential roster upgrades.
So of the team’s 15-man roster this season, I have eight of them returning, giving the Lakers a minimum of four and a maximum of seven spots to fill in the draft and free agency this summer. Los Angeles has some promising young pieces on the roster already. Now the challenge will be to bring in established talent to not only help the youth develop, but also to take steps forward in the rebuilding process.
Salary and contract information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.
Statistics are courtesy of NBA.com.
Collective Bargaining Agreement information courtesy of Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ.