The Los Angeles Lakers have been planning to add two max-contract players to their current crop of youngsters for months now. We’ve all known that was going to be the plan this summer. But it’s time for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to blow up that blueprint and shift gears. Given how he’s played this season, the Lakers have to re-sign Julius Randle to a long-term deal.
On Sunday night, Randle once again showed his value. In a 127-113 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the 23-year-old forward scored a career-high 36 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, dished out seven assists and blocked two shots. He was everywhere in 38 minutes on the floor. The Lakers will be seeking to add a dominant presence and leadership through free agency this offseason. Well, I’ve got news for you: it’s already on the roster.
After spending the offseason getting into tremendous shape, Randle has been a different player this season. So far he’s averaging career-highs in points (15.5), shooting percentage (56.5), points per 40 minutes (24.2), true shooting percentage (60.8), usage rate (24.3) and PER (20.02). His shooting percentage has jumped up from 48.7 last season, and ranks ninth in the NBA. All of those numbers have come in reduced minutes (25.6 per game), as Randle came off the bench to start the season. Since he’s moved back into the starting lineup, he’s flat-out dominating.
Some have suggested that Randle may be maxing out his ability this season, but that’s foolish. He’s only 23. For comparison’s sake, Draymond Green, one of Randle counterparts in the Pacific Division, wasn’t even drafted until he was 22. There’s still a ton of room left for Randle to grow, specifically on the defensive end. The way he’s developed this season there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to improve on both ends of the court.
In 10 February games, Randle averaged 19.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 31.9 minutes, while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. So far in six March games, he’s averaging 22.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 33.0 minutes, while shooting 59.0 percent from the field. He’s clearly getting better, as are the Lakers, who have gone 7-2 since the All-Star break.
As I mentioned, Randle put in the work this offseason to get into shape. The resulting transformation has been incredible. He’s quicker, faster, has better lateral mobility, looks more athletic and yet has somehow retained his strength. He’s an absolute bull in the paint and is a phenomenal finisher around the rim.
Look at the difference:
On top of all of that, Randle is a leader for a young Lakers team. People close to the squad have raved about his attitude both on and off the court. He protects his teammates and is one of the guys everyone on the roster likes and relates to. Randle was the start of this rebuild when the Lakers took him with the seventh pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Why on Earth would Johnson and Pelinka think it was OK to just let him walk this offseason?
Yes, the Lakers should attempt to add one free agent this summer. If they can get LeBron James, obviously they have to do it. If that falls through and they can get Paul George, obviously that move makes sense as well. But there is no reason to bring in both together.
Even with James and George, the rest of the roster will still be incredibly young and likely not ready for a championship run. The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are set up to dominate the Western Conference for at least another year. There’s no reason to jump in at the risk of the chemistry the team has right now.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another piece of info worth considering. The NBA is all about efficiency these days, and Lakers head coach Luke Walton’s system thrives on it. As mentioned above, Randle has set a career-high in PER at 20.02. That’s good enough to rank 43rd in the NBA, eight spots ahead of (wait for it…) Paul George. Yes, the 27-year-old George is posting his lowest PER in a full season since 2013 at 19.28.
With Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Randle, the Lakers have a fantastic young core to continue developing. There is absolutely no reason to let any of those pieces go just to chase two guys on the back side of their careers.
Chasing one marquee free agent this summer makes sense for the Lakers. But re-signing Julius Randle has to be a top priority as well.