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The Los Angeles Lakers‘ 2019-20 season is already off to a rough start.
That leaves the Lakers with only JaVale McGee as a true center. While Anthony Davis spent 96 percent of his court time at center last season, he hasn’t been shy about not wanting to stay there.
“I like playing the 4,” Davis said at his introductory press conference. “I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”
To keep Davis happy while finding someone to fill Cousins’ minutes, the Lakers have about a month-and-a-half left before the start of training camp. Free agency will be their best option, as 10 members of the roster are newly signed and therefore can’t be traded until Dec. 15.
With McGee starting 62 of his 75 games at center for the Lakers last season, he’s more than capable of keeping the seat warm for Cousins to return or for L.A. to chase a bigger name on the trade market this winter. Still, McGee averaged just 22.3 minutes per game in 2018-29, meaning the Lakers will need someone who can play 20 minutes or more off the bench to keep Davis from playing the 5.
With one roster spot still open, here are the five best replacements ranked in order of 2019-20 impact the Lakers can add now in free agency or when this year’s signed free agents can be traded.
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The last time Mozgov signed with the Lakers, he received a four-year, $64 million contract in 2016.
It’s safe to say he’d come at a lower price now.
Mozgov isn’t technically a free agent, given that he’s agreed to leave the NBA after eight seasons to join Khimki Moscow in his home country of Russia, per Nikos Varlas of EuroHoops.net. He previously played for Khimki from 2006 to 2010 and during the NBA lockout period in 2011. The team also has Jonas Jerebko, Andrew Harrison and Alexey Shved.
Of course, Mozgov spent two seasons with LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers, starting 93 of his 122 games. He averaged a career-high 10.6 points on 59.0 percent shooting next to James in 2014-15, with his trade from the Denver Nuggets helping take a 19-20 Cavs team to the NBA Finals before winning it all in 2016.
Unfortunately, Mozgov has battled a series of knee problems since then and missed the entire 2018-19 season while under contract with the Orlando Magic. He says he’ll be ready to play before the start of the EuroLeague season in early October.
If he agreed to any sort of NBA opt-out clause in his contract, Mozgov would give the Lakers excellent size (7’1″, 275 lbs), and he’s a solid scorer around the basket and rebounder. While he may not want to leave Russia for just any NBA opportunity, the chance to reunite with James on a championship contender may be too much to pass up.
The fact that he shot 61.0 percent off passes from James helps give Mozgov the slight edge above Marcin Gortat, Amir Johnson, Nene and other available big men.
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He gave the Grizzlies 7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 0.7 blocks in just 16.5 minutes per game, stats that stretch to 15.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes. By all accounts, Noah was a humbled version of his former self and provided tremendous leadership in a locker room slowly going through a youth movement.
It’s clear he can still play in the NBA from a skills perspective, but would James welcome him on as a teammate?
The two had plenty of dustups, particularly in the playoffs, with James as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and later Miami Heat and Noah the starting center for some good Chicago Bulls teams. Noah even once baited James into a technical foul by calling him a b—h from his seat on the bench, causing James to stop shooting free throws and come over to exchange words.
Still, most of those interactions happened many years ago. Noah seems more mature, as does James.
If it means a job in the NBA on a contender’s bench for Noah and one step closer to a fourth title for James, an agreement could surely be worked out. After all, Lance Stephenson came aboard last offseason after his famous run-in with James.
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If the Lakers can wait until Dec. 15, Noel would be a fantastic defensive piece to trade for. He was third overall in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus last season, coming ahead of players such as Draymond Green, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis.
Noel has the athleticism to both block shots and play the passing lanes, and he would be good enough to start over McGee or continue to serve in a backup role. His presence combined with Davis and James would give the Lakers a devastating defensive frontcourt come playoff time, something not even a healthy Cousins could have provided.
Offensively, however, Noel is limited. He’s made just one three-pointer in his 300 career games, with 62.0 percent of his shots in 2018-19 coming within three feet of the basket, according to Basketball Reference. That lack of spacing could hinder James’ driving ability, especially since Davis isn’t a strong outside shooter, either.
If the Thunder are willing to part with Noel, his $1.6 million salary is one of the NBA’s best given his defensive ability alone. At 25, the Thunder could still consider Noel as part of their core pieces moving forward, however.
A former Klutch client with James and Davis, Noel fired Rich Paul this summer. While this may not be a big deal, general manager Rob Pelinka should consider this before attempting to trade for Noel, especially with Davis becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer.
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Howard is awaiting a likely buyout from the Memphis Grizzlies. Upon receiving one, he’d be able to sign with the Lakers immediately.
Still, would the eight-time All-Star be welcomed back in L.A.?
While Howard has spent time on seven different teams over the past eight seasons, arguably his most disappointing stop came with the Lakers in 2012-13. The team that also included Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol got swept in the first round of the playoffs thanks to key injuries and a lack of chemistry. The franchise hasn’t been back since.
“It just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time,” Howard told Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times last month. “But the Lakers have been doing something right for a long time because they have the most fans in the world and the most championships over the past 40 years. You’re not going to win a championship every year, but they’re back and will compete for a championship next season.”
Howard is now 33 and missed all but nine games for the Washington Wizards last season following surgery to repair a gluteal injury. Prior to that, he averaged 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in 81 games (all starts) for the Charlotte Hornets in 2017-18.
If healthy, Howard would give the Lakers plenty of size and rebounding to go along with 95 games of playoff experience. While he no longer carries elite defensive potential, he could thrive as a rim-running center who at least makes opponents think twice about driving into the paint.
Howard’s Orlando Magic were a thorn in James’ side in the late 2000s, ultimately beating the Cavaliers in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals and ruining the best chance we had at seeing a LeBron-Kobe Finals.
Although Howard isn’t close to the player who can carry a team anymore, he’s more than capable of being a rebounding and defensive presence in the Lakers’ second unit.
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Faried may be the best free agent left on the market, regardless of position.
After joining the Rockets last season, he played the role of rim-running center beautifully when filling in for an injured Clint Capela. In 13 starts with Houston, Faried averaged 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, and he shot 58.8 percent from the field. He’s not afraid to dive for loose balls and would be a perfect lob partner for James and Rajon Rondo.
While he doesn’t have the playoff experience of Mozgov or Noah or the defensive ability of Noel, Faried is probably the closest to his prime of all the candidates. He’s also shown a willingness to expand his game, converting 8-of-22 catch-and-shoot threes (36.4 percent) last season after making just two total threes in his first seven seasons combined.
That kind of offensive versatility would keep the floor open for James and Davis, and Faried proved in Houston he could work well playing off a ball-dominant offensive superstar in James Harden. Every team needs hustle guys, and Faried brings that.
With Cousins down for the foreseeable future, and possibly all of the 2019-20 season, Faried is the best player available for the Lakers to replace him with.