After the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook during the summer of 2021, acquiring what was thought to be the third member of a new dominating Big-3 with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Purple and Gold put forth one of the most disappointing seasons in NBA history as their Big-3 turned out to be mainly a Big-1, featuring LeBron James one-ing it up on the league to the tune of 30.3 PPG. Immediately after the Lakers disastrous 33-49 season concluded, they fired head coach Frank Vogel, and the consensus among fans and experts was the next clichéd domino to fall in the Purple and Gold’s offseason redo was a Russell Westbrook trade.
However, as the Lakers made their interview rounds with several coaching candidates, they repeatedly asked each potential hire how they would utilize Russell Westbrook, bucking all of our preconceived notions and implying they still value their brick-shooting-no-defense point guard and have no intention of trading him. There could be a few trickster reasons behind the Lakers’ unexpected interview question: The Lakers could be simply trying to build Russell Westbrook’s trade value by indicating they aren’t hell-bent on getting rid of him, or they could have been weeding out the qualified coaching candidates from the unqualified ones by asking them how they’d bring the most out of Brodie, perhaps the most challenging question in the basketball world, OR Rob Pelinka and company could actually want to keep Westbrook.
The Lakers might have come to the conclusion that in Hollywood, where it’s championship or bust, it might be prudent to hold on to Westbrook for one more season instead of mortgaging their future for, let’s say, a package surrounding Malcolm Brogdon and Buddy Hield, two vastly negative defenders whom Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, and even Paul George would love to run over during the postseason and who almost certainly would not help the Lakers win a title. Perhaps it would be wise for the Lakers to bring back Russell Westbrook for one more season and pray that newly hired head coach Darvin Ham can either talk some sense into him or, if necessary, yell some sense into him, convincing Brodie to do the little things it takes to win like playing defense, holding onto the ball, and not stat-padding. Then in the summer of 2023, Westbrook’s massive $47 million cap hit will come off the books, and the Lakers will be flush with enough cash to sign a max superstar or a handful of quality rotation pieces around LBJ and AD.
If the Lakers were to keep Russell Westbrook for one more season, they’d have nearly their entire cap sheet tied up in three players, Brodie, James, and Davis. They also have Talen Horton-Tucker signed for next season, while Kendrick Nunn has given every indication he will opt into his 2022-23 player option. The Lakers also have three players — Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves, and Wenyen Gabriel — with team options for next year, which they’ll almost certainly exercise. In total, the Purple and Gold should have eight players on their roster heading into the offseason, which means they’ll need to fill out seven open spots to reach the league-required 15-man full roster.
The Lakers will have only three tools to sign their seven new free agents: the taxpayer mid-level exception (around $6 million), veteran minimum contracts, and minimum contracts.
Below, we’ll rank the top five (realistically speaking) taxpayer mid-level exception free agents and the top five minimum contract free agents for the Lakers.
Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception Free Agents
5. Malik Monk
2021-22 Statistics: 13.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG, -1.0 DBPM
Malik Monk signed a one-year prove-it minimum contract with the Lakers during the summer of 2021 and prove it he did. Monk flashed an excellent three-point stroke (39.1%) throughout the season with off-the-dribble long distance chops that reached as far back as 32 feet. He also blended a better-than-expected first step with solid vision and some of the most impressive finishing skills of any 6'3"-or-under player in the league (72.5% from 0 to 3 feet).
Monk was excellent last year, and he’s going to get paid. However, unless the Lakers find themselves devoid of better options, they shouldn’t waste their precious mid-level exception on a vacuum scorer, even if he is an elite bucket getter. The Purple and Gold need to address their 21st-rated defense and bring it back up to a championship level.
4. Chris Boucher
2021-22 Statistics: 9.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.9 BPG, -0.4 DBPM
Chris Boucher is a 6’9" power forward/center coming off a two-year, $13.5 million deal with the Toronto Raptors. Boucher’s numbers aren’t flashy, and he’s not a long-distance-spread-the-floor threat (29.7 3P% off 2.9 attempts per game). Still, Chris Boucher ranked 9th in 2021-22 in block percentage at 4.3%, and he contested 6.2 shots nightly, an excellent mark considering he only averaged 21.1 minutes per game on the season.
Outside of Anthony Davis, the Lakers were bereft of a real-life NBA center last year, which led to head coach Frank Vogel inserting famously unphysical defender Carmelo Anthony in at the center position for 41% of his 1,793 minutes, a recipe for defensive disaster. The Purple and Gold are dying for an actual center, and with only $6 million-ish to offer, Chris Boucher is their best hope.
