There's nothing good about Julius Randle's injury. No matter what anyone may say, a young, promising power forward has been sidelined at the advent of his NBA career. My colleague Harrison Faigen tried to find silver linings peering through this horrific injury, putting a reluctant smile on an other morose situation. However, in my opinion, there's really nothing the Lakers gain in a positive sense. All this injury does is clarify what the Lakers do going forward.
Two games in, the Lakers look extremely far away from anything resembling a playoff team. Yes, it's only two games, but their two performances, not to mention their preseason games, indicate systemic flaws in the very infrastructure of the team itself that aren't necessarily beholden to a small sample size. The offense is an absolute mess, one that won't be fixed by the addition of a single, solitary three-point shooter in the form of Nick Young, or can be helped exponentially by Kobe taking even more shots. The defense is even more inexcusable--I don't know that I need to expound on that. The Lakers look like a lottery team, pure and simple. As currently constructed, there are very few onlookers who would actually suggest this team could make the playoffs.
At this point, the Lakers could take their season in several different directions. Do they stay the course, save up their assets and hope that, with time, the team can become more competitive than they are in their present state? Do they try an open rebuild, trading away valuable role players like Jordan Hill or Jeremy Lin for draft selections or young blue chippers? Or do they take a combination of their nearly $30 million in expiring contracts, young players and draft picks and try and trade for a disgruntled superstar that wants out of his current situation?
It would seem Randle's injury has ruled out that last direction.
To clarify, I don't think the team should be emboldened to rebuild or not because they are missing Randle's production. I just don't believe that he was going to turn the needle very much in terms of on-court impact this season. Don't get me wrong, I believe Randle would have had an important role on this team. But that's the key phrase here--he was going to be a role player on the '14-'15 Lakers. It's hard for me to expect All-Star-caliber (or close to it) play from a 19-year-old rookie who can't really do much in the low post, can't go to his right and isn't used to the rigors of an 82-game slate. He was going to face growing pains, especially on a team with so few offensive threats and oppositions throwing easy double-teams on him night after night. But that being said, the Lakers are so thin that they really needed his contributions, no matter how tinged in rookie green they may have been. My calculus here is less about what he could do on the court and much more about what he'd bring them off of it.
With Julius presumably out for the season (it's possible that he returns at some point, but why rush him back for nothing, right?), the Lakers have lost their best trade chip. If, at some point during the season, they were going to try and deal for a player like Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams or someone else of that ilk, it's not a slam dunk decision to assume another team is going to take on Randle, as it was pre-injury. He's young and talented and he will surely heal, but his value has gone down significantly for the time being. I doubt that the Lakers would be able to use him in the middle of a deal for a "star" player, without attaching additional picks...picks that LA really doesn't have. I still think someone like Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge would deal for him, but as I just mentioned, the Lakers would have to give up multiple assets instead of just say, Randle and Houston's first rounder acquired in the Lin deal.
Completing a deal of this magnitude was, quite frankly, the only way the Lakers were going to even have a chance to compete this year for a playoff spot. Randle's injury muddies the chances of them creating such a trade and will most likely shuttle them the other way down the road: with their two best three-point shooters out (Steve Nash for the season and Nick Young until December, with lingering effects of a significant shooting hand injury messing with him until the New Year, I suspect), I can't imagine the Lakers don't just embrace the tank.
To me, the Lakers have a fairly clear road in front of them this season: without yet another very important role player to assist the team on the court right now, who also happened to double as their best trade chip for more talent, LA has seen the pathway to getting better in the short term go out the window. The team should be examining the players they have and determining what's the best course to breaking up an already horrid team and bolstering even further for the rebuilding.
With this path in mind, the best case scenario would then be Randle coming back healthy in 2015, the Lakers retaining a top-5 pick in next year's draft and coming back in 2015-2016 strong with two young studs, Kobe in his last year and a nice free agent pick-up (perhaps in the way of Rondo, Marc Gasol or Goran Dragic) to try and make their first playoff appearance in two years. The Lakers would then be setting themselves up very nicely for a run at a another free agent in 2016...a reigning MVP, perhaps.
Before this season, I wrote extensively about how the Lakers had a lot of flexibility going forward, but no certain plan. LA would enter the 2014-2015 season with a massive dollar amount of expiring contracts, a promising youngster as their best asset for a trade and several draft picks for the first time in years. Through a tragic process of elimination, that uncertainty seems to be melting away.
The story is going to be Julius Randle's injury and the gut-wrenching tragedy behind it. That's what it should be. But, and I write this without even an iota of satisfaction, what this really does is shape the Lakers's future in a way not previously delineated in such a stark fashion.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino