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How Bright Will The Lakers’ Future Be?

Kevin Kuo/USA Today Sports

The Lakers are emulating Oklahoma City’s rebuild in the mid-2000s. Similar results may come soon in LA.

For many, the shock of the Lakers’ historic 112-95 win over Golden State still has not subsided.  To be fair, the Warriors missed an abundance of open shots. However, this game should not be completely dismissed as a fluke. 

The guard tandem of Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell combined for 46 points, seven three-pointers and six steals. Down low, Julius Randle double-doubled once again with 12 points and 14 boards, and Larry Nance Jr. played his typical strong defense off the bench. These four players, not Kobe Bryant, were the catalysts for Los Angeles’ win on Sunday. Tuesday’s 107-98 win over the Magic offered more of the same, with the Lakers’ “Core Four” erupting for 82 points. 

Based on those performances, these four have the potential to grow together and form the nucleus of a future playoff contender. In fact, Sunday’s game made me believe the Lakers can emulate Oklahoma City’s quick ascendency in the late 2000s if several things go right. To fully flesh this out, I will explore the past context for the rebuild, the present development of four young Lakers, and potential future outcomes based on the 2016 Lottery results.

The Past: Setting the Groundwork for the “Sneaky Rebuild” (2010-2013)

The Lakers’ current full-scale rebuild only developed due to a series of unfortunate events in the early 2010s for Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. First came the infamous CP3 trade in December 2011 that wasn’t. Following a second-round playoff loss in 2012, Kupchak signed Steve Nash and Dwight Howard as a fallback plan in hopes of securing one last championship for Kobe Bryant. The moves were reminiscent of those made in the 2003 offseason, when Kupchak acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton to win one last title with Kobe and Shaq together. The 2004 Lakers made the NBA Finals before suffering a stunning upset, so Kupchak felt the risk was justified once more.

Everyone knows that Nash and Howard battled injuries all season, preventing the Lakers from making any playoff noise. What some fail to realize is that those deals cost the Lakers crucial first round picks. From 2010-2013, the Lakers possessed no first round picks, making the team increasingly reliant on its aging, injury-prone stars. By the end of the 2013 season, the Lakers faced a dilemma: re-sign Dwight Howard and finish near .500, or let him walk and rebuild. Howard ultimately left for Houston, putting the rebuild process in motion. The Laker front office did not utter the “r-word” in public, but there were no more alternatives for the proud franchise.

The Present: Lose, Draft, Repeat (2014-2016)

USA Today Sports

While many pundits have ridiculed the Lakers for the past three losing seasons, one cannot deny that the Lakers have utilized recent draft picks nicely. With only one pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Los Angeles selected Julius Randle. He was supposed to quickly lead the Lakers back to relevance, but when he broke his tibia on opening night, the rebuild plan was pushed back another season. 

The only silver lining in the Lakers’ dismal 2014-15 season was the emergence of rookie guard Jordan Clarkson. Washington took the guard with the 46th pick in the 2014 Draft, but the Lakers traded for him. After spending much of his rookie year in the D-League, he ultimately stuck with Los Angeles and won the starting point guard job with some effective performances. He has continued to produce this season in a larger role.


The Lakers received the 2015 Draft’s second pick for their troubles in the 2014-2015 season, and surprised many by picking D’Angelo Russell over Jahlil Okafor. While Okafor has generally lived up to projections as a rich man’s Brook Lopez, Russell has shown flashes of true superstar potential. While it is fascinating to compare advanced stats between Okafor and Russell, the Laker guard outperforms Okafor in Wins above Replacement (WAR) because Russell is a better offensive facilitator. 

The Lakers surprised many by selecting Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick, but he has not disappointed. Nance will never make an All-Star team, but his defensive effort and efficient shooting have made him an instant crowd favorite. In particular, Nance is capable of throwing down some exciting dunks. If he continues to bring effort and athleticism every night, Nance will have a lengthy career a la Carl Landry.

