It started off the basketball court. The then-owner of the then-New Orleans Hornets, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, vetoed a trade that would have brought young All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers. Along with several other chaotic events in his life, the nearly-completed deal essentially ended Lamar Odom's NBA career. Along with the retirement of Phil Jackson and the aging of veteran stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the two-time champion Lakers were falling apart quickly.
The acquisition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash seemed to stave off the bleeding, but back injuries to both men killed any semblance of successful careers in LA. Bryant, figuratively holding up the franchise on the square of his back, never buckled from the pressure emotionally, but physically, his body couldn't take the toll. With their franchise players perhaps irreparably disabled, the Lakers found themselves swinging for the fences in free agency for a replacement. All-Star after All-Star turned them down, some choosing greener pastures while others simply preferred inertia to sunny California. LA was soon trotting out the likes of Wesley Johnson, Ronnie Price and Jabari Brown as the losses mounted higher and higher.
The decline was slow and painful. Watching Kobe Bryant's body bend until the moment it broke was a nightly exercise in suspense; a heart stopping high wire act on the hardwood. Dwight's one year got worse and worse every week, culminating in the first prominent free agent in LA history to leave for less money elsewhere. Four coaches have been at the helm, with three departing and the incumbent perhaps not being long for this purple and gold world. Along the way, future Hall of Famers were casualties of the Lakers millstones, drowning in an ocean of obscurity and inferiority night after night. The downfall of the glorious Los Angeles Lakers has been a long, protracted experience.
And after all that, the path to rebirth of the Lakers could all be determined by a few simple bounces of a ping pong ball.
On May 19, the NBA will hold it's annual draft lottery. In it, the randomized system will determine where in the forthcoming NBA Draft the team will select, in which the marked ping pong balls that pop out of the machine could put them anywhere from first to seventh. The Lakers are currently slotted into the fourth position, with about a 12 percent chance to move up to the number one slot. The organization features similarly long odds to slip into the sixth or seventh selections, with a combined 17.2 percent chance of doing so. The problem here? Those two picks would ensure that the Lakers convey that selection to the Philadelphia 76ers, the long tail result of the Steve Nash trade three years ago. The downfall of the Lakers, it seems, may still be in effect.
So how could losing this pick affect the Lakers' rebuilding efforts going forward? What paths could they take following the most fateful night of May 19th? First, let's look at the paths they could take if indeed they keep their pick.
Rebuilding through the draft
Let's look at the most successful teams in the NBA this season. The Golden State Warriors have a team starring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, all guys that they drafted. Same with the Chicago Bulls, who feature Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson. A big part of Atlanta's success are cornerstones Jeff Teague and Al Horford, both of which the Hawks drafted. The Spurs have been pretty happy with Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, each of which has been with San Antonio since draft night.
The Lakers already have some nice pieces in place. Jordan Clarkson has proved he could be part of the nucleus, while Julius Randle's simple pedigree may demand it. Along with those two youngsters would be a potential top-5 pick, the 27th pick (from Houston) and the 34th pick. While the top-10 picks obviously get the most attention, keep in mind that many championship contenders over the past decade feature guys selected 27th or later: Parker, Ginobili, Mirotic, Gibson, Green and Butler fit that criteria.
In the organization's history, the team has rarely ever rebuilt solely through the draft. The 1980's teams had Magic Johnson, Byron Scott and James Worthy, but were also built around trades for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kobe and Derek Fisher were Lakers on draft night, but Shaquille O'Neal, Rick Fox and Robert Horry were not. The same can be said about Pau Gasol, Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza.
However, the Lakers are armed with three picks in the first 34 selections, which hasn't happened since 1979. With such a wealth of selections and a few pieces already in place, it could behoove the organization to hold onto all of those picks and draft a bunch of blue chippers all at once. The Lakers are so bereft of talent in virtually every area that no amount of free agent signings could possibly build a winning squad in one summer. Meanwhile, the next nucleus of the Lakers could be here in two month's time.
Flipping picks and prospects for veterans
Would you trade Julius Randle and a top-4 pick for DeMarcus Cousins? What about Clarkson for Deron Williams? Or any of those assets for Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan?
There's no telling what specific pick (.... if any) the Lakers will possess in a week's time, but if they have it, it's going to be a top-five selection. Any selection in that range is very marketable to any team in the NBA. The front office has been stating for several seasons now just how much they value flexibility. Finally the Lakers have it. They're in command of one of the first five, 27th and 34th picks. They have young, cheap prospects Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson. They've got a one year, $9 million dollar option in Jordan Hill staring them in the face. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have as much opportunity to flip their assets for veteran stars as they've had in years.
The Lakers are a franchise that's hardly been known as patient. Two years looking at the playoffs from the outside-in has to be jarring for ownership. Keeping young players takes time, but if they blossom in concert, you could be looking at a five-to-ten year championship window. But if you flip those prospects and picks for established veterans? Perhaps the window will be shorter, but the window will be now. This is certainly a road the Lakers could take come June.
On the flip side? What if the ping pong balls bounce the wrong way? We continue on with Part 2 on Monday!
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