The Los Angeles Lakers were getting ready to step into a new era three years ago. Dwight Howard was supposed to be the next great cornerstone -- the next in a line of centers the Lakers have acquired over their storied history. Fast forward, and fans have now endured 116 games worth of losing over the past two seasons of franchise lows in the aftermath. While there will be more struggles ahead, the foundation of their rebuild has been set. It's now a matter of letting it develop while preparing for another crack at free agency.
Dwight's departure may have been the official moment Mitch Kupchak entered rebuilding mode, but the first signs occurred in the 2011 season when the Lakers briefly traded for (and then didn’t get) star guard Chris Paul. It is possible that with Paul’s presence, 2012 wouldn’t have been the disastrous season it ended up being. Maybe Howard stays in LA. Maybe Bryant doesn’t destroy his body trying to put the Lakers in the postseason. Maybe the Lakers open up another decade of competitiveness.
The hopes for a quick turnaround weren't answered, either. Kobe was a shade of himself as he tried to rush back from injury, and the aging superstar has only played in 41 games since the '13-14 season. Pau Gasol opted to pursue a championship in Chicago after a rough 27-55 season in the city he loved and helped bring two championships to. Then came the search for a replacement for Mike D'Antoni at head coach. Cap space and lottery picks appeared to be the only way out of the hole the Lakers found themselves in.
Their first high-end draft pick turned into power forward Julius Randle, but that cap space remained empty. With every major free agent passing on playing in the purple and gold, it became clear Los Angeles was going to have to rely on Bryant, Randle and a host of role players to get through the season. Julius lost his rookie season after 14 minutes, Kobe heaved shots until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, the role players couldn’t find their rhythm and nothing but Jordan Clarkson turning into an All-Rookie first team player went right en route to a 21-61 record. If the Lakers didn’t keep their top-five protected 2015 first-round pick, the franchise appeared to be entering a dark age.
Luck finally smiled on the Lakers when they landed the second-overall pick. Los Angeles drafted D’Angelo Russell, the do-it-all guard from Ohio State who's been unafraid of the daunting task awaiting him. The Lakers spent the 27th-overall pick on the uber-athletic Larry Nance Jr. and will try mining a potential three-and-D player with the 34th pick in Anthony Brown. They struck out again in free agency, but were able to acquire defensive stalwart Roy Hibbert from the Indiana Pacers for next to nothing.
The front office has assembled a solid young core over the past two summers. Clarkson was an unexpected surprise, but they did see enough to buy a second-round pick to use on the combo guard out of Missouri. Clarkson spent the offseason developing his outside and it showed in Summer League and preseason play. Many experts around the league don’t know what to think of Clarkson because he put up numbers playing major minutes on a bad team, but the eye test says Clarkson can be an efficient second option in the NBA. With a new backcourt mate in Russell (the two have a great relationship), Clarkson should continue to impress.
Russell himself is oozing with potential. The point guard has a great skillset highlighted by his pinpoint passing. Even when his shooting stroke is off, he can impact the game with his vision and ball distribution. D'Angelo will have plenty of opportunities to get his teammates involved, but he will have to be assertive in certain moments and take control of the game as a leader of the offense.
Randle looks like the most polished of the LA trio, spending his rehab period learning the game while refining his own. As the Lakers move toward smaller lineups, his versatility makes him a great piece to work with. Julius is quick enough to blow by bigger power forwards and is still strong enough to back down the smaller ones. His finishing at the rim has always been a strength and it showed in the preseason. The biggest offensive improvement for Randle has been his ball-handling skills. He has the talents of a point forward, and while it's too early to make any conclusions, he's looked like a natural playmaker when creating for others. He makes excellent decisions with the ball and is almost impossible to stop with a head of steam. If Randle improves on defense (and he will during the season), he could develop into one of the best young power forwards in the NBA.
Trading for Hibbert can also help in that department. The two-time All-Star was considered a clog in Indiana and should be more comfortable fitting in with a team that needs him. His defensive ability will take pressure off the young players and more importantly, will improve a group that ranked 29th in points allowed and opponent field goal percentage. The Lakers also brought in reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, and power forward Brandon Bass. Williams will bring some scoring punch and stability to a second unit that was abysmal last season.
LA will struggle to produce enough wins to make a playoff appearance with such a young core. They will, however, go into the offseason with the ability to pitch a real future instead of a glorious past. If the organization has learned anything over the past three summers, history alone isn’t enough. Big-time free agents want to go to a situation where they have a good team around them. The Lakers will have several targets on their radar and will be in prime position to make another big push. Los Angeles heads into the offseason with about $65 million in cap space, most in the league.
By the time free agency begins, the Lakers and the rest of the league will know which core players are ready to produce. Having a cast of young players who hopefully prove they're more than hypothetical potential can give the Lakers an interesting roster for an established All-Star type talent to lead. Kevin Durant is the biggest free agent in 2016, with LA-native DeMar DeRozan and Al Horford standing as just a few of the other big names on the open market.
Internally, the Lakers also have to take care of Clarkson, who will be a restricted free agent. If Jordan shows improvement on his rookie season, the Lakers will surely match any offers on the guard. LA will also have to decide whether to bring back Hibbert on a cheaper deal, and Kobe Bryant's future is still an uncertainty. Kupchak has indicated on several occasions he's working under the notion that he will retire, but the Mamba might not be ready to hang up the jersey just yet.
Lakers fans have suffered two dismal seasons, but the first phase of the rebuild is well in place. Development of Randle, Russell and Clarkson might not yield wins and a playoff berth in '15-16, but it can set the franchise up for success this summer and beyond.