The Future: A Return to Relevance (2016 Draft Lottery and Beyond)

LA is poised to finish 2nd-worst in the NBA, hence the highlight

The Lakers organization has been banking on a top-3 pick in the 2016 draft. But if the Lakers end the season with the second-worst record, as they currently stand now, the chart above indicates a 44.2% chance the pick falls outside the top three. That would be a severe blow to the Lakers’ rebuilding hopes. If the Lakers’ pick falls outside the top three, it goes to Philadelphia and gives the Sixers two top-five draft picks in June. 

It would be no exaggeration to say the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery will be the biggest moment for the Lakers and Sixers organizations in at least five years. In essence, the lottery will be a referendum on two contrasting styles of tanking. The odds are slightly better than 50-50 that the Lakers’ “sneaky tank job” will pay dividends. Otherwise, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie will finally be vindicated for his deliberate tanking process, and possibly land two top-four picks.

Without further ado, below are the Lakers’ future scenarios based on this lottery’s results. Keep in mind that the Lakers have under $30M in guaranteed salary for the 2016-17 season, with the salary cap set to rise to $89M for the 2016-17 season and $108M for the 2017-18 campaign.


1. Lakers Get Top-Two Pick, Draft Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram

Despite the claims of online conspiracy theorists, there is only a 38.7% chance this happens. If it does, the depth chart of expected returning players will look like this. The chart assumes Brandon Bass will take his $3.13 M player option, and that the Lakers will move on from Roy Hibbert. 

PGD’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams
SGJordan Clarkson, Nick Young 
SFSimmons/Ingram, Anthony Brown
PFJulius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Bass
C?

Clarkson is a restricted free agent, but if the Lakers draft Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram, I fully expect L.A. to match any offer for Clarkson. He will likely get a deal in the neighborhood of 4 years, $40 million, with a player option on the fourth year. This article projects his offer will be lower, but it came out before Clarkson improved his value this season.

In this scenario, the Lakers look solid at four positions with a glaring hole at the center position. The Lakers will likely sign one of Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly and Robert Upshaw to be a backup next season, leaving them in need of a starter. Los Angeles will have max money to throw at a big man, and I fully expect them to do so. The Lakers have not had a dominant center since Shaq wore the purple and gold, but that may change this off-season. 

This is a great year for free-agent centers. If I were Mitch Kupchak, I would start by throwing max money at restricted free-agent Andre Drummond, forcing the Pistons to match. I’m thinking four years, $105 million. Detroit would likely match, but the move will show that Los Angeles intends to make a free agency splash. 

Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports- Whiteside's high potential and elite rim protection would fit nicely with the Lakers

Alternatively, the Lakers could make the unrestricted Hassan Whiteside their top priority and throw a five-year, $110 million offer his way. Whiteside is risky because of his injury history, temper, and his 26-year-old age. However, his elite rim protection and post game could work wonders by taking defensive pressure off Randle and allowing him to improve his outside game.

If neither first-choice option works, the Lakers will likely sign either Al Horford or Al Jefferson. Both players would provide excellent veteran leadership, and both can be acquired for fairly reasonable price tags. Al Horford is the more desirable of the two, and he will likely command a five-year offer around $90 million. The Hawks, Celtics, Magic and Heat will all be fighting for his services, and I feel he wants to play on a team that can immediately contend.

That leaves “Big Al” Jefferson as a very attainable free agent. The current Hornet has missed half this season due to calf and knee injuries. That injury history, coupled with his 31-year-old age, will limit his value in free agency. However, the Lakers could likely snag him with an incentive-laden four-year, $50 million offer that comes with a fourth year team option and limits his guaranteed money. Cleveland’s Andrew Bynum deal offers a template for the kind of deal the Lakers could execute. The deal would also allow L.A. to snag a cheap backup center like Bismack Biyombo or Miles Plumlee as an insurance policy.

In summary, I think the Lakers should target Andre Drummond first. Assuming he stays in Detroit, Hassan Whiteside and Al Jefferson become the next best realistic options at center. Either one would instantly make the Lakers more competitive, while leaving the door open to sign another marquee free agent during the 2017 off-season. Signing a quality center should be the Lakers’ top offseason priority in this draft scenario, and I believe they will accomplish that goal.


