Going back in time to fix Lakers’ roster

It’s March, and it sure looks like the LeBron-led Lakers will be missing this year’s playoffs. The Lakers are 11th in the West, 5.5 games out of the 8th spot. ESPN’s BPI has them at less than a 0.1% chance to make it. To be fair, they’ve struggled with injuries most notably LeBron’s, but they’re 6-12 without him and 24-22 with him, still not great. In fact, that pace would put them 9th in the West, still not in the playoffs.

Since Kobe’s decline, the Lakers have quietly been one of the most dysfunctional front offices in the NBA, up there with the Knicks, Suns, Cavs, Bulls, Magic, and whoever else you wanna include. Check out these stats, which include every season since they moved to LA.

Before 2013                  Since 2013

51 seasons                          6 seasons

6 losing seasons                6 losing seasons

4 times missing playoffs  6 times missing playoffs

And the future isn’t necessarily bright either. It doesn’t seem like too many marquee free agents are eyeing the Lakers this summer. and 2020 isn’t a good free agent class. The only real option for a 2nd superstar is Anthony Davis, and it doesn’t seem like the Pelicans are sending him there via trade. That means the Lakers have to sign Davis in a year and a half. Even if they do, LeBron will be turning 36 that season, and Davis signing in LA is no guarantee. They were pretty confident they’d land Paul George… how’d that one turn out?

So how did the Lakers get stuck in supporting cast hell? To really fix this team, we have to go way back, four or five years. They’ve actually drafted pretty well, but their problem is centered around short-term goals compared to long-term. Every year, the Lakers were depending on a free agent. If they had been building for the future instead of constantly aiming for free agents, they’d have a nice core right now. Take a look.

Format

I’m going through the Lakers’ last four years, starting with the 2015 offseason and going all the way to today. There are a couple of rules, however. I’m not going to change who they draft. The draft is full of what-ifs, and most of the time, you can’t blame GM’s for passing on guys that ended up being sleepers. Instead, I’ll be altering their trades and free agent signings.

2015 Offseason

Draft: Took D’Angelo Russell 2nd, Larry Nance 27th, Anthony Brown 34th

Free Agency: Signed Lou Williams for 1 year, $7 million, Brandon Bass for 2 years, $6 million, and Metta World Peace for 1 year, million

Trades: Sent a 2nd-rounder to Indiana for Roy Hibbert

This wasn’t a big offseason. The only change I would make is undoing the Roy Hibbert trade. That 2nd-rounder is actually LA’s 2019 2nd. At the time, they probably assumed they would be good by then, but it’s 2019, and they’re not making the playoffs. We’ll undo that trade as our first move. But the free agents are short-term deals that wouldn’t affect the future much. It was a solid draft, though. D-Lo and Nance would both become good young players.

Changes: Didn’t trade their 2019 2nd for Roy Hibbert

2015-16 Season

Lineup: Russell, Clarkson, Bryant, Randle, Hibbert

Bench: Willams, Nance, Bass, Young, World Peace, Huertas, Brown

Result: 17-65, 15th in the West, worst record in Lakers history

2016 Offseason

Draft: Took Brandon Ingram 2nd, Ivica Zubac 32nd, signed an undrafted David Nwaba

Free Agency: Signed Luol Deng for 4 years, $72 million, and Timofey Mozgov for 4 years, $64 million.
Lost Roy Hibbert, Metta World Peace, and Brandon Bass to free agency

Retirement: Kobe Bryant (mercifully)

Ugh. This is where it all went haywire. To be fair, the cap spiked like crazy in 2016, and most people thought that would continue. But it didn’t. And those contracts look crazy now. Spoiler alert: The Lakers would end up using D’Angelo Russell to get off Mozgov’s contract. So by un-doing these signings we can create more flexibility in the 2017 and 2018 summers but also hang onto D-Lo. Even at the time, these signings seemed excessive, but we just didn’t know what the future of the salary cap would look like. Here are those two guys’ stats from the season before. Mozgov: 17.4 minutes, 6.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 29 years old. Deng: 32.4 minutes, 12.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 30 years old.  The Deng one is a little more defensible, but the Mozgov deal was always awful. Locking up those two for four years was an absolute killer. Let’s replace those two with shorter term contracts. Nene signed for 1 year, $4 million and Gerald Henderson signed for 2 years, $18 million.

