Offseason In Review: Los Angeles Lakers

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

  • None

Trades

  • Acquired 2014 pick No. 46 from the Wizards in exchange for $1.8MM cash.
  • Acquired Jeremy Lin, Houston’s 2015 first-round pick (lottery-protected), and the Clippers’ 2015 second-round pick if it falls anywhere from 51st through 55th from the Rockets in exchange for the rights to Sergei Lishchuk.

Waiver Claims

Draft Picks

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

  • None

In October 2012, just as the Lakers were beginning their sudden and shocking descent into also-ran status, Lakers co-owner and executive VP of basketball operations Jim Buss said that he planned for the team to “make a big splash in the free agent market” in 2014. The belly flop that took place this year surely wasn’t what he had in mind. The Lakers never had a realistic shot to land LeBron James, and though they reportedly floated a max offer to Carmelo Anthony after meeting with him, ‘Melo’s top two choices were instead the Knicks, whom he eventually re-signed with, and the Bulls, who would have required him to take a sharp discount. Chris Bosh and Eric Bledsoe, two other marquee free agents to whom the Lakers were linked, never appeared close to wearing purple-and-gold. None of the 10 players in the 2014 Hoops Rumors Free Agent Power Rankings signed with the Lakers, even though they entered July with just four players under contract and loads of cap flexibility.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles LakersJulius Randle was poised at that point to become the fifth player on the Lakers roster, and though he’s lost for his rookie season with a broken leg, seemingly fate’s way of rubbing it in for a downtrodden franchise, the power forward nonetheless represents the promise of a brighter future. This year’s No. 7 overall pick was No. 2 behind only eventual top selection Andrew Wiggins in the rankings of both Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress and Chad Ford of ESPN.com when the season began last year. Randle failed to stand out quite as well as expected in his lone year at the University of Kentucky, but on a roster that’s always full of top-flight NBA prospects, that’s not altogether surprising. His size and strength give him a natural advantage on offense, and though his short arms will likely keep him from becoming a strong defender, he has the capacity to become a marquee player.

That won’t be for a while, however. He turned 20 just last week, and because of his injury, he won’t see the floor for the Lakers again until he’s nearing his 21st birthday. There will be a learning curve, to be sure, as well as an adjustment to playing again after such a long absence, so there’s a strong chance that the real Randle won’t emerge until 2016/17 at the earliest. Even the silver lining for the Lakers has gathered tarnish.

The Lakers drafted Randle and entered free agency without a coach, in part because the team wanted to be able to choose a coach to fit the roster, which was still largely a mystery. Still, it appeared unseemly that the job that Pat Riley and Phil Jackson had lifted to iconic status would be left open for so long, even if it was by design. Nevertheless, there was reason for the Lakers to take a deliberate approach to their choice after their hasty and unpopular decision to hire Mike D’Antoni early in the 2012/13 season, just weeks after firing Mike Brown and days after getting Jackson’s hopes up about a return. Jackson was off to the Knicks to serve as team president by the time D’Antoni resigned rather than coach 2014/15 on an expiring contract, so there was no chance at a do-over.

The Lakers interviewed Lionel Hollins, Mike Dunleavy and Alvin Gentry, and perhaps Kurt Rambis, too, though it was unclear whether Rambis, a Lakers assistant coach at the time, was given a formal interview. The team also considered George Karl but settled on Byron Scott, who had spent 13 years as an NBA head coach with the Nets, Pelicans (then Hornets) and Cavs. Scott had long ago forged a relationship with Kobe Bryant, mentoring Bryant when their playing careers overlapped as Lakers teammates in Scott’s final season and Bryant’s first. Scott began conversing with Bryant in coach-player terms even before the Lakers formally hired him on a four-year, $17MM deal with a team option on year four. D’Antoni’s tenure began with Bryant as an admirer of him, too, so there’s no guarantee that Scott and the star of the Lakers will always get along, but the lack of any rift at this point will help the emotional tenor of a team that faces an uphill battle nearly every night.