2. Lakers Get Third Pick, Draft Jaylen Brown

PG
D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams
SG
Jordan Clarkson, Nick Young
SF
Jaylen Brown, Matt Barnes?, Anthony Brown
PF
Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Bass
C
?

If the Lakers’ pick drops to #3, the organization will have a fascinating dilemma. 18-year-old Croatian center Dragan Bender is projected third in most drafts, but my gut tells me the Lakers lack the patience to wait for Bender to become fully NBA-ready. The question then becomes: Should they take a guard with the third pick? Or should they trade down to acquire potentially better value?

Suppose the Lakers take 6‘7” Cal shooting guard Jaylen Brown, the next-highest rated prospect. This creates another dilemma for L.A.; namely, should they re-sign Jordan Clarkson? Brown would fit the mold of a true shooting guard, making Clarkson expendable. However, the team could slot him at small forward and let them play the fast paced style that Russell and Clarkson enjoy. 

For the sake of team chemistry, the Lakers would likely re-sign Clarkson and commit to a smaller quick lineup moving forward. If this plays out, look for Jeff Hornaceck to receive serious consideration for the head coaching job.

In this scenario, the Lakers would be wise to sign a taller veteran defender like Matt Barnes or Luol Deng to split minutes with Brown at small forward. Barnes could work, as he could return to Los Angeles for a team friendly two-year deal as Brown develops.

Finally, my previous analysis for the center position still applies here. 


3. Lakers Get Third Pick, Trade Down with Denver

PGD’Angelo Russell, ?
SGJordan Clarkson, Nick Young
SFDanilo Gallinari, Denzel Valentine?, Anthony Brown
PFJulius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Bass
CJakob Poetl, ?

This is where things get especially juicy. The gulf in talent between the second and third picks is massive for the Lakers, particularly because the next best prospects are primarily viewed as guards. Suppose Denver really wants Dragan Bender or Jaylen Brown. Neither will be available by the time they pick in the 6-9 range. If the season ended today, the Nuggets would have the eighth, 15th, and 18th picks

Isaiah Downing/USA Today Sports- Could Gallinari be part of a draft-day trade?

Does this not have the makings of a deal? Suppose the Lakers send the third pick and Lou Williams to Denver for Danilo Gallinari, plus the eighth and 18th picks. This is totally doable, and it serves a purpose for both teams. The Lakers would fill a huge hole at small forward, then potentially draft C Jakob Poetl at #8 and get SF Denzel Valentine or PG Demetrius Jackson at #18 as a rotation piece.  

In this scenario, the Lakers could fill out the roster by signing a veteran backup point guard and solid center to split time with the NBA-ready Poetl. Suppose LA gets Mario Chalmers and Zaza Pachulia to fill those holes. That looks like a team that will fight for the playoffs next season. The Lakers would still be under the cap, and be in prime position to give a marquee small forward max money during the 2017 off-season. Maybe the KD to LA dream lives on?


4. Lakers Get Third Pick, Trade Down with Philly

PGD’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams
SGJordan Clarkson, Nick Young
SF?, Anthony Brown
PFJulius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Bass
CJoel Embiid/Nerlens Noel, ?

The Lakers and Sixers would make odd bedfellows on draft night. Then again, can anything be put past Sixers GM Sam Hinkie? Philly has a logjam at center and excess draft picks. The Lakers are deficient in both commodities. 

Here’s where it gets wild. Suppose the Sixers get Simmons or Ingram, and desperately want Jaylen Brown or Kris Dunn for a starting guard spot. Philly also has the 22nd and 27th picks. With Dario Saric set to join a crowded frontcourt next year, the Sixers will need to offload one of their other three bigs. Jahlil Okafor is likely untradeable, but Nerlens Noel or Joel Embiid could be available for the right price. 


Suppose the Lakers take the gamble on Joel Embiid. The former Jayhawk flashed impressive athleticism in college and in select on-court workouts, but nobody knows if he will reach his full potential. His range now extends to the three-point line, but that shot is untested in game situations. Many in Philadelphia believe Embiid can become a perennial All-Star, and the Lakers may be willing to see what he offers. 

