This article is part of our Offseason Priority Preview series.
The first round of the NBA Playoffs is nearing its injury-marred end, but for nearly half of the league the season has already been over for a couple of weeks.
For those 14 teams, attention has fully shifted to the offseason. The NBA Draft (June 25) is less than two months away, with free agency set to open just six days later (July 1).
While Kevin Durant may be the summer's only true marquee free agent -- yes, LeBron could technically leave -- a number of Tier 2 and Tier 3 free agents, a few of them borderline-All-Star caliber players, are expected to be on the move. Teams on the fringe of a postseason berth in 2015-16 will be looking for one or two missing pieces, while others begin, continue, or attempt to finish off their multi-year rebuilding processes.
In Part II of our Offseason Priority Preview series, we'll address the primary issues facing each of the seven non-playoff teams in the Western Conference and take a look at what can be done to resolve them.
UTAH JAZZ (40-42)
Utah wasn't eliminated from playoff contention until the final night of the regular season, but it was still somewhat of a disappointing year from a team many expected to snap a three-year postseason drought.
Injuries played a major part in the Jazz ultimately missing out, with Alec Burks, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors combining to miss 92 games, while Dante Exum sat out the entire season following an ACL tear late last summer. Strong showings from do-it-all, second-year guard Rodney Hood (79 starts) and rookie Trey Lyles (33 starts) helped to plug the gaps, but without Exum in the backcourt the Jazz struggled to find consistency at point guard.
With Exum out, Raul Neto opened the season as the starter before being replaced by Shelvin Mack, who was acquired from Atlanta at the deadline in a three-team deal. The 26-year-old averaged 12.7 points, 5.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game after the trade, playing well enough to essentially push 2013 first-round pick Trey Burke out of the regular rotation.
With the core of Gobert, Favors, Hood and Gordon Hayward expected to remain intact, the point guard position is by far Utah's biggest question mark heading into the offseason. Exum's return will be a major boost, but he's still only 20 years old and shot 35% from the field as a rookie in 2014-15. He certainly showed flashes of why he was the consensus top international prospect in the draft, but the Jazz are a team that's ready to win now and can't afford another season of mediocrity at point guard.
That's why Utah will likely bring back Mack, whose modest $2.5 million team option must be picked up by July 7, as Neto enters the second guaranteed year of his ultra-cheap rookie deal. The odd man out will likely be Burke, who's widely expected to be on the move this summer after a third straight disappointing season in which his per-36 assist numbers sunk to just 3.9 per game, the lowest of his career.
Trading Burke, who's entering the final year of his rookie contract, would be a mutually beneficial move. Still only 23, Burke could use a change of scenery and would draw interest as a low-cost project player -- maybe the epitome of the Chauncey Billups wasn't good right away! argument -- but Utah can't expect anything more than a second-round pick or marginal bench player in return.
Whether the projected trio of Exum, Mack and Neto is enough to give the league's 16th-best offense a boost remains to be seen, and Utah remains a (very) dark horse landing spot for guys like Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague, who may be available via trade this offseason. Of course, that would almost certainly require the Jazz to part ways with an asset of their own, but they may be more apt to do so if they don't believe Exum is quite ready for a larger role as he enters his de facto sophomore season.
The point guard position aside, GM Dennis Lindsey will have roughly $28 million in cap space with which to work this offseason. Lindsey hinted at exit interviews that he'd prefer to put that money toward adding a veteran or two to what was the NBA's fourth-youngest roster. Trevor Booker is the Jazz's only notable free agent, so there aren't a ton of holes, especially with Lyles looking like a more-than-capable replacement over the second half of the season. That said, Utah could stand to add depth on the wing behind Hayward and Hood. The usual names -- Nic Batum, Arron Afflalo, Kent Bazemore -- will surely come up, but it's unclear how high the Jazz will set their sights and if they'd be willing to add a player who would push Hood back to a bench role.
