Notwithstanding the small-ball obsession of current head coach Mike D’Antoni, the Los Angeles Lakers have some gaping frontcourt holes to fill next season.
The team has just one big under a guaranteed contract—its ever-willing backup center, Robert Sacre. Management can also make a qualifying offer to Ryan Kelly, a rookie stretch 4.
It’s worth noting that Sacre was the last man picked in the 2012 draft, while Kelly was picked No. 48 last year. And while these two have certainly shown their proclivity for hard work, they probably wouldn’t be in the NBA if not for the Lakers.
Each has expressed differences with D’Antoni and the Lakers’ current methodology.
Per Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, Gasol questioned how he was being used:
"When I'm not getting the ball where I want to, where I'm most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity."
Hill commented, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, about a possible role elsewhere:
"I think I fit in anybody's system. Everybody needs an energy guy.”
And finally, Chris Kaman was the most blunt of of all, as relayed by Ramona Shelburne for ESPN Los Angeles:
"Never did I think I would come here and not play, otherwise I probably wouldn't have come.”
The lack of minutes have been enough to send the 7-footer into a state of somnambulism.
Kaman and Hill haven’t seen much playing time recently—D’Antoni is instead electing to go with Sacre and/or Kelly as well as giving the willowy 6’7” Wesley Johnson a starting role at the power forward position.
Gasol, despite his long-running differences with D’Antoni, is leading the team in scoring at 17.7 points per game to go along with 9.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 blocks. It would probably be viewed as career suicide if the run-and-gun coach refused to play one of the league’s elite centers.
Then again, it sometimes feels as if D’Antoni has already fallen on his own sword through his unswerving love for an extreme form of positionless basketball that possesses none of the discipline of teams who execute it more effectively.
As D’Antoni said in the Plaschke Times piece, "Our numbers tell us the worst thing we do is post up."
The numbers also tell us that the Lakers are in last place in the Western Conference standings at 22-44.
As likable and hardworking as the 7-foot Sacre is, it would be insane to believe he’ll be the starting center next season. Or, that the team would decide to fill up empty frontcourt roster spots with guards—even if that might suit D’Antoni just fine.
One way or another, the Lakers will have to find some better solutions. Not to mention, some players to fill the gaps.
Why the 2014 NBA Draft Matters
At long last, the Lakers are positioned to have a meaningful draft pick on the night of June 26. In fact, according to which way the ping-pong balls bounce, they could well be choosing in the top five. There are a number of talented frontcourt prospects, including the highly touted Joel Embiid, a 7-footer with freakish athleticism who seems enamored of life in the L.A. lane.
Also in the mix is Julius Randle, a 6’9” power forward with a sturdy body, athleticism and an innate ability to clean the glass—as well as 6’9” Aaron Gordon who’s been compared, not unreasonably, to Blake Griffin due to his all-out hustle.
This is all well and good except for one minor wrinkle—the Lakers will pick whoever they feel is the best player, regardless of position, once they come on the clock. And, there are a lot of wings and guards at the top of the leaderboard—guys like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum.
Even if the Lakers do happen to draft a big, there’s no guarantee he’ll solve their frontcourt problems right away. The last time Jimmy Buss got his hands on a top-10 pick, he chose Andrew Bynum, who blossomed slowly but eventually became one of the dominant centers in the league.
Until he was traded for Dwight Howard—but that’s a whole other story.
Free Agency Matters Even More
Well, it depends what positions you’re looking at. First, let’s acknowledge that free agency is definitely on the mind of the front office given that it's basically configured the roster to resemble a ghost town after the season ends—that’s how you create financial flexibility.
Unfortunately, this summer’s free-agency class isn’t real deep with quality big men who are likely to test the waters.
Tim Duncan has a player’s option but will certainly retire as a San Antonio Spur whenever that day finally comes.
Greg Monroe will be a restricted free agent, and the Detroit Pistons are likely to match any offer sheet.
Marcin Gortat is an unrestricted free agent with the Washington Wizards and is the first one on this list who may really be up for grabs. Could the Polish Hammer reunite with Steve Nash?
Spencer Hawes will also be an unrestricted free agent, having been traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Cleveland Cavaliers during a contract year. Hawes has been putting up the best numbers of his career with the Cavs.
Obviously, the number of truly available players on the above list is slight, leaving a drop down to other serviceable but lesser names—such as Channing Frye, DeJuan Blair or Josh McRoberts—the one-time Laker. Of this list, Frye could be an interesting possibility—he joined the Phoenix Suns a couple years after D’Antoni left but could certainly fit with the current system if, in fact, it remains in place.
There’s No Place Like Home
And then, there’s the remote possibility Buss opens his eyes to what’s in front of him, clicks his heels together three times like Dorothy from Oz and invites one or more of his current big guys back. That, of course, would entail pouring water on the failed D’Antoni experiment and hiring a coach who actually knows how to utilize players in the post.
This would not preclude seeking frontcourt help in the draft—after all, didn’t Bynum prosper alongside Gasol eventually?
While the notion of the Lakers re-signing Gasol seems to fly in the face of their carefully calculated salary-cap maneuvering, there are those who believe it possible.
Ric Bucher for Bleacher Report writes about the support for the Spaniard from a longtime teammate:
For those who missed it, Bryant told me before last week’s battle-for-L.A. bragging rights between the Clippers and Lakers that on a scale of 1 to 10 he’d put the chances of forward/center Pau Gasol playing for the Lakers next season at an “8.”
The plan, in short: sign Gasol to a gargantuan one-year deal, add a quality player with their soon-to-be lottery pick, trust that Bryant and point guard Steve Nash will be healthy and essentially go to battle next season with the squad they had hoped to have this season.
It’s also somewhat absurd that Lakers management hasn’t embraced Hill, a former No. 8 pick who’s still young, plays hard and is having his best season yet in the league. That is, when he manages to get on the floor. Hill doesn’t seem to get any more appreciation from his coach in Los Angeles than he did as a rookie with the New York Knicks—also, ironically, under D’Antoni’s watch.
There’s not just one way to go when it comes to loading up the roster next season. After all, it's down to the nubs across the board. The question is whether management can pull the switch all at once or whether it has to work in phases. Regardless, the frontcourt holes will be filled—we just don’t know how yet.