Chris Boucher would give the Lakers a much-needed young and versatile rim protector who could start games at the center position, allowing Anthony Davis to shift down to his more favored spot at the power forward position.
3. Victor Oladipo
2021-22 Statistics: 12.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.1 BPG, -0.5 DBPM
Signing Victor Oladipo to the mid-level exception would be risky for the Lakers. Oladipo has played in only 96 games throughout the last four seasons, suffering from a slew of injuries. However, that same risk factor would allow the strapped-for-cash Lakers to sign a player of Oladipo’s talent level.
When Victor Oladipo is healthy, he features All-Defensive Team perimeter defense, excellent creation skills, and supplementary playmaking capabilities. And for the first time in what feels like forever, Oladipo looked healthy during the Heat’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, flashing his two-time All-Star all-around skill set as a significant cog in Miami’s rotation.
The Miami Heat will want Victor Oladipo back next season, but they almost certainly won’t give him a starting position or much more than a minimum deal until he proves he can stay on the court for an entire season. The Lakers would be wise to jump in and offer Oladipo a multi-year deal, something like a two-year, $12 million agreement, along with the starting shooting guard gig.
2. Gary Payton II
2021-22 Statistics: 7.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 3.4 DBPM
You could make the case that Gary Payton II was the most effective perimeter defender in the league last season. Dunks and Threes rated him the second-best defender in the league behind only Draymond Green in their Estimated Defensive Plus/Minus metric (+3.6), and he would have been third on Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus leaderboard (3.4 DBPM) if he’d played enough to qualify.
The Lakers desperately need a lockdown perimeter defender, the type of player who can harass the Stephen Curry’s or Ja Morant’s of the NBA. Gary Payton II could be their best chance at landing a defensive difference-maker.
Coming off an excellent season with the Warriors, Gary Payton II will be a hot commodity around the NBA. The Lakers can offer him $6 million per year, a big jump from the minimum salary he made in 2021-22. Perhaps more importantly, they can offer him a starting gig next to the GOAT vice president, LeBron James, on the glitziest franchise in the league. That could be enough.
1. Otto Porter Jr.
2021-22 Statistics: 8.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 2.1 DBPM
The Wizards selected Otto Porter Jr. with the number three pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, and he was mainly a disappointment during his five-and-a-half seasons in Washington before they gave up and traded him to the Bulls. Porter Jr. struggled in Chicago and was traded to the Magic, and then he came to the Warriors this season on a one-year, minimum deal.
Otto Porter Jr. proved in Washington he’s not a number one or even number two scoring option. However, he also proved this season in Golden State he is an excellent role player, your prototypical 3-and-D wing with a bit of extra playmaking, cutting, and rim-slashing in his back pocket.
3-and-D wings are all the rage in the NBA, and it’s nearly impossible to find a player like Porter Jr., who has a career 39.8% three-point mark and who also proved he can lockdown opposing scorers on an island with his play during the 2021-22 season. Porter Jr. will get a stack of contract offers this summer. Like Payton II, the Lakers can offer Porter Jr. $6 million and a starting position in Los Angeles. Again, that could be enough.
Minimum Contract Free Agents
5. Austin Rivers
2021-22 Statistics: 6.0 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.1 BPG, -0.3 DBPM
Austin Rivers has bounced around the league throughout his nine-year career, going from New Orleans to LA’s other team, then Washington, Houston, New York, and finally Denver, where he spent the entire 2021-22 season as their backup shooting guard. Austin Rivers is a decent enough player, but his major problem is that he doesn’t excel in any one area. He’s only a career 34.9% three-point shooter, and he’s not a capable playmaker, isolation scorer, or perimeter defender.
With that said, the Lakers aren’t in any position to be choosy. They’re coming off a disastrous season, and their books are clogged with Westbrook’s massive contract. Austin Rivers would be a solid addition to their bench as a veteran guard who finishes nicely at the cup and can hit around a league-average clip from deep while not spewing points on the less fun end to opposing guards.
4. Serge Ibaka
2021-22 Statistics: 6.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.2 SPG, 0.4 BPG, -1.0 DBPM
Serge Ibaka, 32, has transformed from a rim-protecting terror to a fringe rotation player seemingly overnight. The Lakers would prefer to bring in a younger and more agile center, but again, we’re being realistic here, and realistically speaking, he could be their top backup center option.
Serge Ibaka might have moved around the perimeter like he was stuck in mud during the regular season, but he still offers two solid skill sets: shot blocking and three-point shooting. Ibaka had a 3.3 block percentage during 2021-22, a far cry from his monstrous 9.8 block percentage in 2012, but a decent enough mark that would have landed inside the top-20 in the NBA if he’d played enough to qualify for the leaderboard. Ibaka also shot 37.4% from deep during the regular season, acting as a floor-spreading big man for the Bucks and Clips.
