The first NBA offseason for the new-look Los Angeles Lakers front office isn't finished, but the early returns are promising. They got out from under one of the Association's worst contracts and positioned themselves for a frenzied pursuit of next summer's top free agents. They left the draft with as many as four new puzzle pieces, including the newly minted face of the franchise Lonzo Ball. Th...
They got out from under one of the Association's worst contracts and positioned themselves for a frenzied pursuit of next summer's top free agents. They left the draft with as many as four new puzzle pieces, including the newly minted face of the franchise Lonzo Ball. They also snared one of free agency's most intriguing young talents without disrupting their future financial flexibility.
Granted, this is only on-paper relief for now. But for a club trapped in the worst four-year period of its existence, the transactions have yielded some overdue optimism.
Their six significant moves have all been placed under the microscope here. Each has been assessed a grade corresponding to its value, impact and potential.
Two minor transactions are too fluid to gauge. L.A. waived David Nwaba on Wednesday, but it's possible he returns if he clears waivers. The Lakers also signed undrafted guard P.J. Dozier out of South Carolina, but without knowing the details of the deal, there's no way to analyze it.
With our grading criteria in place and formalities out of the way, let's get to the report cards.
Thomas Bryant looks the part of a pro prospect with a 7'6" wingspan sprawling out from his 6'10 ¾", 248-pound frame. That the Lakers were able to snare him with the 42nd selection—the second of two picks obtained by trading down from 28 to 30—gives the addition some steal potential.
His on-court approach is almost as appealing as his natural gifts. His motor stays fully revved, and he embraces physical play around the basket. His rapid rise as a three-point shooter—more makes as a sophomore (23) than attempts as a freshman (15) and a five-percentage-point increase in accuracy (33.3 to 38.3)—also speaks highly of his work ethic.
"He brings energy every time he plays," Lonzo Ball said, per Silver Screen and Roll's Harrison Faigen. "His attitude is perfect."
But there are enough holes in Bryant's game that he was expected to go about where he was drafted. He lacks great explosiveness and quickness, which stops him from being as effective a shot-blocker and defensive rebounder as he should be. He must score efficiently to have a positive impact, and as a limited shot-creator, he relies on others to help him do that.
It also isn't entirely clear where he fits. He's obviously behind Brook Lopez and Ivica Zubac at center, and that's before factoring in Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. as small-ball 5s.
But at this price, Bryant is a project worth undertaking.
You name it, Josh Hart did it over his four decorated seasons at Villanova. He was the leading scorer on a national champion as a junior, a first-team All-American as a senior, a 50-plus percent shooter all four years and a 40-plus percent three-point sniper twice.
He's sort of the typical four-year prospect—only better than most—in that scouts have never drooled over his athleticism or length. But they have marveled at his polished skills, maturity, basketball IQ and tenacity.
The 22-year-old may not have the highest ceiling, but he was one of the safer selections in the draft—and the last pick of the first round. That's outstanding value, even if his upside sits somewhere between reliable role player and adequate starter.
"The first-team All-American has amazing statistical projections because he was so efficient and has all the physical tools to be a good, solid shooting guard," USA Today's Adi Joseph wrote. "That's exactly the kind of player the Lakers need alongside Lonzo Ball, especially if Hart's strong college defense translates to the next level."
Hart's biggest weakness is the absence of an elite skill. But that also means he isn't lacking in any particular area, which should make him easy to plug-and-play alongside several different personnel groups.
There's a contemporary feel to Kyle Kuzma's game. The versatile 6'9 ½" forward was one of only 10 players to average at least 16 points, nine rebounds and two assists last season.
He plays like a small-ball big. He has quickness and agility, plus good enough vision to function as a secondary playmaker. And while he's not the strongest player in the post, his 7'0" wingspan allows him to contribute around the basket.
But this was far from a no-brainer pick. Kuzma was ranked 43rd among prospects on DraftExpress and drafted 27th. As a soon-to-be 22-year-old, his upside isn't overwhelming, and it's hard to consider him a safe choice when he shot just 30.2 percent from three and 63.1 percent at the line in college.
"He's just not particularly athletic and doesn't show enough shooting chops to justify a spot in the first round," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote.
L.A.'s motivation here is hard to find. Kuzma was neither the best player available, nor the one with the most upside when he came off the board. And he can't be called a need-filler when Randle, Nance, Brandon Ingram and Luol Deng can all play power forward.
If Kuzma can harness his jumper, he'll be an interesting support piece. But this wasn't great value at where he was taken.