Changes: Didn’t sign Mozgov or Deng. Replaced them with Nene and Henderson.

2016-17 Season

Lineup: Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, Mozgov

Bench: Williams, Nance, Deng, Young, Zubac, Nwaba, Ennis

Result: 26-56, 14th in the West

2017 Offseason

Trades: Sent D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick
Sent pick #28 to Utah for picks #30 and #42

Draft: Took Lonzo Ball 2nd, Kyle Kuzma 27th, Josh Hart 30th, and Thomas Bryant 42nd.

Free Agency: Signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for 1-year, $18 million
Lost Lou Williams, Nick Young, and David Nwaba to free agency

Oof. This is where the next big move happened. Only one year after signing Timofey Mozgov to a 4-year, $64 million, the Lakers cut their losses and used D’Angelo Russell to get off him. The Lakers had chosen Russell 2nd overall only two years before. Although losing D’Angelo doesn’t look good, they did get back Brook Lopez and the Kuzma pick. So bear with me for a minute. The Nets received Russell, a positive asset, and Mozgov, a negative asset… but they also sent back two positive assets. So now let’s imagine the Mozgov contract hadn’t happened. If we get rid of that, it’s even more lopsided in Brooklyn’s favor. So what if we take that deal, get rid of Mozgov, and then downgrade Russell to Jordan Clarkson. Fair?

The season before, Russell averaged 16, 4, and 5. Clarkson averaged 15, 3, and 3. Russell was 20 at the time, and Clarkson was 23, to be fair, but without Mozgov’s money in the deal, I think that’s fair. Brooklyn still gets to take a flyer on a young scoring guard, and the Lakers still get Lopez, who they liked, and we know they were high on Kuz, so they still get the Kuz pick.

The other trade was a draft day deal between LA and Utah. It’s a simple trade up. Lakers trade #28 for #30 and #42. Basically, the Jazz really wanted Tony Bradley, so they offered Hart and Bryant for him. That was a great trade so we’re keeping it.

Changes: Altered the Russell trade… without Mozgov, Brooklyn takes Clarkson instead of Russell and still gives the Lakers Lopez and #27.

2017-18 Season

First Half Lineup: Ball, Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, Lopez

First Half Bench: Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, Hart, Nance, Zubac, Ennis, Deng

Trade: Sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance to Cleveland for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, CLE 2018 1st

This trade was rough. They gave up two young players to make sure they had two max slots… when really, they could do that maneuvering in the summer. And they ended up spending the second slot on Rondo, Lance, KCP, and Beasley, not a max player. Undoing this trade will do wonders for the Lakers’ future, as Clarkson and Nance have both been solid. The 2018 1st became Moe Wagner, by the way. 25th pick.

Changes: Didn’t do the Clarkson/Nance trade

Second Half Lineup: Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Randle, Lopez

Second Half Bench: Thomas, Kuzma, Hart, Zubac, Frye, Ennis, Deng

Result: 35-47, 11th in the West

My Lineup: Ball, Russell, Ingram, Randle, Lopez

My Bench: Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, Hart, Nance, Zubac, Ennis, Henderson

2018 Offseason

Draft: Took Moe Wagner 25th, Svi Mykailiuk 47th

Free Agency: Signed LeBron James for 4 years $154 million, Rajon Rondo for 1 year $12 million, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for 1 year, $12 million, Lance Stephenson for 1 year $5 million, Michael Beasley for 1 year $4 million, and JaVale McGee for 1 year $2 million.
Lost Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, and Channing Frye in free agency. Waived and stretched Luol Deng.

