Looking Ahead

Hey there.  It’s been awhile.

Jokes aside, that was one heck of a fun season of Laker basketball!  A few surprises, a sense of general improvement and they even pushed their way into almost dark-horse playoff long shot for a hot minute there.  Gone are Larry Nance Jr and Jordan Clarkson, here for now are Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas.  Here for sure is where ever Cleveland’s first rounder falls in the upcoming draft.  Here for now, hopefully for more than just another couple months, is Julius Randle.  The rest seem likely to stay, barring a blockbuster trade which doesn’t feel all that likely.

The teams that have players that best fit the Lakers’ immediate needs have all been eliminated.  That paves the way, for me at least, to begin to entertain some notions about what the future holds for our roster.  Here’s what I’d like to see us go for along a timeline that makes sense.

Re-sign Julius Randle

It’s pretty obvious that the biggest mistake of last season was declining Randle’s final year on his rookie deal.  We could have locked him up for $5.5 million for next season but instead we’ll likely have to outbid another team in order to retain his services.  I deem that to be essential as Randle’s game opens up the floor for the Lakers in ways no other player can.  While being our best rebounder he’s also one of our best play-makers and his defense around the rim took step forward this year.  Once he was inserted into the starting line up he went on a tear the rest of the year.  As a starter he was able to set a tone for our style of play in away he never could coming off the bench.  Julius presents a match up problem few teams have: a skilled bully ball player.  As he continues to incorporate the more delicate aspects of basketball into his game (I’d love to see him add a floater or a running hook so his fast breaks are harder to stop) and work on his jump shot and left-hand, I really enjoyed watching Randle discover the fine line between out of control and forcing the issue.

Unfortunately, his spot on the roster will come at a price far surpassing what he would have been paid by simply picking up his option.  He may be a victim of big dreams or the wait and see what the ‘better’ talent does.  I think that would be a mistake.  While we do have Randle’s Bird Rights (allowing us to go over the cap to re-sign him) I would try and come to terms earlier rather than later.  I say this for multiple reasons, while it sounds cool waiting to re-sign Randle last and using his Bird Rights to go over the salary cap I’m not too certain next year is the year the Lakers want to re-enter the Luxury Tax zone.  The Repeater Tax is a huge thing to deal with and unless you’re guaranteed a playoff spot starting your countdown to that fun and exclusive club should be put off for as long as possible.  Maybe this is the right year and maybe it isn’t.  Some fans will shrug and say ‘It’s only not my money’ to which I counter ‘yes, but it is your team and they will have to deal with it to keep that winning bunch of guys together and isn’t watching this more fun than watching us win 17 games?’  At any rate, I can see a lot of wisdom in coming to reasonable terms with Randle early rather than letting the rest of the NBA dictate his contract to us.  Or we can sit back and wait and see what he’s offered and simply match but that runs a risk, as well.  A back-loaded deal will make it harder to keep the band together, as well.

Target Paul George

Should be interesting to see how Paul reacts to being bounced so early by a team with maybe one bonafide superstar.  Carmelo Anthony may well be on the way out but that doesn’t necessarily improve anything other than they have enough money to offer George a max deal and maybe add a single piece.  That won’t make a dent in the western conference.  With Anthony Davis showing us what he can do with a modicum of decent health, the Jazz looking formidable, and the Rockets and Warriors having well-oiled playoff machines the Thunder have a team with at least three players that are at their best with the ball in their hands.  If Melo opts out I think George stays, they’ll have some wiggle room if all his dough comes off the books and they’ll know before free agency begins.  Something to watch for.  One could beg the question ‘does Paul George make the Lakers a playoff team?’ and I would say ‘maybe?’  Paul gives the Lakers a go-to option we’ve lacked in crunch time, his recent playoff showing notwithstanding.

I think George to the Lakers makes a lot of sense for both parties.  Paul can maximize his marketing dollars and play close to home (an overrated aspect of all of this but still a valid point).  They’ll make it work on defense and he’ll play fine with Ingram, either one will be the SG.  There will be pressure but it will be more of a pressure to grow and mentor the core while also making the playoffs.  George fits perfectly into what we do on defense.  For me, George is our best, first option in regards to players outside the team.

Re-sign IT and Lopez

Been giving this one a lot of thought.  There’s a couple ways this can work.  Most of it hinges on the Randle timeline and would be compounded by the Paul George negotiations.  Lopez is a perfect starting center for Luke’s offensive approach.  Can bang down low, hit the three, passes PK and does his job on defense.  While he may never be in the running for DPotY the other skills he brings are extremely valuable especially if you include Randle in your future plans.  Capella switches to my first option if we lose Julius because we’ll need to replace the toughness on defense but Clint is a one-trick pony on offense.  Brook is show pony with more than a few tricks in the bag.  Big problem I can see in retaining Brook will be he might get a bigger offer elsewhere.  If so, c’est la vie.

Thomas showed us what he can do and he also showed us that hip injury can flare up any time.  Love his heart, skills and savvy but he has to prove he can ball for a good 75% of the season and into the playoffs.  If he believes he’s a top dollar player then I think we can use his Early Bird rights to go over the cap.  Since there may not be the sizzling market for IT that we’re all predicting there will be for Julius I think this is the player we use the EBRs if we have to go over the cap for some reason.  But his leadership, poise, and potential to return to something resembling what we saw in Phoenix and Boston are worth a gamble of this nature.  Early Bird deals are minimum 2 years, max 4.

Trust the Core

Hart, Kuzma, Ball, Randle and Ingram all have more room to grow.  Let them do it in purple & gold.  No trade for Leonard, play the same game they so smartly did with Paul George.  If Boogie is available and won’t compromise our future in any way then you do it.  Otherwise (and it pains me to type this) you have to take a pass.  Achilles injuries are no joke.  Bryant and Zubac are fine as your back up 5 and Bryant can play the 4, too.  If KCP wants to sign here for the MLE, fine.  But don’t break up the core.

Who knows what will happen, George could opt in citing unfinished business.  King James could switch cities.  We could whiff on everyone, again, but that core group of players has playoff potential written all over them and that has to be our primary goal.  With good health, a summer of growth and more experience this group will be a headache for opposing coaches for years to come.  Trust them by keeping them together.

Go Lakers.