Lakers fans have seen it all in Los Angeles. Since leaving Minneapolis, the Lakers franchise has thrived despite constant drama, most of it playing out in front of the bright lights of the media. There have been superstar trades, fired coaches, power struggles, and very public battles between players. I’ve watched league-altering trades get rejected by the league office for "basketball reasons" and Kobe play MVP-level basketball while on trial. As a Lakers fan, there’s only one thing that I’m not used to: losing.
Storied tradition or not, everything has changed for the Lakers this year. Coming out of last season’s Dwightmare, there was no doubt that this version of the Lakers would be lottery bound in a loaded Western conference. The question was how far they would fall. With opportunities for improvement limited by the salary cap under the new CBA, Mitch Kupchak signed a series of NBA cast-offs and crossed his fingers for Nash to stay healthy and Kobe to recover. That’s not what happened.
Instead, the Lakers suffered a catastrophic string of injuries and the losses began to pile up, creating a lost season in the process. I’d argue that this is exactly what the Lakers needed and that fans should appreciate the balance they’ve been able to strike between moral victories and the losses they need to secure a top lottery pick.
Historically Bad (by Lakers Standards)
First of all, let’s put this terrible season in context. The Lake Show sits at 22-44, good for last place in the Western Conference and behind all but three teams in the woeful east. Only the Milwaukee Bucks and 76ers trail the Lakers in point differential. Unless the Lakers manage to go 9-7 the rest of the way, this will be their worst season since the franchise moved West, a record held by the woeful 30-52 squad in 1974. Even 2004-5’s post-Shaq debacle managed 34 wins, and that was with Chris Mihm at starting center, Chucky Atkins at point guard, and a hobbled 36 year old Vlade Divac limping around the court. It’s still hard for me to comprehend just how bad this season has been by Lakers’ standards.
Maintain Salary Cap Flexibility
Although the likelihood of signing LeBron James this offseason is basically zero, Kupchak has done an incredible job of cleaning up what was a disastrous salary cap situation just a few seasons ago. With the exception of Steve Nash and a newly extended Kobe Bryant (whose contract deserves its own column), every single Laker contract comes off the books this year. He may wait until 2015, but Mitch has masterfully orchestrated enough cap space for the Lakers to rebuild on the fly when the right talent becomes available. That is a laudable feat for a team that looked like a lock for the repeater tax as recently as last season. Cap space has never been more valuable in the NBA and no market is better poised to take advantage of it than Los Angeles, who has a history of luring major free agents.
Evaluate New Talent
Sure, none of the new Lakers this season will be franchise cornerstones or perennial All-Stars, but that was never the intention. With only minimum contracts to work with, Mitch managed to bring in some intriguing pieces that may serve as role players moving forward. In addition to bringing back Jordan Farmar and drafting Ryan Kelly, the Lakers signed Xavier Henry, Swaggy P, Wes Johnson, and Caveman Kaman – several of which may be worth keeping around. Picking up Kendall Marshall from the D-League now looks like an inspired move. Although I was sad to Steve Blake go in a mid-season trade, both pieces they got back have shown flashes and Bazemore may be wearing purple and gold again next season. Most bench-filling minimum contracts don’t produce the kind of talent the Lakers have been able to find.
Get That Lottery Pick
As I mentioned before, the Lakers are covered in the loss column. The Lakers are in a 3-way tie for the 4th worst record in the league, which puts them in an enviable position. The 2014 draft is one of the deepest in years and loaded with impact players. This gives the Lakers around a 10% chance of the #1 overall pick and locks them into the top 10. The Lakers have needs across the board, with Wiggins, Embiid, Exum, and Jabari Parker all real possibilities. The fact that guys like Marcus Smart and Julius Randle will still be sitting there at the 6th or 7th pick has to be a comforting fact to Laker fans. The Lakers haven’t had a lottery pick since Bynum in 2005 and I’m practically salivating at the possibility of these prospects. This is even more important from a rebuilding perspective, where getting a blue chip talent on a cost-effective rookie contract will allow more flexibility moving forward. The old CBA allowed teams to overpay for veteran talent and compete, but having a star on a reasonable contract would be huge for the Lake Show.
Celebrate Moral Victories
It hasn’t always been ugly this season. Unlike the borderline unwatchable 76ers, you can’t accuse the Lakers of tanking on purpose. Although many nights they are simply outmatched, D’Antoni has done a good job coaching this team and the team has never quit or stopped hustling. Before the injuries reached critical levels, they were playing a surprisingly entertaining brand of basketball characterized by energetic defense and tons of threes. An opening night victory over the heavily favored Clippers felt surprisingly vindicating. Although it’s hard to call their February victory over the Cavaliers anything other than bizarre, it was certainly fun to watch the Lakers literally run out of players but still pull out the win.
In the end, I think March perfectly sums up the Lakers season. After impressive wins on the road against the Trailblazers (a rare feat even for the championship Lakers squads) and at home against the Thunder, the Thunder/Spurs have blown out the Lakers by a combined 63 points in the last two games. This season has certainly been trying at times, but it has ultimately been exactly what we as fans needed. Most importantly, the Lakers have set themselves up well for the future without quite sinking to the depressing levels of crappy basketball exhibited by the outright tankers. For a classy organization like this, I wouldn’t expect anything less.