After a strong 2020-21 regular season ended in a disappointing, injury-shortened playoff run, the Lakers purged their depth for a three-star build around LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. Despite coming off of a far more disappointing season, the Lakers will now return more players from their disastrous 2021-22 season than they did from the previous one.
That potentially higher retention rate is more due to above-average bargain shopping than any kind of advanced planning, as the Lakers will likely guarantee three of their youngest players’ low-cost contracts. Austin Reaves, Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel will combine to make less than $6 million next season.
The Lakers’ potential return to the top of the NBA, of course, primarily rests on the shoulders of their Big 3 — presuming they are still intact on opening day. However, it could actually be the aforementioned trio of youngsters that nudges their ceiling towards being a true contender.
Reaves, Johnson, and Gabriel ended the season as high-minute players, with certain older veterans taking a back seat. However, it’s not like those rotation decisions from Frank Vogel resulted in increased wins for the team. Most analysts would reason that if the Lakers are better next season, it’ll be through new additions to the roster.
However, the Lakers are extremely limited in terms of pathways towards external improvement — i.e. trades and free agent signings.
The Lakers’ trade assets are as follows: Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, the 2027 first-round pick, and the 2029 first-round pick.
Westbrook had arguably the worst season of his career since he first came into the league, THT’s stock plummeted dramatically, and Nunn didn’t play a single regular season game due to a mysterious bone bruise in his knee. Needless to say, the Lakers aren’t going to make a major splash in the trade market this offseason short of sending one (or both) of those first-rounders to a team to convince them to take on Russ.
Other than trades, the Lakers also have the taxpayer mid-level exception of $6.4 million to entice free agents. That’ll be the most they can offer to players given the fact that the team has no cap space, with the rest of the empty spots being filled with veteran minimums or rookies.
And sadly, looking at the 2022 free agency pool, even that $6.4 million will probably go to a guy who would likely make less amongst a more competitive crop of free agents. For example, look at the below list of guys that The Athletic’s Jovan Buha and John Hollinger pinpointed as potential recipients of the Lakers’ MLE. Those names don’t exactly make you want to go run and throw down money on the Lakers’ 2023 championship future on your favorite sports betting app (although the return of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would be beautiful).
Especially considering the Lakers’ lack of resources and this year’s terrible batch of free agents Austin Reaves, Stanley Johnson, and Wenyen Gabriel approximate player profiles that a LeBron and AD team will need, even more so if Russ stays.
Reaves showed an ability to be a great playmaker off the bench while also showing he has a high enough defensive IQ as a rookie to be a key cog in a team’s defense. Johnson showed to be a key cog on the other end, helping the offense stay in motion through his passing and ability to work out of the middle of the floor. Gabriel brought high energy as well as effective offensive rebounding and finishing, things that will always be needed on a LeBron-led team, and even more so as he ages.
With all of that said, these three can’t lift the Lakers an extra level if they come into the season without making major improvements to their games. Reaves has to become a more consistent shooter and take an aggressive approach to his strength and cardio work to avoid hitting the rookie wall again as a sophomore.
Johnson also has to shoot well enough to make defenses pay for ignoring him, and improved point-of-attack defense to become a true wing deterrent would help too. With those two improvements under his belt, he might look something like a diet P.J. Tucker.
Gabriel has to improve — you guessed it — his shooting! Jokes aside, there are many more holes in Gabriel’s game than there are in the packages that Reaves and Johnson bring to the table, but his size, energy and effort can go a long way towards raising the level of the rest of his game. Specifically, he has to cut down on his foul rate by improving his defensive positioning and become merely passable from beyond the arc to improve the Lakers’ offensive spacing with him out there.
And with a full offseason under Darvin Ham at the Lakers’ facility, why can’t these three make some real, tangible improvements? It’ll be the first time that Reaves gets to spend a summer as a pro. Assuming the Lakers pick up his team option, Gabriel will return to the franchise he played for in the preceding season for the first time in his three-season career. Johnson wasn’t even on an NBA team to start the 2021-22 season, only finding his way to the Lakers given their fight with COVID-19 in December. That type of newfound consistency for the three could end up paying dividends.
Despite labeling this trio the “X factors” of the coming season, of course, the health of LeBron and AD are paramount to the team’s chances of winning basketball games, followed by a close second on how the Lakers decide to handle Russell Westbrook. And these three aren’t the only young players with chances to grow on the roster. Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn are likely to return, and would be hard-pressed to have seasons worse than their past campaigns, considering how rarely THT looked comfortable on the court and the fact that Kendrick Nunn played as many games as his last name implies.
If Russ is still in the purple and gold, THT and Nunn will likely remain in the shadow of his ball-dominance as their best skills are neutered by his presence. Also, who knows if they get dealt this offseason or at the deadline despite their current stock levels given their chunkable contracts and potential desperation from the front office.
Given their opportunity for immediate growth in performance, and subsequently, role, Reaves, Johnson and Gabriel are primed to step in and continue becoming fan favorites. But before particular fondness can blossom into Lakers immortality via an 18th title, those three will have to make some individual improvements. And if they do, maybe this upcoming year shouldn’t seem as bleak as it feels right now.