You will likely hear in the coming weeks and months how nobody can replace Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. But, this isn’t exactly true -- unless the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder are willing to play four-on-five. Someone must fill those spots even if they can’t fill the shoes. Simply put, basketball life goes on.
And so, all around the NBA, the Lakers, Thunder and others are plugging vacancies, some larger than others, in an attempt to remake themselves. Some of these “replacement players” are accomplished in their own right and a few could be considered upgrades over the players they’re replacing. Then of course there’s Kobe, who’s headed to Springfield, Mass., and Durant, who’s in Oakland. Those two were bedrocks for their former clubs and it might take years to find a true replacement.
We took a tour of the league’s replacement list and narrowed it down to the most intriguing 10 players who’ll try to make the transition as painless as possible:
Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks (replacing Al Horford). The Hawks went with a less expensive and more natural center than Horford, whom they tried (although not very hard) to keep from signing with the Boston Celtics. There’s a nice tale here of a former local high school star who returns home, is finally healthy and isn’t on a team dominated by ball hogs, something Howard battled with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets in his last two stops. But at this stage of his career, how many impact years does Howard, who’s an old 30, have left? And is he truly a good fit on a team that thrives on passing and perimeter shooting? It’ll work if Howard sticks to the basics of defense and rebounding and is on the All-Star bubble come February, which is where Horford will likely be.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics (Evan Turner). Keeping Turner for $16 million a season, which is what the Portland Trail Blazers are paying him, was too rich for the Celtics. In hindsight, maybe their refusal to re-sign someone who wasn’t an All-Star was a wise decision. They get to keep room under the salary cap for next summer, and Brown is showing enough early flashes to allow GM Danny Ainge to sleep peacefully at night. The rookie is fearless, tireless and brings a variety of skills that will keep him in the mix until his shooting gets more consistent.
Robin Lopez, Chicago Bulls (Pau Gasol). Rather than re-sign Gasol, Chicago elected to go eight years younger with Lopez, whom they received from the New York Knicks in the Derrick Rose trade. In all, it means Lopez is essentially replacing both of Chicago's big men. He played well in spurts for New York last season, showing a surprisingly aggressive offensive game, which had been missing much of his career. Lopez also had single-game rebounding totals of 20,19, 16 (twice) and 15 (twice) in the final two months, which means he’s capable of doing more than setting picks and filling space. The Bulls could be getting Lopez at the right time, just as he’s about to turn the corner. He should benefit from getting lob passes from Rajon Rondo.
Rajon Rondo, Chicago Bulls (Derrick Rose). The franchise and city had their fill of Rose and it was time for him to leave. Rondo came relatively cheap and has resurrected what had been a checkered career of late. While his perimeter and free throw shooting can’t be fixed, he can still find open teammates, which makes him, at least on paper, a solid complimentary player to Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler. With those two on the wings, Rondo should once again be among the league assists leaders. The issue is whether Rondo will cooperate with coach Fred Hoiberg or if he'll get the infamous Rondo brush-off during timeouts. Still, the Bulls are merely buying a few years until they find their point guard of the future.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets (Dwight Howard). He is springy, ambitious and hasn’t touched his ceiling yet, all the reasons why the Rockets chose a healthier and younger (he’s only 22) alternative than Howard. Besides, Howard would’ve been a slog in new coach Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo ways. Capela can play in the offense and his rebounding and interior defense will keep him on the floor. If he can soften his hands enough to catch passes and score around the rim, all the better.
Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers (Kobe Bryant). As much as the Lakers were thrilled to have Kobe, they were relieved to see him finally retire and allow them to rebuild. As a reward for making last season all about Kobe, the Lakers bottomed out and wound up with Ingram in the Draft. Neither he nor anyone else will make the Lakers forget about the prime Kobe, but Ingram will be groomed to be great if his talent and work ethic cooperate. There’s no pressure on him to produce right away and the Lakers are perhaps a few years from even competing for a playoff spot. It’s the ideal situation for a so-called Kobe replacement, even if, in the strictest sense, he isn’t. It helps that veteran Luol Deng was signed to give guidance and smooth Ingram's transition.
Tyler Johnson, Miami Heat (Dwyane Wade). He’s from North Dakota (not exactly the cradle of basketball), went undrafted, started just five games and never played a significant role in his short NBA career. So of course Johnson fetched a four-year, $50 million free agent contract from the Brooklyn Nets that was matched by Miami. Made sense then, right? Well, after the Heat refused to meet Wade’s contract demands, the Johnson deal looked crazy instead of outrageous. The good news: He’s only 24 and brings potential and is a decent 3-point shooter. Plus, the first two years of that deal pays just under $6 million per (the last two are killers: $18 and $19 million). The bad: He’s a role player at best. This is a classic overpay but in this market, what isn’t?
Joakim Noah, New York Knicks (Robin Lopez). The Knicks aren’t sure which Noah they’re getting. Is he the one who was a Kia MVP finalist just three seasons ago? Or the gimpy and grumpy veteran who was eaten for lunch by far lesser centers the last few seasons? If Noah is upright for 80 percent of the season, he’ll probably be a reliable double-double guy and teammate, which is what the Knicks are banking on from him. He’s only 31 and has returned to the New York area where he grew up. A rebound year from Noah will also be a big help to the development of Kristaps Porzingis and could give the Knicks a pair of dangerous big men that should mean a playoff berth at the least.
Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant). He’s not playing small forward and he won’t get 20-plus touches a night, so he’s not filling Durant’s role. Yet Oladipo is the one significant difference between last season's Thunder and this season's. Coach Billy Donovan is still tinkering with ways to use Oladipo and where he fits best. In his short NBA career, Oladipo has proven he can score in transition, will attack the rim and can cut off passing lanes. The ability to handle the ball effectively against quick defenders and shoot consistently from deep remains a work in progress. The bigger issue is how well he’ll play off Russell Westbrook. Without even playing in a real game for OKC yet, he’s probably already Westbrook’s best backcourt mate since James Harden (although that bar is set ridiculously low).
Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan). So the Spurs waved good-bye to a very old guy and welcomed a slightly less older guy to replace him. For a team built to win now and must rely on wisdom to defeat the Golden State Warriors, that’s not such a bad tradeoff. Gasol averaged 16.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and shot 46.9 percent last season, and he’ll arguably have an easier time in the Spurs' system alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. Plus, coach Gregg Popovich is a master at getting his geezers plenty of rest prior to the postseason, when the Spurs will need Gasol at his freshest. The Spurs will likely get at least one solid year, two if they’re lucky, before Gasol starts to slip into Old Tim Duncan territory.
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