SACRAMENTO KINGS (33-49)
In what's turned into one of the NBA's saddest annual traditions -- right up there with the Celebrity Game -- Sacramento failed to win 40 games and missed out on the playoffs for the tenth consecutive season.
It's been a dismal run for the Kings, whose top-down incompetence has manifested itself in a run of puzzling front office decisions and eight different coaches since the franchise's last postseason berth. The latest to try his luck was George Karl, who went 44-68 in his season-and-a-half at the helm before being let go the day after the regular season ended. The 64-year-old Karl is easily the most accomplished coach Sacramento has brought in since parting ways with Rick Adelman in 2006, but he failed to manage the team's collection of mercurial personalities and nearly lost his job a month into the year after publicly feuding with DeMarcus Cousins.
No team has been more cavalier with its coaching decisions, but with a new arena set to open next season, the pressure to finally turn the once-proud franchise around has never been greater. Following nearly a month-long search process that included seemingly anyone who's ever touched a basketball, Sacramento jumped on Dave Joerger just days after he and the Grizzlies parted ways. Joerger was an assistant in Memphis for six years before taking over the head job in 2013 and won nearly 60% of his games (147-99) over the last three seasons. He finished seventh in Coach of the Year voting this season as the Grizzlies clung to a playoff spot despite losing a borderline-ridiculous number of key contributors to injuries.
Joerger will take over a roster headlined by arguably the NBA's most divisive superstar. The numbers -- 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 blocks per game -- say Cousins is the most dominant big man in the league, but he's an unabashedly high-usage player who hasn't been able to shake the "good stats/bad team guy" label now six years into his NBA career. To his credit, Cousins has handled an impossibly frustrating front office/coaching situation better than a lot of players probably would, but as his 26th birthday approaches without so much as sniffing the playoffs, he has to be nearing the breaking point.
Cousins likes Sacramento and enjoys being the face of a franchise, but with two years remaining on his contract, time is running out for the Kings to prove that they're a competent organization worth sticking with long-term. If Cousins ever decides he wants out, suitors would surely line up, and landing an attractive package of young players and picks could ultimately be the best path to rejuvenating what's snowballed into a 10-year (and counting) rebuild.
As of now, though, Cousins is the centerpiece around whom Vlade Divac will continue to tweak the roster. Willie Cauley-Stein, Omri Casspi, Rudy Gay and Kosta Koufos are all under contract through at least next season, so the frontcourt will remain mostly intact, with the possible exception of Quincy Acy turning down his $1.02 million player option.
The backcourt is another story. Sacramento has struggled for years to find stability at shooting guard, shuffling through top-10 picks Jimmer Fredette, Nik Stauskas and now Ben McLemore over the last five seasons. Fredette and Stauskas were both high-profile busts, while McLemore has been a capable, if not underwhelming, borderline-starter since being selected 7th overall in 2013, one spot before Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and three before C.J. McCollum (10th). McLemore is eligible for a rookie extension this summer, but it's hard to imagine the Kings would be comfortable making any sort of long-term commitment on that front.
Disappointing free agent acquisition Marco Belinelli is under contract through 2018, but he's a 6th or 7th man, at best, while Darren Collison is best suited in his role as one of the league's best backup point guards. If the Kings so choose, they'll have an opportunity to again try their luck on a shooting guard in the lottery, with high-profile names like Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine potentially on the board, depending upon where the pick (projected 8th, pre-lottery) falls.
Projected to have as much as $20 million-plus in cap room if Rajon Rondo signs elsewhere, Divac will also scour the free agent market come July. Whether or not Rondo is back may largely depend upon Joerger's tolerance for the veteran's capriciousness. When engaged last season, he looked like the Rondo of old, racking up 15 assists in his sleep, but his trademark apathy was still on display for too often, especially on the defensive end, as Sacramento finished with the league's worst scoring defense.
Nonetheless, Rondo probably rehabbed his image enough to warrant a raise after making $9.5 million in 2015-16, and signing him long-term would certainly be a risk.
