To call the Los Angeles Lakers’ decision on Thursday’s NBA draft night the most important of its post-championship rebuild would be stretching things. For one, the team’s last championship took place half a decade ago, and this isn’t exactly some quick turnaround. Secondly, the team will most assuredly have a chance at another high lottery pick after potentially yet another miserable season in 2015-16. Lastly, what the team does with its substantial cap room in 2016 will have the most impact as the franchise moves on from the Kobe Bryant era. Hit or miss, it will be far more important than adding a youngster this week.
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The Lakers’ No. 2 overall pick, however, could change the course of the 2015 NBA draft. If the team decides to pass on selecting Duke center Jahlil Okafor with that pick, the entire board will be thrown for a loop.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and his boss, part-owner Jim Buss, don’t like to throw people for loops. They tend to make obvious, deliberate moves while hoping that the Laker brand takes care of the rest. The team’s last three coaches (and, we’re guessing, whoever eventually replaces the current one) have all been name hires that had worked to much acclaim elsewhere, and the coaching hire previous to that was even a former Laker coach just one season removed from his old job.
The hire before that? Rudy Tomjanovich, the last available head coach to have won an NBA championship. Very famous.
This (and the fact that Okafor could develop into a killer big man) is why the Lakers probably won’t take a chance on firebrand guard D’Angelo Russell, or shoot for the moon with what could be the next great international star in Kristaps Porzingis, leaving the next-in-line Philadelphia 76ers to wow us all again with the team’s audacity (be it via trade or single selection) in its unending rebuilding process.
The Lakers’ stretch is running nearly neck in neck with those Sixers, we should remind you. The team’s stealth tanking project meant surrounding a returning-but-aging Kobe Bryant with a series of offensive-only types in 2014-15, leaving coach Byron Scott yet again to fumble his way around a roster that even the best NBA coaches couldn’t win with.
Most of those players were working on contracts that expire on July 1, leaving Los Angeles with plenty of cap space this summer, but one has to wonder if the tank job might purposely (though no Laker executive would admit as much) carry on in Bryant’s likely final season in 2015-16. Leaving Byron Scott at the helm, let’s be honest here, helps in that regard.
If the Lakers are testy, they will have options. Those options will likely have to wait until after June ends to evolve, however.
Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash and Carlos Boozer’s contracts won’t come off the books until July 1. The deadline for Jordan Hill’s $9 million team option, something nobody thought the Lakers would ever pick up even on the day he signed his contract last summer, is June 30. Once those salaries clear the books the Lakers will have max-level money to throw at a free agent, or room to take on a potential trading partner’s superstar “problem.”
With those salaries in their last hours, however, a massive draft night trade for a star is just about impossible unless a third or even fourth team got involved to make things cap-legal. The team would have to wait until the agents are free before attempting to do something with Dwyane Wade or DeMarcus Cousins, and if the team were forced to deal Okafor (or whomever it selects with the No. 2 pick, perhaps at some other team’s behest) it would have to wait even longer into the summer.
By that time, Wade and the Heat may have made nice, Cousins could have been shipped elsewhere, and free agents from Kevin Love to LaMarcus Aldridge to even middling types may have secured their future for at the very least 2015-16.
Which would, as was the case last summer, leave the Lakers foraging for scraps. An inglorious ending to Bryant’s career, to be sure, but possibly one that was long ago planned out.
You can already hear Kupchak, in a discussion with Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, carefully choosing his words:
To some degree. We feel we want to make significant progress from this year to next year. And if we can do that and not mortgage the future—in other words, with a player who is in free agency that’s a veteran—then yeah. It’s a factor because we do want and we need in this city to show progress. And we’ve not made the playoffs for two years running, I suppose you can do it a third year, but our fans are impatient, and they’re used to a good product, and that’s not what we want to do. And we know Kobe is not as happy when the town around him is not enough to win. But, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t do something that puts us in the middle of the pack for the next six or seven years. Because all that does is get you the eighth seed in the playoffs and a draft pick that’s not very good.
Kupchak isn’t wrong, even if it is rather galling to see a once-proud Laker team near the bottom of the standings for three years running.
This isn’t to say that the Lakers are vehemently opposed to a massive one-year upgrade if the situation presents itself. Banking on the lure of Los Angeles in a 2016 summer where just about every team will have competitive, max-level free agent money to spend is a risky maneuver.
The same goes for relying on another lottery pick after another bum season in 2016 – as the same lottery luck that bumped the Lakers up two slots in this year’s draft could drop them out of the top three next season even if they finish with the league’s second-worst record, and that would send the pick to those goofball 76ers – a long-delayed result of 2012’s Laker deal for Steve Nash.
It’s hard to argue against another year spent in hell, though, even if it means watching Byron Scott stand along the sidelines and even if it means Kobe Bryant plays the second half of his final seasons mostly in games that don’t matter. That’s assuming, sadly, that he’s healthy enough to play at all.
The payoff, should odds hold up, would be striking. Three consecutive very good lottery picks, and should the plan sustain a clear cap sheet save for Nick Young’s below-average contract and the rookie deals for Julius Randle and This Year’s Rookie. From there, the Lakers would set out to prove that not all free agent money is created equal.
Thursday’s selection, whether he’s long for Los Angeles or not, will be the biggest piece of this emerging puzzle moving forward. The Lakers still have no idea where to find the corner pieces right now, though.
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