3. Thaddeus Young
2021-22 Statistics: 6.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 2.1 DBPM
Thaddeus Young failed to carve out a significant role on the Spurs, averaging only 14.2 minutes per game before being traded to the Raptors at the deadline. Young became a key cog in the Raptors rotation, shooting a solid 39.5% clip from deep while compiling an excellent 1.3 Defensive Win Shares (in only 475 total minutes).
Thaddeus Young, soon to be 34, probably isn’t a starter in the NBA anymore, but he’d provide the Lakers with excellent three-point shooting, a touch of shot creation, and tough-nosed defense in a bench role.
2. Hassan Whiteside
2021-22 Statistics: 8.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.3 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.4 DBPM
During Hassan Whiteside’s heyday in 2017, he averaged 17.0 PPG, 14.1 RPG, and 2.1 BPG for the Heat. Whiteside is no longer that type of player, but he’s still an excellent rebounder and shot blocker, two areas the Lakers struggled with during the 2021-22 season.
Hassan Whiteside is coming off a one-year, minimum deal as Rudy Gobert’s backup on the Utah Jazz. The Lakers can offer Whiteside the same minimum contract he received last season, but they can also give him the starting center job, which only one or two other teams in the league can guarantee.
This seems like an excellent, mutually beneficial opportunity for both parties. The Lakers would employ a real-life seven-footer who is one of the most reliable rim protectors in the league, and Whiteside would creep away from Gobert’s shadow and become an NBA starter again.
1. JaVale McGee
2021-22 Statistics: 9.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.3 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 0.9 DBPM
JaVale McGee was a statistical hero in 2021-22:
Dunks and Threes ranked him inside the 88th percentile in their Estimated Defensive Plus/Minus metric (+1.4).
NBA.com ranked McGee 30th in their Player Impact Estimate (15.2)
He was fourth on the 64-18 Suns in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.201)
McGee, 34, was an elite rim protector during the regular season with a 6.1 block percentage and the fifth-best opponent field goal percentage at the basket in the league, holding opposing players to a stingy 51.8% shooting mark from within six feet of the rack. McGee is a springy seven-footer who rolls to the rim hard and cuts better than nearly every other big man in the league.
JaVale McGee played behind Deandre Ayton on the Suns last season, averaging only 15.8 minutes per game as a non-factor during Phoenix’s high-impact minutes. Perhaps he’d like to take a slight discount to return to the Lakers as their starting center.
If The Lakers Do Not Make A Major Trade During The Offseason, What Is Their Optimal Lineup For The 2022-23 Season?
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Otto Porter Jr.
SF: LeBron James
PF: Anthony Davis
C: JaVale McGee
PG: Kendrick Nunn
SG: Talen Horton-Tucker
SF: Thaddeus Young
PF: Stanley Johnson
C: Serge Ibaka
Let’s start with the Lakers point guard situation. Russell Westbrook’s fit next to LeBron and AD was nothing less than awful last year. Still, Kendrick Nunn missed the entire 2021-22 season with injury and nobody knows if he’s ready to run the show in the starting lineup. So for now, Westbrook gets the starting nod at the point guard position, but if he doesn’t play 110% on defense, cut hard to the rack, and set screens he should get pulled for Nunn.
Otto Porter Jr. would slide in nicely next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the starting lineup as a floor-spreading 3-and-D wing who is more than capable of harassing the opposing squad’s leading perimeter scorer. And LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and JaVale McGee would be free to physically overwhelm the opposition like they did in 2020 on their way to the title. Kendrick Nunn would start the season running the bench unit as one of the premier sixth men in the league. Nunn is a proven winner who led Heat as their starting point guard to the Finals in 2020. He’s a solid long distance marksman, shooting 38.1% from deep during his last action in the 2020-21 season and a better-than-average point-of-attack defender.
Hopefully, THT would transition from playing poor two-way basketball to a player who fulfills his massive potential as a member of the Lakers bench mob. Stanley Johnson, Thaddeus Young, and Serge Ibaka would round out the reserves as strong and aggressive defenders who'll make opposing bench scorers work for every bucket.
If Anthony Davis stays healthy next season, and if LeBron James shows no regression, and if Russell Westbrook thrives off the bench, and if Kendrick Nunn actually suits up, and if THT plays above-average basketball — the Lakers will be a championship squad next season. That’s a lot of ifs, but if you squint just right, the Lakers aren’t that far away from their 2020 championship days.