"If you are going through hell, keep going"
This year has been a trying one for Los Angeles Lakers fans who have endured a season filled with injuries, uncertainty, and plenty of losing. When the 2014-2015 campaign finally comes to a conclusion and the dust settles this year's Lakers team will likely go into the history books as the worst in the franchise's storied history. Meanwhile fans have struggled to stay positive in such a bleak time, and rightly so given the string of misfortune that has been heaped upon the purple and gold.
Before the season began Steve Nash, who had been penciled in to start at point guard, ostensibly decided to end his career due to persistent nerve-root problems. Unfortunately the ravenous injury bug didn't stop there, claiming rookie Julius Randle's leg on opening night and robbing Lakers fans of the chance to watch their highest draft-pick since 1982 develop.
As the season went on the injury list grew larger and larger, with Nick Young, Ronnie Price, Wayne Ellington, Kobe Bryant, and Xavier Henry all finding themselves out for the year. Suffice it to say the Lakers roster that is currently trudging through the final game remaining on the schedule looks almost nothing like the one that Mitch Kupchak put together last summer. While no one expected the Lakers to be title contenders this season, the level of futility the once-great franchise has reached is nonetheless shocking.
For now though, Lakers fans must not focus on all of the darkness that has plagued their beloved team over the course of the season. With the Lakers locked into the 4th-worst record in the league, it's time to step back from the ledge and celebrate that, for the time being, the future is looking bright. For lack of a less Disneyesque term, it's time to let it go.
To that end, here are 5 reasons why, in spite of all that has happened, Lakers fans should be excited about the future.
1. Luck of the Draw
When the Lakers made the Steve Nash trade they never thought the 1-5 protection they placed on their 2015 first-round pick would come into play, but here we are. Due to the lottery process that determines the draft order LA has a 82.8% chance of keeping their draft pick. While a 17.2% chance of losing the pick is still too high for comfort, the purple and gold are much more likely to get good news at the May 19th draft lottery than bad.
Keeping the pick would be exactly what the doctor ordered for a team that is in desperate need of young talent with star potential. Finding such players through the draft is particularly important, as their cheap, team-friendly contracts offer a tremendous value and help to keep cap space clear to chase free agents.
The Lakers need help at every position on the floor, which means Mitch Kupchak can focus on selecting the best available talent rather than worrying about finding a player that will fit in with the current roster. Having the kind of flexibility the Lakers' transitional roster provides will help because the 2015 draft class offers a range of talented players across every position, including bigs Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, guards D'Angelo Russell and Emanuel Mudiay, and wings Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson.
Any of these players would provide a young, talented piece that would go a long way towards resuscitating the purple and gold. However, the Lakers will have not just their top-5 lottery pick but also Houston's 1st round pick (likely in the mid-20's), their own 2nd rounder, and possibly the Clippers 2nd round pick.
Of course, with as many as 4 draft picks there is always the chance that the Lakers will trade some of them in order to land a player that can help now. Given the current high value attached to draft picks it may be wise to cash in some of these assets to land a known commodity that can help steer the ship in the right direction.
Regardless of whether the purple and gold keep their picks or trade them, draft night will be an exciting time for Lakers fans. That is, of course, assuming that they get through a nerve-wracking draft lottery with their top-5 pick intact.
2. Mo' Money, Mo'....Free Agents
Depending on what the Lakers do with their options on Jordan Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, and Robert Sacre, they could have over $20 million in cap space available to spend this summer. This is fantastic news because the team currently features next to no starting-quality talent aside from Kobe and potentially Clarkson, and the best way to acquire players who are ready to step into starting roles is through free agency.
While it's unlikely any superstars will be available this summer (sorry Kevin Love), there are still a number of players who can help the Lakers improve immediately. Just as with the draft, the players who will be available in free agency offer a wide variety of skill sets, from guards like Goran Dragic and Rajon Rondo, wings such as Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler (both restricted, unfortunately), and bigs like DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe, and possibly Kevin Love and Brook Lopez.
The new TV deal kicks in after this summer and will cause a massive increase in the salary cap, which means most deals that are signed this summer will end up being solid values even if they initially appear to be overpays. As a result, fans should expect the Lakers to be among several teams who will be extremely aggressive in pursuing free agents this summer.
With no superstars to get distracted by this year the team won't get caught holding their breath for one player to make a decision like they did last summer with Carmelo Anthony. Look for Mitch to strike fast after the July 1st free agency moratorium passes, with a focus on finding players in their mid-twenties who can both help now and grow along with the rebuilding team.
That said, reality is that whoever the Lakers end up adding to their roster will be an upgrade over the squad that is currently occupying the hallowed halls of the STAPLES Center. Signing the right free agents to the right contracts could quickly change the Lakers' fortunes, which means that in July we could all witness the Lakers take a giant step towards rising from the ashes.
3. We Are Young
Part of the reason for the Lakers downfall was their inability to identify and acquire young talent, but over the past two seasons we have seen the franchise make great strides in this area. In fact, the current team features 7 players who are 25 or younger and the front office has made a concerted effort towards developing these players for the future.
Obviously rookie Jordan Clarkson, the reigning Rookie of the Month, was a phenomenal selection with the 46th pick in last summer's draft and leads the Lakers youth movement. Clarkson has been so good that he has nearly single-handedly kept Lakers fans tuning in to games as they watch the young guard seemingly get better with every outing.
Moreover, the Lakers' transition towards younger players doesn't end with Jordan Clarkson. Rookie big man Tarik Black was brilliantly claimed off of waivers after the Houston Rockets let him go in order to make room for Josh Smith. At the time the Lakers featured plenty of depth at the power positions with Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis, Robert Sacre, and Ryan Kelly all capable of providing solid minutes there, but Mitch claimed Black anyway. Kupchak correctly determined that the Lakers are in no position to pass up an opportunity to check out a talented young player, even if it does create a bit of a minutes log jam. After all, diamonds in the rough are rare, but the more you look, the better your odds are of finding one.
