At the onset free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers had some serious aspirations, as they seemingly do every summer. They’re the Lakers, after all, and their optimism signs as bright as that LA sun, sprouting from the belief that their location and reputation still carry a serious allure for NBA players like DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge or Greg Monroe.
All three players had meetings with the club, but each of them ultimately spurned the Lakers in favor of other clubs: the other Los Angeles team, the ever-winning Spurs and the freaking Bucks, respectively.
Based on reports, Aldridge seems like the only target that LA ever really had a shot at, and they ran out of time in their meeting with him, which allegedly left a lackluster impression of their strategic side with Aldridge. Kobe Bryant spoke for a few minutes at the meeting, which may or may not have helped the Lakers’ presentation.
It wasn’t terribly surprising that LA had to settle, considering the extent to which other teams roll out the red carpet for their free-agent pursuits: giant banners, player-focused hypotheticals, a general sense of lust for their talents. The Lakers, on the other hand, seemed to rely on their prestige, stale championship banners and the presence of Kobe. Comparatively, pitches in today’s NBA don’t come any more “take it or leave it” than that.
In that sense, LA wound up not with the players they needed, but the players they deserved. Free agency moved super quickly this year, so once the team missed out on its big-time targets, there weren’t a ton of exciting options remaining. Thus, the Lakers had to implement their Plan B, which yielded pretty ho-hum options: signing guard Lou Williams and forward Brandon Bass, along with trading for center Roy Hibbert.
All of the players will be coming over from the lesser Eastern Conference, and after years of splurging on big names and awarding a misguided albatross contract to Bryant, their disappointing migration would seem to validate the idea that these Lakers, currently residing in the Western-Conference basement, are finally reaping what they’ve sowed during their schizophrenic last few seasons.
That’s not to say that Hibbert, Williams and Bass aren’t solid NBA players. In fact, they should all be good fits for LA’s roster next season, no matter how underwhelming they or the team might look on paper. They’re just not Jordan or Aldridge, and none of them are the caliber of player that could lead the Lakers back to the playoffs, which GM Mitch Kupchak seems to believe are a possibility for this group.
One person who certainly doesn’t sound overwhelmed by his new teammates is Bryant, who apparently hasn’t been in touch with any of them so far. A question at yesterday’s introductory press conference about whether or not Bryant had reached out to LA’s new guys had them looking like, “Hello, darkness, my old friend…”
At the conference, Hibbert talked at length about wanting to find a new start in LA after falling out of favor with the Indiana Pacers during the last couple seasons. Williams stated that he wanted to try playing in the Western Conference, and Bass didn’t say much at all. The moment of silence after the Kobe question has already become the only thing that anyone’s talking about from the conference, instead of the potential production from the Lakers’ new trio.
That’s how things work in LA, though, for one more year: everything happens in Kobe’s shadow. So with slight considerations to Bryant, how much can these three veteran castoffs help the Lake Show next season?
Assuming Bryant doesn’t berate Hibbert’s psyche into submission, the big man should wind up being the most valuable addition of the three. Unfortunately for Hibbert, that “if” is as big as he is –– the big man has hit multiple slumps that last for months during the course of his career, and when faced with adversity, he’s never responded well. (See 2014, spring.) However, he does provide one thing LA needed desperately last season: rim protection.
Despite all the trash-can memes, Hibbert still does protect the basket extremely well. Last season he held opponents to just a 42.6 percent shooting mark at the rim, good enough to be one of the top four guys in the league, per SportVU. That number stands in stark contrast to last season’s Lakers, who gave up 61.9 percent shooting in the restricted area, per NBA.com. Having a guy like Hibbert, who’s consistently put up rim-protecting numbers for the last few seasons, will definitely improve LA’s defensive numbers in the paint.
Hibbert said during the press conference that he was ready to focus solely on defense, since he apparently believes the Lakers boast significant “firepower” on offense. If he stays true to that commitment, he’ll become even more of an asset, but it’d be a little bit of a surprise, given the way he’s behaved in the past when not getting touches.
Meanwhile, Williams and Bass provide the opposite of Hibbert’s production, which is scoring the ball. Each of them can fill it up, especially Williams, who’s the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. He flamed out big time against the Wizards during the playoffs, but his regular season was one the Lakers are surely hoping he can reproduce with their bench.
The most glaring problem with Williams’s fit is how much he’ll even have the ball in his hands on a team with Bryant, Jordan Clarkson and top five draft pick D’Angelo Russell. Not to mention, Nick Young will get his no matter what.
Williams does his best work out of the pick-and-roll, and that’s not a lot of ball to go around. He should still be an effective player for them, and SportVU indicates that he shot just a tick below 40 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season, which bodes well for his ability to play off the ball. He’ll be a fine fit alongside whomever joins him in the backcourt while he’s on the floor, but he feels a bit redundant on a team that’s also trying to develop two young combo guards, especially since he’s a minus on defense.
Bass is certainly the most low-key addition of the three, but he has a very strong mid-range game that should give LA a bit more spacing than your average power forward would. He can’t quite hit threes, but he’ll rebound and score from most anywhere inside the three-point line, despite not having a great post-up game.
He’s undersized, though, and it hurts him on defense, where he’s struggled in part due to his lack of size and length. He’s also a bit of a tweener, not bullish enough to guard traditional 4s at his size, but not quick enough to chase around today’s newfangled, playmaking 4s.
Still, he’s an improvement over Ryan Kelly, and given their similar skill sets, Julius Randle could benefit from spending time with Bass, assuming he doesn’t eat into too many of Randle’s minutes. In general, Bass should offer a solid frontcourt complement to Hibbert, who’s going to have his work cut out for him this season on defense. Indiana has always had defenders who, at the very least, were skilled enough to steer opposing players toward Hibbert on defense. This LA squad appears to only have matadors surrounding the big guy.
The Lakers didn’t have a ton of options this offseason, and in trying to save face, they didn’t handcuff themselves financially, and that’s a win in and of itself for this franchise. This offseason didn’t go how it was supposed to, though, and LA wound up getting three guys who don’t pass the ball well for a team with Kobe that’s trying to run a motion offense. Few things sound less promising.
It’s understandable for the players. Hibbert’s in a contract year and poised to snag one last significant deal if he can put together a good year. Williams has a chance to be the most efficient scorer on this team, while Bass will simply see minutes once again on a losing squad, which seems to be his MO to this point in his career.
No matter what Kupchak says, this is a losing team next season, bereft of much shooting or defense, and heavily reliant on slower, older players who are approaching or already hit the downside of their careers. The additions make sense in that context: a team with delusions of a playoff run in Kobe’s final season has to do what they can to make that happen. Now, LA just has to cross its fingers and hope that they can get through this season with these guys, then they’ll be rid of Bryant’s deal and free to rebuild, probably not around Hibbert, Williams or Bass.