Los Angeles Lakers: Other than a superstar, this should be top FA priority

Los Angeles Lakers: Other than a superstar, this should be top FA priority

The Los Angeles Lakers will be focusing on adding superstars this summer, but a specific type of center should also be near the top of their priority list.

Everyone and their mother knows that the Los Angeles Lakers are looking to add a superstar (or two) to their roster this summer, or possibly in the summer of 2019.
Paul George and Lebron James are the obvious, well-known targets, and there is a chance they may be able to acquire Kawhi Leonard if the San Antonio Spurs superstar truly wants out. While it is their first priority, as it should, there is another type of player that should rank right behind a superstar.

Coach Luke Walton has done a bang-up job of not only getting this young roster to grow and coalesce, but he and his staff have also created a culture. They have consistently emphasized defense, effort and playing an up-tempo game, as well as camaraderie and enjoying the work they put in.

As a result, the Lakers made a phenomenal jump defensively this season. After four consecutive seasons of ranking between 28th and 30th in defensive efficiency, the purple and gold leaped all the way to 12th.

Such a huge jump in defensive rankings really doesn’t happen that often. Other than internal growth by Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Julius Randle, some of it had to do with the addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez and Josh Hart.

However, none of them are elite defenders (at least not yet). To reinforce their newfound defensive identity, the Lakers should look to sign a defensive-minded rim-protecting center this summer.

To be fair, having such a center on your roster isn’t absolutely needed to have a championship caliber defense. The Boston Celtics had the league’s top-ranked defense this season, even though Al Horford is lacking when it comes to protecting the rim.

The prototypical great defensive team that didn’t have rim protection was the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who were arguably the greatest defensive team in NBA history. Their starting center, Luc Longley, did average 1.4 blocks a game that season, but Longley wasn’t exactly Dikembe Mutombo when it came to rejecting shots or deterring dribble penetration.

However, those Bulls had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, three of the absolute best defensive players ever. Their starting point guard, Ron Harper, was also known as a top-shelf defender.

For these Los Angeles Lakers, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart have drawn positive attention for being good defensive players. It is unclear, however, if they will ever develop into the type of players who will consistently make the NBA All-Defensive Team.

Every real basketball person knows that having a rim-protecting center instantly fortifies your team defense. In addition to preventing easy baskets, as well as penetration that leads to kick-outs and open 3-pointers, it empowers others. Now, your perimeter defenders have the luxury of being able to be more aggressive. They can freely trap and press the man with the ball and get into the passing lanes.

This type of center gives you a margin of error whenever your perimeter defenders get beat off the dribble, or when a good passer successfully hits the open man out of a trap. Being able to play this type of defense often leads to forcing more turnovers and low percentage shots. Such miscues by the opponent can now be turned into transition opportunities.

This would seem to fit well within the culture and vision of these Los Angeles Lakers. Coach Walton and Magic Johnson have articulated their vision of this squad being a fast break team that wins with defense, not unlike Johnson’s Showtime teams of the mid-1980s. It could also, at least in theory, help the Lakers’ players develop as individual defenders because now they can assert themselves on the perimeter with less risk.

The ideal free agent that fits this profile is the Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela. He averaged 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in the regular season despite playing only 27.5 minutes. Although he is not known for his offense, he contributed 13.9 points per game and has rapidly developed as a target for both Chris Paul and James Harden on lob passes and fast breaks.

Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, he has continued to shine with 12.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game in 32.0 minutes per game. Capela is only 23 years old, so he would fit in nicely with the Lakers’ overall timeline.

However, Capela may carry a price tag that will be too big for the Lakers’ liking. He is a restricted free agent and will likely command a max or near-max salary. So will the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan in all likelihood. Luckily, there are some other centers that have similar skills that may be more within the Lakers’ price range.

Perhaps Jusuf Nurkic is a nice target. He is only 23-years old and is developing as a physical, defensive-minded pivot who can also score a little bit. Some low risk, medium reward options include Kyle O’Quinn, Dewayne Dedmon and Nerlens Noel. All three of them are under the age of 30, however, they each have some shortcomings.

A decent fall back option could be resigning Brook Lopez to a team-friendly deal. He had his ups and downs this season, but he came on strong in March, averaging 18.7 points and 1.67 blocks per game while shooting an impressive 38.8% from 3-point range.