Black has rewarded Kupchak's gamble by rebounding at a high rate and playing solid defense. He has enough bulk to bang with bigs down low but also enough mobility to get out and hedge on pick and roll situations. His non-guaranteed, cheap contract also offers a tremendous no-risk value for the team, and it helps that he likes to do this:
The Lakers made another smart decision when they added Jordan Clarkson's college teammate, Jabari Brown, to the squad. Brown was called up from the D-League to help replace Nick Young and Ronnie Price in the guard rotation, and has shown enough promise that the team elected to keep him for the remainder of the season and give him a non-guaranteed (no-risk) deal for next year.
Third-year player Robert Sacre and sophomore Ryan Kelly have been fairly underwhelming, but Kelly has turned things around since being shifted to his natural position of power forward. Sacre, meanwhile, is a true center and can be counted on for backup minutes, which has some value in the league.
Unfortunately Julius Randle, who is arguably the most intriguing young prospect on the roster, played only 13 minutes this year due to injury. Still, his combination of bruising interior play and ball handling skills has fans anxious for his return. Recent video clips have surfaced featuring Randle back on the court where he is going through drills and even dunking, which has only fueled the excitement for the talented big man's return. If all goes according to plan he will take part in the Las Vegas Summer League to prepare for the start of next season.
Outside of Clarkson and Randle, most of the Lakers young talent project to be backups in the NBA, but the fact that the front office was able to acquire them almost exclusively with 2nd round picks and waiver claims is still impressive.
Additionally, these players are all on fantastic contracts, as Randle, Clarkson, Black, Sacre, Kelly, and Brown combined would cost the Lakers just over 7.5 million dollars next season. That's an incredibly good value for six young players with varying degrees of potential.
If that wasn't enough, consider this: If the Lakers keep their top-5 pick this year and add that to Randle, Clarkson, and Black they will statistically have 4 of the top rookies from the past two drafts as part of their core, which is a far cry from the veteran-heavy, aging team that imploded just 2 seasons ago. The youth movement is in full swing, and that's a great thing for the Lakers' future.
4. Kobe's Swan Song
This one is certainly bittersweet. Lakers fans have enjoyed watching Kobe Bryant play basketball for the past 19 years, but nothing lasts forever. Next season will likely be Kobe's farewell tour, giving us all an opportunity to appreciate one of the greatest players to lace them up one last time.
Over the past three seasons Kobe's body has betrayed him thanks to a vicious assault by father time. The injuries, compiled from a lifetime of pushing his body to the limits and beyond, have taken on a life of their own. For so long Kobe appeared to be invulnerable, with his iron will and incredible pain tolerance allowing him to shake off injuries that would have landed lesser players in wheelchairs (looking at you, Paul Pierce).
Alas, Kobe has proven to be mortal after all and will be forced to take his final bow next season. While it's a moment that no Lakers fan is looking forward to, it will provide a transition for the Lakers franchise from the older generation to the new breed of young players. It may be painful, but it's a necessary step to bring forth the next great era of Lakers basketball.
When Kobe retires the torch will officially be passed, and it's going to be exciting to see who steps up to fill the massive void created by the departure of arguably the greatest Laker ever. The team will also have an abundance of cap space that they can use to chase a superstar to inherit the throne. Kobe wants to leave the team in position to be attractive to such a player, which means fans can look forward to even more of Mentor Kobe next year, as he imparts his vast amount of basketball knowledge to the Lakers youngsters and prepares them to lead the team into the future.
On the court, Kobe won't be the player that he once was but there will be glimpses, moments where he will turn back the clock and pull off an incredible up-and-under, how-the-hell-did -that-go-in layup or catch fire with a series of Jordan-esque jumpers. It's those moments, and the memories of better days that will come with them, that fans will have the opportunity to appreciate next season.
5. Ding Dong The Tank Is Dead
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, one of the most exciting things about the Lakers going forward is the death of the tank. Over the past 6 months the vast majority of Lakers fans have been on board with the team losing games in order to keep their draft pick, otherwise known as tanking. The extreme value provided by draft picks has made tanking a logical move and perhaps even a necessary evil, but that doesn't make it any easier to stomach.
Rooting for your favorite team to lose is an exercise in self-loathing. When a team performs well, fans should be able to cheer and celebrate rather than lament their misfortunes as they watch their draft chances slip away. Unfortunately, until the draft lottery is reformed tanking is here to stay and fans will have good reason to wish for losses.
This has been the nightmare scenario for Lakers fans over the past two seasons, but thankfully the concept of tanking should now be fading in the rear view mirror.
While the Lakers are likely to keep this year's lottery pick, next year's pick will almost assuredly end up in the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. With no first-round draft pick tied to the team's record there will be no reason to root for losses next season, which will be a breath of fresh air after two seasons mired in the depths of lottery hell. Finally, Lakers fans will be able to wholeheartedly cheer when Nick Young is feeling swaggy or when Jordan Clarkson scores a game winning basket.
Celebrating wins may seem like something that goes hand in hand with following a professional sports team but for the past two years Lakers fans have learned not to take this for granted. Rooting for losses can have its own kind of thrill, but it's a hollow one that only leads to fans being at odds with the athletes who are competing to the best of their ability every night.
If nothing else next season will provide an opportunity for the Lakers fan base to truly get behind their team once again. The tank is dead, and it's time to focus on a future that grows ever brighter.
Keep going, Lakers fans.