Before 2022 NBA free agency gets underway at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, let’s examine where LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers — with a revamped coaching staff, attempting to dramatically rebound from a 33-49 season — stand financially, roster-wise, and whom they could target on the open market.
Now that Russell Westbrook has picked up his player option, Los Angeles has eight players slated to return for 2022-23:
Westbrook, Nunn, Horton-Tucker, Johnson, Gabriel, and Reaves could be traded. For the purposes of this FA primer, however, we’re going to assume those eight guys will be on the Lakers’ opening night roster.
The team’s second-round draft pick, 19-year-old wing Max Christie, will either make the team on a minimum contract or earn roughly half of that on a two-way deal.
The above group eats up approximately $150M in salary. With the cap projected to land around $122M and the luxury tax threshold at $149M (both figures will be determined after the player-movement moratorium ends on July 8), the Lakers have the taxpayer midlevel exception ($6.5M) and veteran minimums to fill out the 15-man roster. (The $4M biannual exception is available, though using it would hard-cap the Lakers, meaning they wouldn’t be allowed to exceed the ~$155M tax apron for any reason — an impossibility without shedding salary via trade.)
The Lakers also possess trade exceptions of $2.7 million and $1.7 million.
Considering the disaster that was 2021-22, the fact that they don’t have Bird Rights on any outgoing free agent, and the need to get younger and more athletic, the Lakers probably won’t retain any vets — unless Carmelo Anthony truly accepts a deep-bench role.
With all that in mind, here are a few impending free agents for the Lakers to consider.
5 Players Lakers Must Sign In 2022 NBA Free Agency
5) Malik Monk
Arguably, Monk is not the shrewdest use of the MLE, considering the Lakers’ relative depth at 2-guard compared to other needs — long wings, defensive-minded/two-way guys, big-man depth and point guard depth.
Practically speaking, though, Monk is a solid bet to return. He was arguably the team’s third-best player in 2021-22, repeatedly expressed his gratitude to the organization for giving him a shot, and established real friendships with multiple players, especially AD and Reaves, his fellow Arkansan.
Last week, the 23-year-old told The Athletic he would take less money to run it back in purple-and-gold.
Monk shot 39.1% from three (13.8 PPG) and made strides as a passer and playmaker last season. He was an upbeat presence — in the locker room and on the court. If he’s truly willing to forego millions to stay, nobody could fault the Lakers for using their MLE on the continuity, shooting, youth, and bounciness that Monk provides.
(The following four suggestions are based on the implication that Monk returns at the TPMLE).
4) Chris Boucher
Boucher has been strangely overlooked on free-agent rankings, perhaps due to his underwhelming 2021-22 season, as he averaged 9.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks in 21 minutes per game for the Toronto Raptors. He’s also a bit older (29) than you realize. Still, the 6’9 center offers a 7’4 wingspan and is an impact shot-blocker and offensive rebounder — evidenced by his consistently elite net rating. He’ll knock down a few threes, as well.
Boucher could be a bit redundant with Gabriel, but the Lakers need rangy defenders and rim-protectors. Boucher at the minimum would be a tremendous value play.
3) JaVale McGee
If Boucher doesn’t pan out, a McGee reunion would surely excite Lakers fans. The center played an integral role — as a player and person — on the 2019-20 title team and would be a fit for the 2022-23 iteration. At 34, the 14-year vet remains an effective rebounder, shot-blocker, and rim-runner with above-average athleticism and length.
Considering his gregarious, team-first attitude and past success with the Lakers, McGee could be open-minded to taking a minimum contract and playing a spot-rotation role for Los Angeles.
2) Ricky Rubio
Darvin Ham wants to play a 4-out, 1-in style dependent on floor spacers and ball movement.
“We have to get the ball on side to side,” Ham said at his intro presser. “You heard the term play with the pass, share the ball, make it easy on yourself. Instead of going one-on-four, one-on-five, you go play with your teammates, and also three-on-two situations, or two-on-one situations, caused you just moved the ball. You didn’t sit, hold it, dribble 18 times. Like, there has to be a rhythm of all the body movement.”
Rubio, 31, was enjoying a stellar season with the Cleveland Cavaliers before he tore his ACL last December — 16.5 points, 8.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes. He’s only a career 32.6% three-point shooter, but he converted over 36% in 2019-20. He’s always been a wide-reaching pest on defense and generates ball movement as well as any traditional point guard in the game.
The Lakers will probably need assurances that he’ll be fully healthy within a couple of months of the season opener to bring him aboard.
1) T.J. Warren
In terms of talent, Warren is overqualified for a minimum contract. But, considering the 28-year-old hasn’t played in an NBA game since Dec. 2020 (left foot stress fractures), it’s not out of the question that he would accept a one-year deal to play alongside LeBron and AD and rebuild his value (it wouldn’t be the first time a player went that route).
The Lakers could certainly use a player of Warren’s mold. When he last played regularly, the 6’8, 220-pound wing averaged nearly 20 PPG on .536/.403/.819 splits. Getting T.J. on the minimum would be well worth the risk.