The summer of 2014 ushers in a completely new experience for many Lakers fans. It starts with an unprecedented number of decisions the front office will have to make with eleven of its own players. Only twice before in the last 30 years did Los Angeles’ premier NBA franchise miss the playoffs. After finishing under .500 in 2004-05—sans Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson—Los Angeles selected Andrew Bynum, brought back the Zen Master and promptly returned to the playoffs. Within four years they won back-to-back championships.Kobe Bryant
didn’t have a lot to smile about watching his Lakers from the bench this year. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The other draft lottery cameo came in 1993-94, two years after Magic Johnson retired. The Lakers drafted Eddie Jones with the 10th pick, added Cedric Ceballos, and won a first round playoff series. Two years later Kobe Bryant came to town and you know the rest. This time around, however, brings completely different circumstances.
The 2014-15 Lakers head into the offseason with just three players under guaranteed contracts—Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre—Kendall Marshall on a non-guaranteed minimum salary, one restricted free agent in Ryan Kelly and maybe another in Kent Bazemore. Nick Young will likely look for swaggier pastures to improve on his $1.2 million player option. The rest of the 2013-14 roster is now free to move about the country, potentially giving GM Mitch Kupchak about $26 million with which to play. LA Times’ Eric Pincus points out that this number could grow to over $28 million depending on what the team decides to do with Nash. If waived before August 31, the Lakers can stretch his $9.7 million salary next season over three years, freeing up some extra space now and pushing it down the line. All of this goes to say that even with the 7th pick in a deep draft, the Lakers are much further than an impact rookie away from contending in the loaded Western Conference.
Bryant, despite his status as the most competitive player in the game, has so much mileage as well as a repaired Achilles tendon and tibia in his left leg that its difficult to predict how he will come back. This team has entered full-blown rebuilding mode whether it wanted to or not—and that doesn’t even include the lack of a head coach. With a bevy of potentially cheap building blocks in their own backyard, the Lakers have some decisions to make based on what they saw in the franchise’s second-worst season ever. And there was a lot to observe. Amid so many injuries, the Lakers’ most cohesive starting lineup trotted out together just 15 times, according to NBA.com, while teams like Indiana and Portland rarely had to alter their top fives. Sixteen different players started a game. SIXTEEN! Only Milwaukee (16), Sacramento (17) and Brooklyn (17) had to do that kind of shuffling while San Antonio (17) did it by choice. So the Lakers have a lot to work with when it comes to re-signing their own free agents. But how many guys deserve to return? And on the other hand, how much do they want to gamble on being able to lure away enough quality players from other places to fill out a full roster? This gets complicated when taking into account that the guy taking up over a third of the team’s cap space is entering his 19th season and has made very public his reluctance to rebuild.
The Lakers have an interesting haul of young talent. Some can make the team competitive next season (Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Kendall Marshall), others are longer term projects that need a few seasons to bloom (Kent Bazemore, Ryan Kelly, Xavier Henry), and there’s a group to move on from (Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, MarShon Brooks). Each player poses his own complications. Meeks would have to backtrack to the bench behind Bryant after starting 70 games in his most productive (15.7 ppg) and best shooting (.463 field-goal percentage, .401 three-point percentage) season. Jordan Hill’s breakout as a double-double machine in the final month of the season makes him a potentially pricey role player after making $3.5 million. Marshall was an excellent distributor and distance shooter but couldn’t hit a lick inside the three-point line or effectively guard anybody on defense. There’s also a lot to like about each. The former D-League point guard would cost a mere $915,243 despite finishing second to Chris Paul with 8.8 assists per game. While a lack of explosiveness may prevent him from being the point guard of the future, Marshall can be an inexpensive stop-gap who will have no problem feeding Bryant 30 shots a night. He’s also got a great sense of humor that the Lakers could use in these times of turmoil.
Hill could command $7-8 million on the open market but he’s got value as a starter, especially with Mike D’Antoni’s system gone. Meeks, he was the team’s most improved and consistent player in a tumultuous season. Bazemore, Kelly and Henry are a bit more difficult to dissect. Bazemore played more minutes in 23 games as a Laker than in the one-and-a-half seasons he spent with Golden State. He proved to be an energetic, fearless scorer who often got a little trigger-happy.
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The Old Dominion alum’s season-ending tendon tear in his right foot may actually be a blessing in disguise. Though he loses the ability to work on his game over the summer months, the injury may scare suitors away once Los Angeles almost assuredly extends him the required $1.1 million qualifying offer to become a restricted free agent. Kelly put together a surprisingly solid rookie campaign coming off a broken foot in his final season at Duke. He started 25 games and finished top ten among first-year players in minutes, points, field-goal percentage, three-point field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. He also fell prey to spells of inconsistency and could have been better from behind the arc as a stretch four. He also will need a $1.1 million offer, and then the Lakers can match any deal to keep him in purple and gold.
Four-year guard Xavier Henry presents a conundrum. The former lottery pick has never played more than 50 games in a season, but when healthy this year he set career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, minutes and field-goal percentage. Henry was a locker room favorite, and as ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin suggests, he’s unlikely to get guaranteed money anywhere. He could come back on the cheap.With their sights set on an A-list free agent, a second tier guy like Rudy Gay, or a blockbuster trade for Kevin Love, the Lakers will need to fill a number of their roster spots with affordable impact guys. Marshall, Kelly and Bazemore should be locks to stick around at bargain prices. If Kupchak can get creative with his pitches, Hill and Meeks would be solid pieces as well. Throw in the seventh pick in the draft and Los Angeles can form a solid core ready to win now by trimming some of its roster fat and holding onto its more valuable assets.
Balancing the short- and long-term future for Kobe will take a lot of financial savvy and some critical player development if any of these guys stick around. Don’t see your ideal Laker player on the poll? Want to give the ‘why’ behind your answer? Hit the comments section below to let us know who the Lakers should re-sign this summer.