If the Kings opt to go in another direction, they could try to work a trade for a proven, mid-level starter. That might require parting with their first-round pick, though, which alternatively could go toward selecting a point guard like Kris Dunn, Tyler Ulis or Demetrius Jackson. They could also take a stab at a relatively unproven player like Jordan Clarkson in free agency. But would it be too much of a risk? That's a question Divac will have to answer.
Overall, the Kings need to establish a sense of direction as they transition to the new arena with a new set of logos (and new uniforms to follow). Those elements are superficial in nature but inherently have the effect of marking the start of a new era, one that will be warmly welcomed if it brings any tangible change.
DENVER NUGGETS (33-49)
It's not often that a 33-win season breeds optimism, but Denver has to go into the summer feeling good about its overall direction. The Nuggets finished eight games out of the playoffs but endured injuries to several key players. Wilson Chandler missed the entire season, Danilo Gallinari sat out 29 games, and Jusuf Nurkic was limited to just 32 appearances. Even rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay was banged up, missing a 14-game stretch in December and January, during which Denver went 4-10.
While the injuries prevented the Nuggets from ever mounting a legitimate postseason push, they opened the door for other players to gain experience. Gary Harris, Will Barton and 21-year-old Nikola Jokic each made significant strides, and the Nuggets will head into 2016-17 as one of the deeper teams in the West with Gallinari, Chandler and Nurkic all expected back at full strength.
The question is whether Denver has, or can go out and get, the top-end talent to complement that depth. Much like Orlando and Utah, the Nuggets go eight or nine deep with pretty good to very good players, but they lack the type of franchise-changing player required to take the next step.
If he develops a jump shot and stops throwing 80% of his passes in mid-air, Mudiay might be that guy, but he's only 20 and looks to be at least a couple years away from truly unlocking his potential. Jokic also showed plenty of promise as Nurkic's replacement, but the 2014 second-round pick probably fits more into that very good category long-term.
With Nurkic expected back at full strength next season, the Nuggets suddenly have a bit of a logjam up front. It's going to be difficult to keep Jokic off the floor, and it's easy to forget how effective Nurkic was, when healthy, two seasons ago. Then there's Joffrey Lauvergne, yet another import who made strides this season, helping to compensate for the absence of Nurkic. Jokic seems like the clear priority going forward, but all three players have the makings of rotational NBA big men, so coach Mike Malone may have his hands full balancing minutes and egos next season.
With nearly the entire rotation expected back next season -- J.J. Hickson, D.J. Augustin and Mike Miller are free agents; Darrell Arthur holds a player option -- the Nuggets won't feel overwhelming pressure to land a high-profile free agent, especially with three top-20 picks in June's draft.
That's not to say they won't sniff around the free agent market, though, as frontcourt shooting is a primary area of need. Kenneth Faried is a guy all 30 teams would love to have, but he may be best suited in a bench role for spacing reasons, particularly with a poor shooter in Mudiay at the point. Adding Ryan Anderson or Mirza Teletovic would make sense on paper, or GM Tim Connelly could look at Henry Ellenson or Marquese Chriss in the draft as potential long-term solutions. With the two extra picks -- via Houston (15th) and Portland (19th) -- in his back pocket, Connelly will have the firepower to move up on draft night, if need be.
Denver could also apply some of those assets toward trying to land an established star via trade. Not many teams can offer the combination of picks, young assets, and veteran talent that the Nuggets have at their disposal, so making a play for a big name like Kevin Love, Blake Griffin or Jimmy Butler isn't totally out of the question. Any potential deal would almost certainly include one of the aforementioned young centers, which could actually be beneficial, development-wise, for the remaining two.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (30-52)
The Pelicans snapped a three-year playoff drought in 2014-15, improving by 11 wins before being ousted by the eventual-champion Warriors in Round 1. The momentum from that season proved to be short-lived, though, as a rash of injuries left New Orleans with a starting five of Toney Douglas, James Ennis, Jordan Hamilton, Dante Cunningham and Omer Asik by season's end.
