Without Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol on their recent back-to-back, the Lakers' depth was exposed, but it also highlighted the failures, relatively speaking, of the team to draft well in recent years.
We've all covered the bases on whether it was right for Mike D'Antoni to stick with a seven man rotation or not on a back-to-back and there's no need to rehash old material. You either think it was a fair gamble given how terrible the end of the Lakers bench is and that it would have possibly jeopardized the win against Sacramento by giving them extended minutes, made no difference in terms of providing rest in the Phoenix game, or both; or you believe that the additional rest might have given the regular rotation guys enough pep to eke out a victory on a road back-to-back that the Lakers haven't managed to do all season. Yours truly edges towards the former end of the spectrum since it was more important to come out with one victory than possibly none, but we digress.
The point that everyone seems to acknowledge, however, is that the players currently out of the rotation are uniformly awful. This isn't a case of D'Antoni sitting potential contributors and diamonds in the rough: we have pretty clear evidence that these guys, Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris, Chris Duhon, and Robert Sacre, are sitting on the bench for good reason. And with the exception of Duhon, all of them are recent Lakers draft picks who haven't panned out. Admittedly, Morris and Sacre both get a break due to their youth, being recent picks and developmental projects. This would have been Morris' senior year at Michigan -- although Michigan fans are surely happy with Morris being in the NBA, given that Trey Burke is awesome -- and he's shown enough promise this year in his playing time that one can have some optimism for his future. Same applies for Sacre, although he is a year-and-a-half older than Morris and with a far lower ceiling. That noted, he could possibly develop into an end-of-the-rotation big who takes charges, hits a midrange jumper once in a while, and doesn't kill you while he's on the court.
But it is Ebanks and the panoply of guys who aren't on the roster, the likes of Darius Johnson-Odom, Derrick Caracter, and Ater Majok, that are more indicative of how the Lakers' drafting has gone for the past half-decade or so. See below:
|2008||2 (58)||Joe Crawford||Waived|
|2009||1 (29)||Toney Douglas||Traded|
|2009||2 (42)||Patrick Beverley||Traded|
|2009||2 (59)||Chinemelu Elonu||Waived|
|2010||2 (43)||Devin Ebanks||On roster|
|2010||2 (58)||Derrick Caracter||Waived|
|2011||2 (41)||Darius Morris||On roster|
|2011||2 (46)||Andrew Goudelock||Waived|
|2011||2 (56)||Chukwudiebere Maduabum||Traded|
|2011||2 (58)||Ater Majok||Waived|
|2012||2 (55)||Darius Johnson-Odom||Waived|
|2012||2 (60)||Robert Sacre||On roster|
That's five years of practically nothing. There hasn't been a rookie on the team who has made it to his second contract since Andrew Bynum. While he was a monumental success for all intents and purposes between his play and what he brought as a trade chip in Dwight Howard, it betrays a rather worrisome tendency of the team being willing to paper over holes in free agency, an approach that won't work in the long run under the new CBA and its limitations. Granted, the Pau Gasol trade and the luxury tax have both sapped availability and enthusiasm for first round picks respectively, but the Lakers haven't picked in the first round now for nearly six years. To use a baseball analogy, the Lakers' farm is pretty much empty and it's one of the biggest reasons behind the old, slow roster that has a tough time winning on the road on the end of a back-to-back.
And this is all unfortunate since Mitch Kupchak is a pretty good drafter when he isn't picking in the second round every year. The last time the Lakers actually had a decent bench in 2008, it was composed almost entirely of draft picks utilized during the Lakers rebuild period, including Jordan Farmar (2006/26th), Sasha Vujacic (2004/27th), Ronny Turiaf (2005/37th), and Luke Walton (2003/32nd). That's a bunch of late firsts and early second round picks that not only gave the Lakers a formidable bench, but a change of pace unit that changed games for that iteration of Phil Jackson's squad. That's how you prevail on back-to-backs when you can basically throw another set of fresh, young legs onto the court, especially in a high tempo game under the auspices of two high tempo coaches.
