The Stanford Marshmallow Test is one of psychology's most famous studies. For those who are unfamiliar, the study was invented by Walter Mischel, and involved testing the willpower of children to delay gratification, with marshmallows. Here is a quick description, via the New Yorker:
In the original test, which was administered at the Bing Nursery School, at Stanford, in the nineteen-sixties, Mischel's team would present a child with a treat (marshmallows were just one option) and tell her that she could either eat the one treat immediately or wait alone in the room for several minutes until the researcher returned, at which point she could have two treats. The promised treats were always visible and the child knew that all she had to do to stop the agonizing wait was ring a bell to call the experimenter back—although in that case, she wouldn't get the second treat. The longer a child delayed gratification, Mischel found—that is, the longer she was able to wait—the better she would fare later in life at numerous measures of what we now call executive function. She would perform better academically, earn more money, and be healthier and happier. She would also be more likely to avoid a number of negative outcomes, including jail time, obesity, and drug use.
And here is an adorable video of children participating in a more recent instance of the study:
To sum this up quickly: If a child took the marshmallow right away, or was unwilling to wait for something better (multiple marshmallows), they were less likely to have as much success later in life as those who delayed their gratification.
The Los Angeles Lakers are currently undergoing a similar test of their own ability to delay gratification. Almost from the second a winking Byron Scott celebrated the Lakers lottery luck in acquiring the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, there have been cat-calls from media members and fans alike for the Lakers to try and win now; to trade the pick for a "proven" player or "young veteran". Our own Drew Garrison recently outlined how the Lakers might have the assets to make a deal for the Sacramento Kings' star DeMarcus Cousins, were both front offices so inclined.
The Lakers should not be inclined. Cousins is a fine player, potential superstar even, but when one talks about trading the second overall pick, it's not as simple as a player for player trade. This year's draft is absolutely loaded at the top, and whether the Minnesota Timberwolves take post-up beast Jahlil Okafor or the offensively versatile and defensively destructive Karl-Anthony Towns, the Lakers will be getting a phenomenal player no matter which of the two are left.
If it was just a context free, pick-for-player trade, the Lakers should probably do that. Landing any potential superstar is big for any franchise. As much (justified) hype as Towns and Okafor are getting, no one knows what they will ultimately turn into.
But such a hypothetical offer is not on the table. All that stuff about Cousins' affordable contract and talent level? The Kings front office knows that too, and are certainly not looking to get fleeced. The real problem when people talk about trading the Lakers' second overall pick for an "All-Star caliber young player" is the pick would not be the only thing the Lakers would likely end up surrendering. Any team parting with a franchise player would almost certainly want at least Julius Randle and/or Jordan Clarkson to even begin serious trade discussions.
The Lakers have been drained of young talent for a very long time. That was fine when they were contenders and wanted veterans to fill out the end of the bench so that Phil Jackson could trust in Kobe Bryant in crunch time of huge playoff games, but less so in the 2014-15 season as the team was careening towards the lottery with no hope for the future, before everyone realized how lucky the team had gotten with Clarkson.
If the Lakers were to package their young assets for a player like Cousins, of course that would be exciting in the short-term. Perhaps the team could even use Cousins as a lure for other free agents, and build a new big two or three in 2016 when the team would still have up to $60 million in cap space if they signed no long-term free agents this summer. There are a lot of "ifs" involved in that scenario, however, and while a core of Towns/Okafor, Randle, and Clarkson is no sure thing, those are three young players on bargain bin contracts that give the team depth at multiple positions.
As the top heavy Cleveland Cavaliers are currently demonstrating in the NBA Finals by starting the freshly-anointed Stephen Curry-stopper Matthew Dellavedova against the deep and versatile Golden State Warriors, depth and spreading out talent across a team's roster matters. The Cavaliers went all in on free agency and trades to win now, giving up two first overall picks (although Anthony Bennett's general suckitude may not help this argument) for Kevin Love, and filling out the end of their roster with veterans like James Jones, Shawn Marion, and Mike Miller; all of whom are past their NBA expiration date and are beginning to smell rancid through the TV.
Compare that to the Warriors, who legitimately go at least 10 players deep, with even David Lee coming in off of what was essentially a season long DNP-CD to play a crucial role in the Warriors near-comeback in Game 3. LeBron James is dragging what is left of the Cavaliers' roster, kicking and screaming all the way, to competitive narrow wins against the Warriors. If the Lakers want to forgo a youth movement and depth, are they betting they can sign a player as good as LeBron for when the going gets tough?
As great as it is to live in Los Angeles, banking on a top-three player to make his way to the purple in gold is too risky a bet to make. The Lakers should stick with an organic youth movement, and give their young core at least a year together to grow and see what they are, rather than flip three potentially very good starters on affordable contracts for one. Basically, if the Lakers want long-term and sustainable success, they should delay a marshmallow today for several tomorrow.