The wait is over: the massive rebuilding project of the Los Angeles Lakers has officially begun, my friends. After the worst season in LA history, the team is poised to make their first lottery selection in almost ten years, with the knowledge that this player could affect the fortunes of the franchise for the next decade.
Or will he?
The Draft order is set. What's next for the LA front office?
Keeping the pick
The Lakers are going to pick seventh in the 2014 NBA Draft, dropping one spot below where their record slotted them at the end of the regular season. While the team had little over a 20% chance of getting in the top-3 selections, they also had an over 30% chance of slipping one spot. Aside from the incremental shots that they could have dropped to eighth or ninth in the Draft, this is the worst case scenario for the Lakers-if they're not there already. Just for quick reference, here's how the top-10 shook out:
5. Utah Jazz
7. Los Angeles Lakers
9. Charlotte Hornets (damn, it feels good to write that again)
10. Philadelphia 76ers
As I wrote in my roundtable blurb, it's disappointing for the Lakers to have missed out on a decent chance at a top-3 pick, but it certainly isn't the end of the world. Historically, it's almost as likely for teams to nab an All-Star in the lower half of the lottery as it in the upper crust of the NBA Draft. For example, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bynum, Brook Lopez, Stephen Curry, Goran Dragic and Paul George were all taken seventh or lower, just within the past ten years. I'm not saying that the Lakers are guaranteed a player of this caliber. However, the team can grab far more than just a rotation player or a fringe All-Star. There are legitimate franchise guys to be had at the Lakers's draft spot, as far as history teaches us.
More on the draft
More on the draft
The team will now have to pick from what I consider the second tier of players, which includes the following gentlemen: Australian point guard Dante Exum, Kentucky big man Julius Randle, Arizona forward Aaron Gordon, Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis, Indiana forward Noah Vonleh, Michigan State swingman Gary Harris, Jr. and Creighton's National Player of the Year in Doug McDermott.
As it stands right now, it looks like Exum and Randle are both damn near locks to go in the top six. If we concede that Wiggins, Embiid and Parker are gone in the top-3, then that leaves the Magic, Jazz and Celtics to pick up the consensus 4-5 in the talent pool. The Magic are still in need of a point guard and a power forward and the Celtics badly need, well, everything (Boston surely couldn't pass on Exum's promise, even with Rajon Rondo on board...for now). The Jazz have both a point guard in Trey Burke and two young bigs in Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, but considering how poorly they played for long stretches last season, Utah can't allow a perceived logjam from taking a bonafide talent like Randle. Thus, unless there's a health concern, a horrifically bad series of workouts or a major brain fart in those front offices, the Lakers probably won't be able to pick up Exum or Randle.
This leaves a very solid group of young players, including Gordon, Smart, Vonleh, Ennis, Harris and McDermott. The most talked about going 6-7-8 in the Draft has to be some amalgamation of Gordon, Smart and Vonleh, with Ennis as a dark horse candidate.
Before we go any further, I need to make this point crystal clear: the Lakers have needs at every position. There isn't one player on the roster that I could presume will have a starting job in 2016-2017, or even has a spot on the team. In fact, I wouldn't be surprise if guys like Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Kent Bazemore and Kendall Marshall washed out of the league in that time frame. Kobe Bryant will either be retired or in his last season and perhaps the only man left standing could be whoever the Lakers draft in a month's time. The team has needs everywhere and must take the most talented player on the board, no matter what. We'll have far more robust player profiles on all these players in the coming weeks, but just to get you acclimated, here are the quick hits on who should be left on the board.
Gordon and Smart are sexiest names on the board here, though by no means should they be considered to be locks at 6 and 7. Gordon has been compared often to Blake Griffin, though truthfully his comp comes closer to Kenneth Faried than the 3rd place MVP finisher. He's explosive on both ends of the floor, averaging 12 ppg and 8 rpg, but his calling card has been his defense and rebounding abilities. Gordon is a ferociously tenacious player, hounding opposing players and using his strength to his advantage. Offensively, he's very a lot of room to grow, including fixing a fairly hideous jump shot and almost no post game to speak of. He's a very intriguing player, but certainly no Griffin.
Smart's flags come on and off the floor. He was suspended earlier this year at OSU for getting in an altercation with a fan sitting courtside, which seemed to cap off a fairly underwhelming second season for the guard. He upped his stats to a fine 18/6/5 line, but remained a tepid (charitably so) shooter from long and an inconsistent (if not erratic) force offensively. Defensively, he's got the size, strength and athleticism to compete at the NBA level, but could never quite get the most out of his talent. Still, like Gordon, Smart's natural and physical gifts are a tantalizing combination of tools despite some very apparent misgivings about his offensive repertoire and attitude.
The name that has come up the most around Silver Screen & Roll in previous months has been Vonleh, whose relative lack of fanfare might have been because his Indiana Hoosier team was so brutal in the Big 10 this season. At 6'10", the big man brings a very solid inside-out game, with a somewhat developed post game fitting nicely with a pretty outside jumper. Vonleh rebounded at nice rate with 9 rpg as well and won't hurt the squad defensively (though he has room to grow). His lack of offensive aggression is a little alarming, especially considering how bad his team was last year.
Ennis is a very intriguing name whose stock could rise or fall dramatically after team workouts. He's the next in the line of big shot making guards from the ‘Cuse, with leadership abilities and moxy that (in my interpretation) outweigh his actual talent. He's a nice, if not paint-by-numbers type of distributor (5.5 apg), but Ennis really shines as a penetrating point guard that's going to disrupt scheme after scheme. Again, depending on how he looks in front of the Lakers' brass, he could very easily be on the team next season.
If for some reason Vonleh, Smart, Ennis and Gordon are all still on the board with the Lakers on the clock (which is unlikely), it's very hard to say at this point who they'll select. Without workouts, meetings with the front office or even a coaching style as a point of reference, there's very little for us to speculate on at this point. Again, I'd feel much better about LA's future had they gotten picks 1 through 3. But 7 isn't a bad place to start in a massive rebuilding year.
As much as I'd love to see this happen, the Lakers don't have much to parlay into a higher spot in the Draft. They don't have any other first round picks or any young players that have value. More to the point, they can't even trade first round picks until 2019, due to a provision in the CBA that does not allow teams to deal their first rounders in successive years (they owe their 2015 pick to the Phoenix Suns in 2015 from the Steve Nash trade and their 2017 pick to the Orlando Magic, via the Dwight Howard deal). Nice try, though.
This... is the million dollar question. The multi-million dollar question.
Regardless of who the Lakers select at 7, he isn't guaranteed to be a franchise player. Those guys will already be off the board. That being said, there is already real pressure on the Lakers front office to deal for a player that already has fulfilled that All-Star potential. The players on the block of that ilk are few, including Love and Rondo, and then perhaps Smith and Williams as well.
With Bryant on the books for the next two seasons, massive cap room due in the next two offseasons, perhaps the Lakers front office would be wise to jettison any long-term rebuilding plans and bet on their ability to attract (and keep) established stars. This gamble has worked out for the Lakers at times...and failed miserably others.
However, it's not as easy as just trading a pick and nabbing an All-Star. The Lakers would have to go through a rather complicated process of signing enough cap ballast to trade for an eight-figure salaried player, as well as put together a better package than other teams ready to deal, like the Suns, Celtics, Warriors, Bulls and Kings.
If the fate of the next five years rested on the bounces of a few pieces of plastic, now it's up to the Lakers front office to do the rest. Whatever they decide, it's almost assuredly going to be a franchise changing decision either way.
And if God really is a Lakers fan, we're going to have to wait a few more weeks to see how exactly that bears itself out.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino