WHAT THE F&@K ARE THE LAKERS DOING? Part 2
*Photo via USA Today
With Randle on board, and with a year of tutelage and observation, he still retains the potential that put him high on draft boards to begin with. However, it’s certainly improbable that he blossoms to the degree of earlier Lakers lottery drafted Hall of Fame level talents like Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and later Kobe Bryant (through a draft day trade). It’s even optimistic to hope that Randle will be able to contribute on the level of Bynum, whose derailed career shouldn’t muddy the production and skill he formerly brought to the Lakers, and who was once so highly regarded that he was traded to the pre-Hinkie Sixers in a deal for Dwight Howard.
With Randle’s future murky at best, this year’s potential pick becomes of paramount importance. While luck-ing into a top 5 pick would allow the Lakers to retain it, it also would provide their highest draft pick since James Worthy in ‘82. Though last year’s vaunted draft class has underwhelmed due to injuries and ill-fit, this year’s seem to have a few franchise altering pieces at the top, potentially more ready to play. In terms of fit, the Lakers could benefit most from landing a star point guard, which in this draft means Emmanuel Mudiay or D’Angelo Russell. While Mudiay may possess more upside and raw athleticism, on tantalizing display in a Kyrie Irving-like 12 game stint in China, Russell also offers size and a precociously adept level of skill. Either piece, combined with Randle, gives the Lakers a strong core to develop.
Always a player in free agency, and having landed major pieces in the past, Kupchak will certainly count on luring high level players to the glamorous LA market, to carry on the legacy of the league’s second most successful franchise. Players that the Lakers will likely court include Jimmy Butler (RFA, Bulls), Rajon Rondo (UFA, Mavericks), Kevin Love (UFA, Cavaliers), Greg Monroe (UFA, Pistons), Draymond Green (RFA, Warriors), LaMarcus Aldridge (UFA, Blazers), Goran Dragic (UFA, Heat), Reggie Jackson (RFA, Pistons).
However, missing from the list are the two most transformative pieces in this year’s free agency: Lebron James, and Marc Gasol. The Lakers don’t currently possess anything to woo either of them with, and since Lebron has tethered himself to his home legacy, and because Marc grew up in Memphis alongside his older brother, Pau, during his time with the Grizzles, neither have any realistic notion of joining Purple and Gold.
The other 2015 free agents mentioned above lack the franchise altering capability that the ‘96 signing of Shaquille O’Neal granted the team. Each one comes with concerns, be it injury, eroding skill-set or athleticism, mindset or fit.
For 2016, Durant, Drummond, Horford and Whiteside are the major pieces coming in to play. The latter is the only one that may actually be a realistic target, due to Miami’s difficult salary situation, and his unrestricted status.
Should the Lakers be able to lure a combination of a couple of these with their cap space, the team would certainly be able to leap up from embarrassment in the standings into mere mediocrity. But for a proud franchise currently humbled, in a historically difficult Western Conference, will they be able to attract the necessary level of star to turn it around?
After the Dwight Howard defection, the team still hasn’t come to terms with it’s lowering profile as a destination franchise. These players would also need to accept less money, in order to switch to a non-contending team. Other than Rondo, who is scarcely more than a star in name only at this point, which free agents could even be considered likely?
This may be a more viable option. Kupchak (and Jerry West before him) used wizardry to turn metaphorical peanuts into gold, and this will be needed with the team’s assets at an all time low. Pouncing at the right moment to trade for a disgruntled piece, as Miami did with Dragic at this year’s deadline, might offer a huge upgrade for a price the team could stomach. Continuing to monitor the volatile situation with DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, and eyeing other situations where a star-level talent is entrenched in a losing culture (Davis? Drummond?), may provide an influx of a high talent looking to prove himself. The Whiteside situation in Miami proves an opportunity and change in location can bring a previously troubled player into a situation where they can mature and blossom.
WHY THIS MIGHT WORK, OR MIGHT NOT
The elephant in the room, Kobe Bryant, is the major wild card. His Gladiator/Wild Wild West shootout farewell tour and enormous contract hamstrings the team. And while his past success is integral to the brand of the team, he isn’t the generational talent he was when the team last retooled by acquiring Gasol and Fisher on the way to two championships. However, after Kobe’s third season ending injury, he may have found a way to make peace with his mortality. Recruiting key players, and assuaging their doubts about his domineering style of play with a minutes-weathered body, and helping the team transition into a new era of basketball would allow the team to be free of the deflation of Bryant’s influence and waning ability. This would save him from himself, and further damaging his legacy, but also would allow a graceful team transition. Regardless, can the team still compete while fielding a team led by the league’s highest paid player (25 million) who is know longer able to do the things he was paid for?
Perhaps the most important organizational change has been the passing of the late Dr. Buss. While not as visible as the play on the court, Buss was crucial to maintaining the standard and image of the team. With Jeanie and Jim possibly resolving their earlier differences, it remains to be seen if the team can resurrect their championship level demeanor, without the man that owned and built the team.
With the team clearly adhering to it’s past tenets of roster-building, paying a former superstar as a lifetime achievement pension, and employing a Coach who is essentially meant to lose, though possibly unbeknownst to him, the era of reckoning may be here for a team stuck in the past.
CRYSTAL BALL PREDICTION
Moving on to wildly speculative guess work:
The Lakers will keep their pick in this year’s draft, and pick Mudiay with the 3rd pick. Kobe will manage to stay more healthy next year, and play around 70 games on a strong minutes restriction, aiding his productivity. After picking up one of the free agents on the list above, my guess being Greg Monroe, the team will be on a higher trajectory than this year. Kobe still won’t retire after next year (transitioning to a Suns-era Grant Hill role), and with the team coming closer to playoff contention- 38-40 wins, they will convey their 2016 first round pick to the Sixers. They will find a gem with this year’s late first round pick, and between Randle, Mudiay and picks acquired in the next few drafts, and choice free agent signings, be back in the playoffs by 2017, with a new coach from the Popovich coaching tree. Title contention is still a half-decade away, however.
Bonus: WILD GUESS PREDICTION
For the 2021 and 2022 titles, The Lakers will play the Sixers, with each winning one year a la the Celtics-Lakers of the late ‘00’s. The Sixers will be led by the player they take with the 2016 Lakers pick.
-By Michael Sutherland