The Lakers’ big mistake here was the role players they put around LeBron. They said something like “toughness and defense” was their plan, when we all know that shooting is the best way to surround LeBron. It’s crazy what Brook Lopez has been doing in Milwaukee considering he was willing to re-sign in LA but the Lakers passed on him. Lopez is making $3.3 mil for 1 year. Let’s start there. They also should’ve hung onto Randle, who’s averaging 21 and 9 in NOLA. They gave him 2 years, $17 mil. Randle was restricted, so the Lakers could’ve chosen to match that… but they declined it so they could go after the overpriced vets that can’t shoot. Rondo, KCP, Lance, Beasley, and JaVale cost a combined $35 million, one year. Among Nance, Lopez, and Randle, we’d be giving out a combined $15million, leaving $23 mil for wing shooters. Let’s sign Wayne Ellington, who accepted a 1-year vet min with Miami. And with the remaining 17ish, let’s just sign Trevor Ariza, who took 14 to go to the Suns. Now we’ve still got 3-5 mil, and we’ll ink Yogi Ferrell, who signed for 2 years, $6 million in Sacramento.

Changes: Replaced Rondo, KCP, Lance, Beasley, and JaVale with Lopez, Randle, Ariza, Ferrell, and Ellington. Didn’t have the Wagner pick due to an undone trade. Still have Russell and Nance from undone trades.

2018-19 Season

Signing: Signed Tyson Chandler to 1 year $2 mil.

Lineup: Ball, Ingram, James, Kuzma, McGee
Bench: Rondo, Stephenson, Zubac, Beasley, Hart, Chandler, Svi

Mid-Season Trades: Traded Svi Mykhaikliuk to Detroit for Reggie Bullock
Traded Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley to LAC for Mike Muscala

Changes: I’m gonna un-do both of those. The Zubac one was ridiculous three weeks ago when it happened, and it still is. The Bullock one actually makes sense but we’ve got Ellington and Ariza, we’re good there.

Result: 30-34, 10th in West

The Fixed Roster

To be fair, this entire exercise was purely hypothetical, and I understand that some parts may be unlikely or unrealistic in the eyes of some. However, the purpose of the exercise was to see how much the Lakers have really squandered their good young players and the gift of LeBron James. The Lakers really did draft well over this era:

2. D’Angelo Russell
2. Brandon Ingram
2. Lonzo Ball
7. Julius Randle
27. Kyle Kuzma
27. Larry Nance
30. Josh Hart
32. Ivica Zubac
46. Jordan Clarkson
47. Svi Mykhailiuk

That’s a solid draft resume, but here’s what happened to all those guys.

Traded for Cap Space: D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance

Traded for Veterans: Ivica Zubac, Svi Mykhailiuk

Didn’t Match Offer: Julius Randle

Still on Team: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart

The four guys on the roster right now are a very good group, but it’s crazy how much better they could be.

Here’s my final roster compared to the Lakers’ current roster. (The “rate” comes from the player’s rating on NBA 2K. Their rating system isn’t perfect but it works nicely for things like this).

Real Roster Rate Age My Roster Rate Age
PG Lonzo Ball 79 21 Lonzo Ball 79 21
SG Rajon Rondo 78 33 D’Angelo Russell 86 23
SF Brandon Ingram 80 21 Brandon Ingram 80 21
PF LeBron James 96 34 LeBron James 96 34
C Kyle Kuzma 81 23 Brook Lopez 79 30
6 Reggie Bullock 74 27 Kyle Kuzma 81 23
7 JaVale McGee 79 31 Julius Randle 85 24
8 K. Caldwell-Pope 75 26 Trevor Ariza 77 33
9 Josh Hart 76 24 Josh Hart 76 24
10 Lance Stephenson 74 28 Wayne Ellington 75 31
11 Mike Muscala 72 27 Larry Nance 79 26
12 Tyson Chandler 75 36 Ivica Zubac 77 21
13 Mo Wagner 72 21 Yogi Ferrell 74 25
2-Way Alex Caruso 68 24 Svi Mykhailiuk 70 21
Team Average 77.1 26.9 Team Average 79.6 25.5
  
I grew up in a small town in Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago. I’ve been a diehard Chicago sports fan my entire life, and basketball has always been my favorite sport. In high school, I founded a Sports Media Club, where my classmates and I wrote articles and produced podcasts. After graduating, I kept writing and podcasting on my own. Now I’m a freshman at Purdue University, and I am excited to join Lineups and continue to further the growth of the content side of the site.