Nerlens Noel has an inferior upside to Okafor, but he has still been very successful defensively and in pick-and-roll situations. He would pair nicely with Julius Randle, and be well suited to play the Lakers’ desired fast pace. Noel will have a long NBA career, and he looks like a hugely impactful peak-Joakim Noah type player.

In exchange for the third pick, the Lakers could potentially snag either player from Philly and get 7‘0” center Damian Jones with Philly’s 22nd pick as an insurance policy. This would obviously be a massive gamble for both teams, but everyone loves to see this sort of groundbreaking trade on draft day. If needed, LA can even throw Nick Young into this deal for cash and a 2017 second round pick. 

The Lakers could round out the roster by snagging Kent Bazemore or forcing the Warriors to match a max offer for Harrison Barnes. This team would be a total enigma, but it would be fascinating to watch.


5. Lakers Pick Falls Below Top Three, Goes to Philly

PGD’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams
SGJordan Clarkson, Nick Young
SF?, Anthony Brown
PFJulius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Bass
C?

This is the nightmare scenario for Laker fans, but it is not far fetched. As things currently stand, there is a 44% chance their pick goes to Philadelphia. The Lakers would be unable to draft a potential solution at small forward or center. On the bright side, they would have $60M free dollars to throw max offers at players in those positions. 

At the very least, Los Angeles could acquire Al Jefferson and Kent Bazemore at the weak positions, and use the remaining cash to find backups and plug other holes. The team may even compete for a playoff spot. But in the big picture, this outcome significantly lowers the Lakers’ long-term ceiling. 


6. New Head Coach? 

Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports- Will Luke Walton deliver in a new position for the Lakers?

After two dismal seasons in Los Angeles, Byron Scott looks like a dead man walking. Assuming he gets canned after this final tanking masterpiece, the coaching search will open up. Luke Walton tops this list, and most assume he would be the Lakers’ first choice for the job. Jeff Hornacek would be another strong candidate, as he has experience coaching young players in a fast-paced offensive system. One issue with Hornacek is that players have complained about his controlling nature. That likely would not fly in Los Angeles.

At the college level, the traditional names like John Calipari and Shaka Smart arise, but Kevin Ollie is my personal favorite from the college ranks. Ollie commands respect from his players as a former NBA veteran, and he proved an ability to make a team better than the sum of its parts when his UConn Huskies won a stunning NCAA title in 2013. There will be other NBA assistants mentioned for the job, but the Lakers will probably hire someone with prior head coaching experience.

After a brilliant stint with Golden State in Steve Kerr’s absence, Luke Walton looks like the favorite for the likely opening. There are other worthy candidates, but Walton seems like the proper fit for this young Laker squad.


Conclusion: This is the Lakers’ Biggest Offseason since at least 2012

With growing young talent and tons of cap space, the Lakers will not be in the Western Conference cellar much longer. However, the franchise has numerous questions to answer this summer. Their ability to address these concerns over the summer will play a massive role in determining the Lakers’ long-term ceiling. 

If the Lakers hire a sub-optimal head coach and lose their first-round pick, the team may plateau around 2020 as a Grizzlies or Hawks-style squad. They will be a talented playoff squad, but not skilled enough to overcome the true conference elites. 

Alternatively, the Lakers could land Ben Simmons, sign Andre Drummond to a max-deal, and have Luke Walton expertly coach the squad. If that all happens, the Lakers will immediately be expected to make the 2017 playoffs. They would have the necessary pieces to become an elite team, and the foundation would be laid for a dynasty in the 2020s.  

After three long years of undercover rebuilding, the Laker organization eagerly anticipates a brighter future. This summer will be pivotal in determining exactly how bright that future will be.

Edited by Ben Moore.

SQuiz
When did the Lakers last have the first overall draft pick?
Created 3/10/16
  1. 1996- Kobe Bryant
  2. 1986- AC Green
  3. 1979- Magic Johnson
  4. 1982- James Worthy

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