Free-Agent Big Men the Lakers Should Target This Offseason

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

Free-Agent Big Men the Lakers Should Target This Offseason

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    USA TODAY Sports

    With the Los Angeles Lakers’ season of doom over, players will head out on vacation and ultimately return to the next joy ride—somewhere. The team’s existing micro-roster has been lightened by the subtraction of eight unrestricted free agents.

    The Lakers will especially be in need of big men, given that Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman are among those heading out in search of a new home.

    Robert Sacre is the only Laker big under contract for next season. The team’s No. 60 pick in the 2012 draft has been a pleasant surprise, showing a real spike in production and minutes played this season. Still, the hardworking 7-footer is best-suited to a backup role.

    Los Angeles can also extend a qualifying offer to rookie Ryan Kelly, thus making him a restricted free agent. It’s likely the Lakers will—last year’s No. 48 pick started 25 out of 59 games this season, averaging eight points and 3.7 rebounds as a stretch 4.

    With money to spend but not a lot of quality free agents on the market this summer, management has a challenging task ahead—not only filling the obvious gaps but also finding reliable starters.

    It’s a Big Man dilemma!

    Here then is a list of free agents that the team should target over the offseason. You won’t find any early termination clauses or other far-fetched opt-out scenarios.

    Nope, this is about guys who are actually available, so don’t howl in protest if you don’t like the results—the pickings are slim out there. And no, Luol Deng is not a power forward or center, hence he is not included here.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

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    It's hard to imagine Dirk Nowitzki leaving the Dallas Mavericks—the only NBA team he’s ever known. Still, the 7-footer will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and has to be on the list.

    First, of course, the prototypical stretch 4 has to see what the playoffs bring—the Mavs got the No. 8 seed this time around, which means they’ll be facing the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Good luck with that.

    According to Mark Heisler for Forbes, Nowitzki won’t be going anywhere. But if he were, the 12-time All-Star and 2011 NBA champion would be a great add.

    After 15 seasons, he still has some balling to do. He’s now No. 12 on the NBA all-time scoring list at 26,786 points and will be looking to pass Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, who retired with 26,946 points.

    At the end of the day, however, the German-born legend will no doubt re-sign with the Mavericks and finish his career in Dallas. Still, this is definitely one of the guys LA should make a pitch to, regardless of its perceived probability for success.

Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards

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    Marcin Gortat will be a prime free-agent big-man target during this summer’s feeding frenzy. The 6’11” center has some business in the paint to attend to first, however. He was traded to the Washington Wizards from the Phoenix Suns at the beginning of the season and has done yeoman’s work—helping the team to its first playoff berth since 2008.

    He is the kind of player who could fit well with Kobe Bryant, given his toughness and ability to pass out of the low post. He’s also a big fan of Lakers point guard Steve Nash, whom he played with in Phoenix.

    Last season, Gortat expressed how much he missed the man with the outrageous passing skills, per Vince Marotta of Arizona Sports: "I miss Steve. I'm not going to deny it. I do miss him, I miss him a lot. He was great, he's a great role model, on the court, off the court. I mean hands down, the guy is just super good, super great.”

    Maybe the two of them could have some of those super good, super great times together again. Nash played just 15 games this season due to injury but showed that he still has the ability to thread the needle for deadly assists. Gortat was one of Nash’s favorite targets during their time together.

    Known as "The Polish Hammer," the highly physical big man started 80 of 81 games this season, averaging 13.2 points, 9.5 boards and 1.5 blocks. That’s the kind of post production that could fill the void of a departing Pau Gasol, if in fact the Spaniard leaves through free agency.

Channing Frye, Phoenix Suns

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    Channing Frye came back strong this season for the Phoenix Suns after going through some challenging health issues that threatened to derail his career.

    In April 2012, the Suns power forward had a season-ending shoulder injury that necessitated surgery. In September of that year, it was discovered that he had an enlarged heart. The problem was caused by a rare virus that attacks heart muscles and can lead to sudden cardiac death. It is treatable only through rest, not surgery.

    Frye subsequently took the entire 2012-13 campaign off in order to regain his health. Now healthy again, he was the only Sun to play all 82 games this season and to start in all 82 to boot.

    And his numbers weren’t shabby—11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. The combo center/power forward has always been known as more of a shooter than a post banger. Selected as the No. 8 overall pick by the New York Knicks in 2005, the Arizona Wildcat had a strong rookie season, averaging 12.3 points per game.

    He signed with the Suns during the free-agency summer period in 2009 for the team’s full mid-level exception. He holds a player option to come back for the fifth and final season of the contract for $6.8 million.

    Per Dave Dulberg for Arizona Sports, Suns’ general manager Ryan McDonough is hoping Frye picks up the option: “If he picks up the option, that's great. It's remarkable. He's going to be the one guy who is going to start every game for us this year."

    Frye has some time to think about it—the Suns just missed making the playoffs this season under first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek.

Spencer Hawes, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Spencer Hawes is one of those rare breeds in the NBA—a true 7-foot stretch center and an unrestricted free agent as well.

    He was dealt by the Philadelphia 76ers to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the February trade deadline and continued doing for one bad team what he’d already been doing for the other—scoring from both inside and long range as well. He started 25 of 27 games for the Cavs, averaging 13.5 points and 7.7 rebounds, while connecting from beyond the arc at an eye-popping 44.8 percent.

    Before being traded, he averaged 13 points and 8.5 boards in 53 starts this season for the 76ers while shooting at a 39.9 percent clip from downtown.

