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A colossally disappointing 2021-22 NBA season by the Los Angeles Lakers will finally be put to bed when free agency opens Thursday night.
That’s when the Lakers will start taking tangible steps away from the frustrating, injury-filled season and hopefully toward a return to title contention.
There isn’t much money to spend, since LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook collectively collect a metric ton of cash. Still, the franchise has opportunities to make upgrades, both internally and externally.
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The Lakers hope they can still make things work with Westbrook. Then again, once he picked up his $47.1 million player option, he really left them with no other choice.
Still, there is internal “optimism” that a new coach and a new system will bring something better out of Westbrook, per Dan Woike and Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. If that doesn’t happen, the Lakers think Westbrook could be easier to trade later on in the season “because of the way contracts are prorated.”
It’s hard to say how much new coach Darvin Ham can do to cover up the fact Westbrook’s game is simply a poor fit with James and Davis. Westbrook’s shooting woes are unlikely to go away, and he has been ball-dominant to this point of his career, so why would that change now?
Saying that, the Lakers have no option but to hope Westbrook will suddenly buy into moving off the ball and making better use of his athleticism as a defender and slasher. That’s probably wishful thinking, but that’s what this time on the basketball calendar is all about.
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Malik Monk dazzled during his first season with the Lakers and apparently enjoyed his time enough to consider taking a discounted deal to stay.
Of course, that might just be Monk keeping his options open. Or maybe there’s a level of discount he would accept. This also assumes the Lakers would give him the taxpayer’s mid-level exception, and perhaps that’s not set in stone.
While the Lakers have “have a strong interest” in keeping Monk, per The Athletic’s Jovan Buha, whether that happens “will depend on both his market and the quality of three-and-D wings available to Los Angeles.”
The 6’3″ Monk’s quick-strike scoring and shot-making were consistent strengths for last season’s Lakers, but you could argue a bigger wing who is a better defender would add more value to this roster. And, again, the Lakers’ interest could wind up being moot if someone winds up offering him significantly more than they can afford.
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If the Lakers are going to turn things around this summer, they have to improve their defense and offensive spacing.
In a perfect world, they’d find a player who can do both. They have been “focusing on two-way wings who complement the current core,” per Buha, with “most of the hypothetical scenarios for their taxpayer mid-level exception [being] centered on signing a wing or two who could come in and start next to James and Davis.”
The Lakers clearly aren’t getting a top-shelf three-and-D option for that kind of money, but who could be a realistic target? Buha reported the Lakers have several wing targets they would use the mid-level exception to get, including Otto Porter Jr., Gary Harris, TJ Warren and Danuel House Jr.
None of these are household names—although Warren was for a flash during the Orlando bubble—but they can be the kind of support pieces who nudge a container closer to a title. If James and Davis stay healthy enough to lead a championship run, any one of these wings would help.