So yeah, not ideal.
Anthony Davis did little to shed his "injury-prone" label, missing 21 contests as he failed to crack 70 games for the fourth straight year. Ryan Anderson sat out 16 games, Jrue Holiday missed 17, and New Orleans' backcourt of Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon combined for 94 absences.
The injuries forced Alvin Gentry to employ unconventional lineups for most of the season, and the Pelicans never regained their footing after stumbling out to a dreadful 1-11 start.
Looking ahead, the Pelicans will have some flexibility with unrestricted free agents Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon coming off the books and likely heading elsewhere, but they still owe a combined $21.5 million to Evans and Holiday next season as both enter the final year of their respective deals. Davis' cap hold is roughly the same amount, but thanks to the Derrick Rose Rule that number could rise by $5 million if he's named to an All-NBA team.
With up to $48 million tied up in Davis, Evans, and Holiday next season -- not to mention the combined $14.5 million (!!) owed to Omer Asik ($9.9 million) and Alexis Ajinca ($4.6 million) -- the Pelicans' ability to add talent in free agency will be limited. Gordon seems like a lock to sign with a new team and Anderson will be among the most highly sought-after free agents, so New Orleans will need to replace that scoring, while also filling out bench depth. The Pelicans will likely have to settle for mid-tier free agents in the range of O.J. Mayo, Solomon Hill, Evan Turner and Terrence Jones, among many others. Those are far from inspiring names, but the Pelicans don't have much maneuverability with such a large chunk of salary tied up in four players.
That said, Davis is the only clear, long-term franchise building block, so GM Dell Demps could attempt to work a deal for Holiday or Evans, both of whom would fetch some interest as expiring contracts. Given both players' health concerns and ability to walk after next season, the return would likely be relatively low, but it could still be an opportunity for Demps to pick up a young asset or draft pick(s).
Speaking of the draft, the Pelicans will add a first-round pick to the roster for the first time since taking Davis No. 1 overall in 2012. New Orleans made Nerlens Noel the No. 6 pick a year later but traded him to the Sixers on draft night in a deal that also netted Philly the rights to the Pelicans' 2014 first-rounder. Last year, New Orleans' pick went to Houston as part of the Asik robbery from the previous summer.
All of that movement leaves Davis as the only homegrown player on the roster, but that should change this year with the Pelicans' projected to pick sixth. Of course, that could change come lottery night (May 17) -- New Orleans' held the fourth-best odds at No. 1 when they landed Davis -- but either way Demps will have an opportunity to land an impact player. With needs virtually everywhere, the Pelicans may just go with the best player available, but all three of Jamal Murray, Kris Dunn or Buddy Hield would help to ease the burden on Davis, offensively.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (29-53)
For a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since Sam Cassell was running the show, the level of optimism couldn't be higher in Minnesota.
The Wolves landed arguably the top free agent coach on the market and enter the offseason with one of, if not the, best young cores in the league. Karl-Anthony Towns may have snatched the "holy crap will anyone be able to stop this guy in two years?" title from Anthony Davis, while Andrew Wiggins looks like the ideal two-way complement on the wing, at least most of the time. Add in maybe the league's best athlete in Zach LaVine, a pass-first point guard in Ricky Rubio, and a few promising role players, and the Wolves suddenly look like the next iteration of the 2009 Thunder.
All of those factors amounted to only 29 wins this season, but with another year of development and the impossible-to-overstate upgrade from Sam Mitchell to Tom Thibodeau, the decade-long rebuild should finally take a step forward. The Wolves already have six key players on the roster -- Towns (20), Wiggins (21), LaVine (21), Rubio (25), Shabazz Muhammad (23) and Gorgui Dieng (26) -- each of whom is 26 or younger. Of those six, (arguably) the three most important are 21 or younger.