    Despite being only 25 years old, Hawes will be entering his eighth season in the NBA this fall. He was the No. 10 overall pick in 2007 for the Sacramento Kings, after spending one year at the University of Washington.

    It’s hard to know how much he will bring on the free market—his salary this year was $6.6 million, and he’ll get at least that. He’s not a star in the league, but he’s a legit starter, and there aren’t a whole lot of guys his size who can shoot that well.

    Would he somewhat duplicate Ryan Kelly’s game with the Lakers? It’s a question worth asking. Hawes is a little bigger and has more experience. Still, neither brings a real defensive presence to the table—they’re about putting the ball in the bucket.

    Hawes is a guy whom the Lakers should consider, as long as the deal doesn’t eat too heavily into cap space for the deeper 2015 free-agency market.

DeJuan Blair, Dallas Mavericks

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    At 6’7” and 265 pounds, DeJuan Blair is a wrecking ball who can contribute off the bench in a way that doesn’t often translate to the box score. Playing in 78 games this season for the Dallas Mavericks, he averaged 6.4 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.6 minutes.

    Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Yet, the power forward/center makes his presence felt, scattering taller players like so many bowling pins while scoring or going after loose balls.

    He made news when he was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2009, despite having no ACLs. The No. 37 pick had undergone multiple anterior cruciate ligament surgeries while in high school that eventually resulted in the damaged ligaments disappearing altogether, with his quadriceps and hamstring muscles taking over the stabilization role.

    The Spurs decided it was a risk worth taking, and it paid off—Blair was a crowd favorite, starting the majority of games during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons alongside Tim Duncan. Blair’s natural position is at center, but at 6’7”, there’s bound to be some shortcomings. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich gradually reduced Blair’s minutes over time, as Tiago Splitter’s role increased.

    Blair was picked up by the Mavs this season on a one-year minimum-salary deal. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but first, he will face his former team in the first round of the playoffs.

    This is just the kind of player the Lakers should be targeting to fill out their roster—a low-cost, high-energy big man who can come in and fill a role off the bench.

Jordan Hill, Los Angeles Lakers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Given that the Lakers top three big men are free agents, it would make sense for the team to try and keep at least one, right?

    Jordan Hill is coming off a perplexing season—putting up the best numbers of his career despite not fitting into Mike D’Antoni’s preferred small-ball system.

    It was a case of history repeating itself.

    As a raw but explosive big man out of the University of Arizona, Hill was drafted No. 8 by the New York Knicks in 2009. His coach that season just happened to be D’Antoni, and it wasn’t a love match. Hill didn’t get many minutes and was traded in February of his rookie season to the Houston Rockets.

    That March, D’Antoni famously took umbrage to Hill’s assertion that his former coach didn’t like to play rookies. The coach told Marc Berman of The New York Post: “Where does that come from? Seriously. It’s something that cracks me up. I don’t play rookies? I don’t like to play bad rookies.”

    Bad rookies? That’s the kind of line that will never go away.

    And years later, they wound up on the same team again.

    The 6’10” center/power forward brings tremendous energy and athleticism in short bursts, working the glass, altering opponents’ shots and chipping in baskets from close range.

    He doesn’t, however, fit the prototype of a D’Antoni stretch position player.

    Still, despite the differences, Hill had a solid season—appearing 72 times and averaging 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game.

    Earlier in the season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Hill would be gone by the time summer came along. Now, however, things may be changing. D’Antoni’s job seems to be in doubt, and if he leaves, why can’t Hill come back?

Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    And so here we come, to the guy you knew had to be included, even if it seems like a remote possibility on so many levels.

    Pau Gasol, who was so integral to two Lakers championship runs under then coach Phil Jackson, is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his storied 13-year NBA career.

    The past two seasons have not been particularly happy ones. He clashed often with Mike D’Antoni, expressing fundamental differences with his coach’s offensive system as well as what he viewed as a lack of discipline and communication.

    It’s all water under the bridge now. There’s no way these two will ever be a part of the same NBA team again.

    And, it’s a shame that Gasol’s time in Los Angeles had to end this way. When he wasn’t at odds with D’Antoni, he was fending off questions about trade rumors that increasingly popped up.

    The arrival of Gasol in February 2008 came during another difficult period—Kobe Bryant was unhappy with the rebuilding effort then, as he is now. The 7-footer from the Memphis Grizzlies by way of Barcelona made an immediate difference. He was as skilled a big man as the league had ever seen and became a symbol of LA sports with his casual, polite and well-spoken way.

    He was the yin to Bryant’s yang.

    And despite the turbulence and the loss record this season, Gasol put up good numbers, averaging 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 blocks in 60 games.

    There were also the games that he missed, however, through a variety of injuries and health issues, including his current and somewhat mysterious bout of vertigo.

    Gasol will be 34 years old in July. He has played a lot of basketball during his career, both in the NBA and overseas. He earned a whopping $19,285,850 this season with the Lakers, and there’s no way they can afford to pay him that kind of money again. Combined with the salary-cap hold, it would hogtie efforts to build a team for the future.

    And yet, after all that has happened, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was recently quoted by Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News as saying: “There’s great interest in re-signing Pau back. I don’t know why there would not be interest. He’s a Hall of Famer. But by virtue of being a free agent, he’s in the market place. By being in the market place, we have to see how things play out.”

    In other words, never say never in the transitory world of the NBA.

    Or, the more things change, the more they don't?