L.A.'s new regime could not have made it any clearer—D'Angelo Russell was not their guy. If that wasn't made apparent by last month's deal that sent Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick, team president Magic Johnson's subsequent comments hammered it home.
"D'Angelo is an excellent player," Johnson said, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "... But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with."
Russell, the No. 2 pick in 2015, was a polarizing player. He had star-level flashes, but he struggled with efficiency and maturity. It seems early to discard him in a salary dump—and his career could prove that to be the case—but it's not like the Lakers brass appeared to wrestle with this decision.
Moving from Mozgov to Lopez immediately turns the center spot from a debilitating weakness to a strength. As long as the Lakers can rebound with Lopez, they'll benefit from his steady scoring at all three levels—he shot 34.6 percent on 5.2 three-point attempts per game last season—and ability to defend the rim.
But that's just an added bonus to the transaction's primary perk. The Lakers ditched the three years and $48 million left on Mozgov's deal while taking back Lopez's expiring $22.6 million salary. As ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton explained, this was masterful manipulation of the cap:
The real benefit of this trade for the Lakers comes in the summer of 2018, when Lopez's contract expires. That will potentially leave only the No. 27 pick on the books for 2018-19 from this trade, meaning the Lakers will have successfully cleared $21.6 million in cap space. That puts them in position to make at least one max offer and gives them a realistic path to having two max spots if they trade Jordan Clarkson and trade or waive and stretch Luol Deng.
Russell is a heavy price to pay for the chance to chase stars. There's a worst-case scenario where he blossoms in Brooklyn and L.A. comes up empty. But if one or more top-shelf targets head to Hollywood next summer, this deal becomes a savvy sacrifice.
Free agency probably didn't play out how Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had planned, but this was exactly what the Lakers had in mind. In a single signing, they bulked up their backcourt defense, furthered their youth movement and retained the cap space needed to go superstar-searching next summer.
Caldwell-Pope's late entry to the unrestricted market—his rights were renounced a week into the bidding process—left him with few options. L.A. seized the opportunity and secured the two-way wing on a one-year, $18 million deal, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported.
This is an on-court heist. The Lakers fielded the Association's worst defense last season, and drafting Ball wasn't going to help. But with Caldwell-Pope's ability to defend both backcourt positions, L.A. now has a guard stopper who can let Ball take the easier assignment. Caldwell-Pope is also an easy add on offense, since he doesn't need many touches and thrives off the ball (37.4 catch-and-shoot three-point percentage).
But this goes well beyond the immediate impact. Not only did the Lakers preserve their cap room, but as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski explained when this first became a possibility, Caldwell-Pope could be an asset in the recruitment of LeBron James:
"[He's] obviously a good, young two-way player, shares the same agent as LeBron James—Rich Paul. As the Lakers' pursuit of LeBron James heats up, they bring in someone who's part of Klutch Sports, and the one thing that I think anybody knows if you're going to get at LeBron James, you need a roster of two-way players.
"They could potentially sign him at a high number for one year, create more cap space next year, re-sign him to an extension as the Lakers try to pursue Paul George [and] LeBron James."
Caldwell-Pope's career shooting marks aren't great (40.5 from the field, 33.4 outside), and he'll crowd the backcourt a bit, but it's tough to find negatives from L.A.'s perspective.
LaVar Ball spoke the No. 2 selection into existence, and the basketball gods declared, "Thy will be done." Despite whispers the Lakers could go against the grain, they stuck to the predicted path and grabbed Lonzo Ball second overall.
While not a perfect prospect—there are questions regarding his defense and ability to create his own shot—the 6'6" point guard establishes L.A.'s identity. And it just so happens to be the same up-tempo, movement-based direction head coach Luke Walton prefers.
Ball brings next-level vision and creativity that will both elevate the youngsters around him and potentially complement any superstars coming down the line. He averaged an NCAA-leading 7.6 assists per game during his lone season at UCLA, flashing the rapid decision-making and unselfishness needed to kick the Lakers offense into high gear.
"We feel like Lonzo is a transcendent talent, and Magic and I knew the moment we scouted his game," general manager Rob Pelinka said, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. "... The way he passes the ball, you look at quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, that just have a gift. It's clearly a gift, with what he's been blessed with."
Ball may never be a primary scoring option, but he's already an across-the-board contributor. That's who he was in college—14.6 points and 6.0 rebounds to go along with his dime-dropping—and who he's been in summer league—dropping an 11-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist triple-double his second time out.
The Chino Hills native was made for the purple and gold, from his Showtime-esque flair to his made-for-Hollywood father. His big-league transition could be the most critical factor in L.A.'s anticipated courtship of the league's elite next summer.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.