With those pieces in place accounting for nearly half the roster, it should be a fairly uneventful offseason for the Wolves, aside from the fact that -- oh, right --- they'll add another high lottery pick to this core. Currently projected to pick fifth, Minnesota probably won't land Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram (though it's possible), but adding a Jaylen Brown, Kris Dunn, Jamal Murray or Buddy Hield would be a fine consolation for a roster that isn't exactly begging for another superstar talent.
Adding help in the backcourt is probably the top priority with Nemanja Bjelica, Kevin Garnett, Nikola Pekovic and Adreian Payne all on guaranteed deals for 2016-17. Rubio and LaVine are penciled in as the starting backcourt, but beyond that the Wolves are basically void of scoring threats with Muhammad best suited running the wing. On paper, Murray or Hield are the two best fits given their ability to extend the floor, something Minnesota desperately lacked last season, finishing ahead of only Milwaukee in made three-pointers as a team.
Help will come via the draft, but the Wolves could also be players on the free agent market. With all of its core, outside of Rubio, still on rookie deals, Minnesota will have upwards of $20 million in cap space. Again, acquiring shooting has to be Thibodeau's primary goal, so the likes of Allen Crabbe, Jared Dudley, and Marvin Williams, among others, may be targets.
At some point, the Wolves will have to consider the toll projected extensions for Wiggins, LaVine and Towns (and maybe Dieng/Muhammad) will take on their future ledger, but that's something that will likely be handled more intensively next summer.
Even with Garnett making twice what he should, the Wolves are in great shape salary-wise, outside of the $23.7 million owed to Nikola Pekovic over the next two years. Injuries have limited the once-prolific interior scorer to just 43 games over the last two seasons, and with the Towns/Dieng duo looking like the much better pairing, the Wolves may consider buying out Pekovic. It's a decision that would force Minnesota to eat significant salary, but it would free up a roster spot and offer a better long-term outlook for both parties.
PHOENIX SUNS (23-59)
When Mirza Teletovic leads your team in win shares, you know something went wrong.
With the backcourt of Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe healthy, and the offseason addition of Tyson Chandler, the Suns expected to challenge for a back-end playoff spot. What they didn't expect was a series of injuries and a coaching change that would result in the franchise's worst season in 47 years.
Rewind to Christmas Day. Phoenix is 12-19 -- far from a fantastic start, but far from a complete disaster. Chandler is still finding his footing with his new team and the Markieff Morris saga is ramping up, but the Bledsoe-Knight duo is doing enough -- averaging a combined 42 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds per game -- to keep the team afloat.
The next day, Bledsoe tweaks his knee eight minutes into a matchup with the 1-30 76ers. The Suns go on to lose, snapping Philly's 12-game skid, and three days later, it's announced Bledsoe, in the midst of his best NBA season, is lost for the year.
From that point on, the Suns entered a freefall, losing 12 of their next 15 before Jeff Hornacek was "relieved of his duties" as head coach on February 1. Management worried Hornacek, just two years removed from an upstart, 48-win campaign, had lost the locker room.
In stepped Earl Watson, who had been promoted (by management, not Hornacek) to the bench just a month earlier. With Knight joining Bledsoe on the injury list for most of the second half, Phoenix limped to an uninspiring 9-24 finish under Watson, missing the playoffs for a franchise-record sixth consecutive season.
Even with a wealth of experienced coaches on the market, the Suns moved to extend Watson on a three-year deal last month. With a healthy roster coming back, the Suns will enter 2016-17 in much better shape, but there are still plenty of question marks.
When healthy, Bledsoe and Knight are be a playoff-caliber backcourt, but Knight has missed at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons, while Bledsoe sandwiched an 81-game season (2014-15) in between years of just 43 and 31 games. Both players are still young -- Knight turns 25 on Dec. 2; Bledsoe turns 27 a week later -- but lower-body injuries have already become a recurring theme.