Now, one would say that the Lakers do have essentially an entire bench unit in Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, and Jordan Hill that fills that aforementioned criteria. Injuries have prevented us from seeing it -- and Clark would never have cracked the rotation without them -- but the concept is there. After all, Kupchak is still a solid general manager and hasn't been resting on his laurels, hence all those under the radar transactions using those draft picks and other assets to acquire youth in the form of Jordan Hill, Earl Clark, Shannon Brown, Trevor Ariza, and others. Even last year's trade for Ramon Sessions was lauded at the time since not only was Sessions fairly young, it was perceived as worth the risk for a low first rounder and is acceptable even now with the benefit of hindsight as a decent roll of the dice. These, however, aren't the transactions you ding Kupchak for. It's the selling of first and even second rounders for cash that hurts. Take the 2009 draft, for instance, in which the Lakers gave away Toney Douglas and Patrick Beverley, two guys who are bona fide rotation players right now, and wonder if those guys were the Lakers' bench warmers instead of the current bunch.
That's essentially the "farm," or in other words, the guys on the periphery of the rotation who you can develop and the Lakers don't have anyone worth much. The term is stretched in the context of basketball as versus in say baseball because of the lack of minor league contracts, exclusive rights over the players on your D-League affiliate, and so forth, but the Lakers have essentially failed to develop and capitalize on anyone other than Bynum for the past eight years. Draft picks are commodities and the Lakers keep punting them away, sometimes justifiably (Hill/Sessions) and other times not so much (Joe Smith). And as previously mentioned, the new CBA makes it much more difficult to use free agency as a means to address the holes on your team. We dream of 2014 and the big free agents we can sign, but who are the cheap guys to fill out the rotation? Sure, you will no doubt have favorable veteran signings and such; however, that doesn't account for everyone you will need and the cheapest, most effective options are invariably those draft picks.
The Lakers essentially have no one waiting in the wings to fill spots in the rotation once guys leave in free agency. Darius Morris might turn into one of those guys, but certainly isn't at that stage right now. Jordan Hill is a nice piece but will be a free agent in 2014, and worst of all, plays the same position as the Lakers' future franchise centerpiece, something that isn't going to change unless his shooting really improves in the immediate future. This is even more pronounced for Sacre, who is definitely a center and has little hope of ever being more than a bit player and a world-class bench cheerleader. Earl Clark is the lone exception to this since the Lakers will presumably re-sign him in the offseason and he can step in at either forward spot. And finally, we have Ebanks, who suckered the Lakers with his potential to the point that they let a highly productive reserve in Matt Barnes walk because of him.
Those are the young guys on the roster who might step up at one juncture and take (bigger) roles in the rotation. Even if you're cynical and think of them only as trade assets you can flip in deals, the Lakers haven't done a good job of stockpiling guys who would be attractive to other teams. To his credit, Kupchak tried to correct that this past offseason and was reportedly chasing a first rounder, but found no takers. Now the team will have to find ways to work around this again because of the Steve Nash deal, especially in a league in which the value of first rounders has apparently skyrocketed if the recent trade deadline is any indication. Selling those picks not such a great decision now, right?
If you want to see a team that does this thing well, look at the Spurs, who have Cory Joseph, DeJuan Blair, Nando de Colo, and Aron Baynes, all guys with double digit PERs, riding the pine. Three of those guys were draft picks and of course you have Gary Neal and Baynes as obscure international players the Spurs are amazingly adept at finding. Why does Pop feel he has leeway to sit his three stars whenever he pleases? Well, he's an amazing coach with a superb system that his players buy into for one, but also since that he has confidence that he can plug guys in and have it work out. The Lakers don't have that luxury since they haven't been big on the player development thing since 2008. Draft picks, the D-League, and the international scene isn't something they've tapped into for the most part.
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