The Lakers didn’t make Scott’s job any easier when they lavished their most lucrative free agent contract of the summer on Nick Young. Most teams would do well to secure their leading scorer from the year before on a deal worth the rough equivalent of the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception, but Young’s production last year was one-dimensional. He put up 17.9 points but dished only 1.5 assists and grabbed 2.6 rebounds per game. His 16.0 PER represented the first time that the 16th overall pick from 2007 had put up a better-than-average number in that category. Young’s season was reminiscent of the one he delivered in 2010/11 for the Wizards, when he scored 17.4 PPG for a similarly moribund Washington team. That, too, was a walk year for Young, but the Wizards didn’t tether themselves to a long-term contract that next summer. Young signed the team’s qualifying offer, watched his production plummet after a midseason trade to the Clippers, and didn’t recoup his market value until parlaying a minimum-salary contract with the Lakers last season into this summer’s jackpot.

The outgoing personality of “Swaggy P” was made for Hollywood, and he’ll help the Lakers sell tickets and capture TV ratings as he and Bryant hoist jumpers from all over the floor and pile up inflated point totals, but he seems like a poor fit in any traditional basketball sense. Young has so far taken a back seat to Bryant after returning from a preseason thumb injury that caused him to miss the start of the regular season, and it’s worked to help the Lakers win more games than they had while Young was out. Yet it remains to be seen if he and Bryant can co-exist peacefully even though both prefer the ball in their hands.

The Lakers were otherwise conscious of preserving cap flexibility for next summer. Jordan Hill netted an above-market $9MM for this season, particularly so given that he was only a part-time starter last year, but the second year in his deal is a team option. Jeremy Lin comes in via trade with a nearly $8.375MM cap hit and an actual salary close to $15MM, but he’s on an expiring contract, and the Lakers netted a first-rounder in that transaction, even if it’s destined to come in the 20s, given Houston’s strong play. Ryan Kelly received a two-year deal, but his room exception salary is a pittance to pay for a young player with some degree of upside. The same is true of Ed Davis and his two-year, minimum-salary deal. All of the other Lakers signees are without any guaranteed money or player options past the 2014/15 season, leaving the team with only about $35.1MM in commitments for next season, not counting the player option for Davis.

Still, the acquisition of Carlos Boozer‘s expiring contract came with a high cost. The Lakers put up $3.251MM in an effort to ensure that they’d have the high bid on him in amnesty waivers, a process that functions much like a blind action. That amount meant the Lakers would have to cut salary to reopen the cap room necessary to make a few of their pending agreements official, and Kendall Marshall‘s non-guaranteed salary was the casualty. The Lakers waived the now 23-year-old 13th overall pick from 2012 even though he’d averaged 8.8 assists in 54 games for the team last season. D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense played a part in that assists number, to be sure, but it still seems odd for a rebuilding team to cut ties with a productive player who was just two years removed from having been a lottery pick. That goes double when it happens just so the team can accommodate a declining veteran like Boozer, who plays the same position as Randle, whom the Lakers had drafted just a few weeks prior. Milwaukee wisely picked Marshall off waivers, and the Bucks can match offers for him in the summer of 2015.

Such missteps have not been uncommon the past few years, but the Lakers rewarded GM Mitch Kupchak in large measure for his work during the team’s more decorated past with an extension that runs through at least 2016/17. Buss and Kupchak have promised Jeanie Buss, the ultimate decision-maker for the Lakers, that the team will pick up ground in the win column with each season to come, but that’ll be a tough vow to keep this season, even though the Lakers set the bar rather low with 27 victories in 2013/14. Jim Buss said in April that he’d step down from his role in charge of the team’s basketball operations in a few years if the team doesn’t bounce back, and that clock is ticking. The Lakers will always have inherent advantages, based on their history and geography, but they’ll have to do a better job of putting those to use if Buss and Kupchak are to keep their jobs much longer.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

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