If there's a silver lining, it's that last season's injuries enabled rookie Devin Booker and second-year guard T.J. Warren to flourish. Warren's ascent was brief -- he, too, was lost for the year due to a broken foot in late-January -- but the former ACC Player of the Year averaged 11.6 points while shooting 49% from the field and 44% from three in 25 minutes per game after Bledsoe went down.
Booker's maturation was more sustained. The NBA's youngest player was productive off the bench from the start, but the slew of backcourt injuries essentially forced him into a starring role, if there is such a thing for a 23-win team. After the All-Star break, Booker ranked second only to Karl-Anthony Towns in scoring (19.2 per game) among rookies, while adding 3.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Booker's efficiency waned a bit (57.3 TS% pre-break; 50.3 TS% post-break) under the increased workload, but it's clear Phoenix landed a potential All-Star-caliber steal at pick No. 13.
Heading into the offseason, the Suns are at a bit of a crossroads with a mix of win-now pieces and high-upside young players. Booker played well enough as a rookie to potentially warrant a starting role next season, which could mean rolling with a smaller lineup featuring Booker at the three. That would leave the Suns vulnerable on the wing, defensively, but it'd be a tough lineup to slow down in transition.
The Bledsoe-Knight-Chandler core is locked up through 2018-19, but the prevailing belief is that the Suns could try to move Chandler -- or, at least, he wouldn't mind being moved. The veteran signed with Phoenix last summer under somewhat peculiar circumstances, essentially serving as bait to lure prized free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, who has a known aversion to playing center.
To say the Suns were "stuck" with Chandler after Aldridge joined the Spurs would be incorrect, but he was a discernible outlier on a roster that featured only one other player over age 30 (shoutout Ronnie Price). Chandler turns 34 in October, and while the three years and roughly $30 million remaining on his deal isn't crippling, it's hard to imagine Phoenix not considering offers, especially with 22-year-old Alex Len waiting in the wings as a capable enough replacement.
The Suns will likely enter the draft with three first-round selections: their own pick (projected 4th, pre-lottery), the Wizards' pick from the Markieff Morris deal (top-9 protected; projected 13th), and the Cavaliers' pick (28th). The obvious hope is that they're able to jump into the top three on lottery night, but even if the pick remains where it's projected, Phoenix will have an opportunity to add another big-time piece. GM Ryan McDonough has had luck in the past two drafts mining talent at the end of the lottery, so that Washington pick shouldn't be an afterthought.
How the draft shakes out may ultimately set the direction for the Suns going forward into free agency. Like most teams, Phoenix will have room to make alterations this summer as the cap swells, but McDonough probably won't have max room, barring a trade or two. Currently, Phoenix projects to have roughly $16 million in space, which could vascillate based on whether or not free agent Mirza Teletovic re-signs. Unless Chandler, or one of Knight or Bledsoe is traded, the Suns are unlikely to be a suitor for any Tier 1 free agents, but they'll certainly have to fill out depth around the core. If Teletovic signs elsewhere, power forward will be an area of need which could be addressed in free agency or the draft.
The wild card at play is the potential addition of Bogdan Bogdanovic, the 23-year-old old Serbian guard whose rights Phoenix selected at the end of the first round in 2014. From an immediate impact standpoint, Bogdanovic isn't a Dario Saric-level prospect, but he's already an accomplished player overseas and has intriguing measurables at 6'6" with a rangy, 6'11" wingspan.
The question is whether the Suns will be able to convince him to come over this summer, rather than next. If Bogdanovic signs this summer, he'd be subject to a rookie scale contract, which would pay him roughly $1.2 million in 2016-17, pursuant to his selection at No. 27 overall (you can find a more detailed breakdown here).
However, should Bogdanovic wait until 2017, he would no longer fall under the rookie scale and could sign at market value, which would presumably be the significantly more lucrative option. Waiting the extra year has paid off for players like Nikola Mirotic in the past, but, of course, the risk of injury or decline in value is always present.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (17-65)
Never in their illustrious history had the Lakers failed to make the playoffs in three straight seasons, but this year's 17-win campaign capped what's been a jarring departure from the norm for one of the NBA's proudest franchises.
The Kobe Bryant retirement tour helped mask the worst season in team history, though Bryant's brazen refusal to alter his style of play to compensate for the toll of 20 seasons became a punchline league-wide. After a 3-21 start, it was clear the season would be dedicated to Bryant, leaving the rest of the organization in the precarious position of working to appease the future Hall of Famer, while simultaneously developing the team's considerable young talent. Under the command of Byron Scott, the former, more often than not, seemed to take precedent over the latter.
In hindsight, was it worth it -- allowing a 37-year-old hitting barely a third of his shots to dominate the offense? For 81 games, the answer to those outside The Church of Kobe was probably "no." But Bryant's final act, a near-mythological 60-point outburst with everyone from Shaquille O'Neal to Kanye West on hand, somehow seemed to atone for the previous five months of ineptitude. It was the most Kobe send-off imaginable, a fitting wrap to an era of Los Angeles basketball that produced a hand's worth of rings and penned another prodigious chapter in a book co-authored first by Wilt, then Kareem, then Magic.
Moving on from the longest-tenured player in franchise history will no doubt be strange, but if the Lakers have proven anything, it's that they don't rebuild, they reload. With Bryant's massive deal finally off the books, the Lakers project to have between $50-60 million in cap space this summer, and history suggests they'll be linked to just about every big name on the market. Lou Williams is currently LA's highest-paid player, and he's one of only six players presently under contract for next season.
This is the offseason the organization has been building toward since it re-signed Bryant in 2013, and at least one splashy addition should be expected. Luring Kevin Durant away from Oklahoma City will be the obvious objective, and the Lakers could also be in hot pursuit of Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside, DeMar DeRozan, Festus Ezeli, Mike Conley and Harrison Barnes, among others.
Bottom line: the Lakers are desperate for a superstar to replace Bryant. With a new, much more capable coach in Luke Walton now in place, the franchise is finally set to kick off its next phase, and title contention isn't a goal, it's an expectation. But with only one immediate franchise-changing free agent available, if (and when) the Lakers strike out on Durant they'll likely turn their attention to the trade market.
Despite Scott's best efforts, both Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell remain prized young pieces that just about any middling team would be thrilled to add to its rebuild. The Lakers' best asset, though, may be its 2016 first-round pick, projected to land in the top two. The pick is lost to Philadelphia if it falls anywhere lower than third, but if LA holds onto the pick, it could try to work an Andrew Wiggins/Kevin Love type of swap to acquire an established superstar. Jimmy Butler and Paul George's names have been casually thrown around, and theirs certainly won't be the only ones as the offseason progresses. The Lakers could also use Russell and/or Randle as trade bait should they want to keep the pick, which appears -- right now, at least -- to be the decision.
Deciding whether or not Randle and Russell are part of the future is another decision the Lakers will have to make. Russell bounced back from a so-so start and survived Snapchat Gate, ending the season looking more like the confident playmaker that dominated the Big Ten last year. He's certainly a major asset, but do the Lakers covet him enough to deem him untradeable? Probably not, but LA is far from actively looking to deal Russell, whose rookie year was somewhat difficult to evaluate given the coaching situation, not to mention the presence of Bryant.
Outside of Randle and Russell, the Lakers must also determine the future of restricted free agent Jordan Clarkson. The 46th pick in the 2014 draft has vastly exceeded expectations and is due for a major payday after making just $845,000 last season. While Clarkson is on the record as saying he wants to return to LA, the 23-year-old figures to receive a number of offer sheets. Working in the Lakers' favor is the obscure GIlbert Arenas Provision, which essentially prevents other teams from offering Clarkson a long-term deal that LA can't match. As such, the maximum offer sheet Clarkson could receive over four years is $58 million, a number the Lakers would likely match without much pause.