The draft is upon us and Los Angeles Lakers fans are giddy about the possibility of landing a new franchise cornerstone with the second overall pick. Some prefer Jahlil Okafor, the talented big man out of Duke, while others prefer D'Angelo Russell, a sweet shooting and slick passing guard out of Ohio State who fits the modern NBA perfectly. Still others hope to see the pick traded for a more established player like DeMarcus Cousins.
Let's also not forget that the Lakers also have the 27th and 34th picks in the draft, and promise to be active on the trade front. Last year, out of nowhere, Mitch Kupchak made a deal to land the 46th pick and used it to hit a home run with All-Rookie first team guard Jordan Clarkson. With cap space and a solid amount of assets, there is no way to predict how the Lakers' draft night is going to turn out, but things are certainly looking up in Los Angeles.
That said, it's difficult to fully appreciate the good fortune present without recognizing the strife past. It's the journey, after all, that makes the destination so rewarding.
Falling From Grace
The Lakers have long been one of the NBA's most successful franchises. From their roots as the Minneapolis Lakers (Minnesota is "The Land of 10,000 Lakes", hence "Lakers"), they have featured an embarrassment of riches, with lineups packed with stars like George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Kareem-Abdul Jabaar, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant, just to name a few.
While there were a few down years sprinkled in along the way, for most of the nearly 66 years that the NBA has been in existence, the Lakers have been contenders. Along the way they have set trends, broken records, and captivated the country.
In spite of all that history, all that success, it only took a moment for the fall to begin: December 8th, 2011, a date which will live in Lakers infamy.
After winning back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, the 2011 NBA playoffs didn't go as planned for the purple and gold, as they lost in the second round (SWEPT!) to the Dallas Mavericks. Feeling like the time was right for an overhaul, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak completed a complicated three-team trade that would have landed All-NBA point guard Chris Paul in Los Angeles at the cost of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, who had been key cogs in the Lakers title runs.
The deal would have not only added one of the top players in the league in Chris Paul but also would have put the Lakers in excellent position to pursue a trade for center Dwight Howard. For a few hours, it seemed as though, once again, the Lakers had done the impossible and re-loaded their roster.
What happens next still makes Lakers fans blood boil. NBA Commissioner David Stern slithered up from behind and walloped the Lakers with a proverbial steel chair to the back by vetoing the trade.
While he was within his rights acting as the owner of the league-controlled Hornets, Stern had promised to allow the team to manage itself without interference from the NBA. For reasons he refused to reveal, Stern broke that promise and the Lakers paid the price. From that moment on the Lakers and their loyal fan base have choked down a diet of nearly pure heartbreak.
Lamar Odom, stung by the "betrayal" of being traded only 18 months after winning a championship for the city of Los Angeles, demanded to be sent elsewhere. Kupchak accommodated by sending him to Dallas in a deal that provided the Lakers with nothing more than a trade exception. However, Odom was never the same again as his on court play and personal life fell to ruin.
In the summer of 2012 the Lakers set out to prove that nothing, not even Stern's villainy or the new anti-big market collective bargaining agreement that the league had created, could stop them from building a winner. Kupchak threw caution to the wind and sold assets like they were stocks on Black Tuesday. The result was the additions of aging point-guard extraordinaire Steve Nash and childish-but-dominant center Dwight Howard, ushering in a new wave of optimism.
Unfortunately, the renewed hope that fans felt lasted about as long as a Nick Young hot streak. Nash spent the vast majority of his three years with the Lakers in street clothes, acting as living proof that Father Time is undefeated (unless your name is Tim Duncan, who has to be roughly 67 at this point).
Nash's absence was particularly frustrating as the Lakers had opted to pass on making Phil Jackson their coach, selecting Mike D'Antoni instead. D'Antoni and Nash were tasked with recreating the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense in LA, but without his point guard as the engine the offense never gained much traction. Lakers fans were hoping to see the return of Showtime, but what they got was far from it.
Howard, still recovering from offseason back surgery, returned too soon and played with an indifference that didn't sit well with fans. Whenever questions about his pending free agency were brought up he dodged them, refusing to commit to staying in LA, and furthering the disconnect between him and the Lakers faithful.
Adding to the feeling of uncertainty the Lakers beloved owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, passed away in the middle of the season, leaving the running of the franchise to his children. Many fans began to wonder whether the team would be able to recapture their success without their patriarch.
Kobe Bryant, ever the soldier, put the Lakers (and Howard) on his back, dragging them to the playoffs. It was supposed to be a cakewalk season, one in which Bryant wouldn't have to do the heavy lifting with three other surefire Hall of Fame players with him. Instead Kobe had to put together a season for the ages, but the strain proved too much and his Achilles snapped with just 2 games remaining in the season. In keeping with the tragic theme, Lakers fans watched in horror as their hero limped off the floor, his career in jeopardy.
That summer, after the Lakers were swept in the first round by the Spurs, Dwight Howard fled to Houston, where he would have less accountability as James Harden's sidekick than he would as the face of the league's most popular franchise. While fans weren't sad to see him go they knew the loss of such a valuable asset would hurt.
Things didn't get much better for the 2013-2014 squad, as Bryant played a total of six games before succumbing to another injury. Hoping to maintain salary cap space, Kupchak pieced together a lineup made up of one-year contract players who had been castoffs from other franchises. They looked more like the Bad News Bears than the Lakers, playing so poorly that they ended up with the seventh pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
That pick was used on Julius Randle, the promising power forward out of Kentucky. The Lakers also brought in former Showtime Laker Byron Scott to coach the team, and continued with their strategy of handing out one-year deals, strangely only opening the checkbook to pay the streaky Nick Young on a four-year deal. With no marquee free agent signing on, Lakers fans pinned their hopes for the future on the development of Randle.
Fans couldn't believe their misfortune when Randle broke his leg in the first game of the season. His debut campaign was over after playing just 14 minutes. For the remainder of the year fans suffered through another Bryant injury and starting lineups that featured the likes of Wesley Johnson, Robert Sacre, and Carlos Boozer.
From December 8th, 2011 through the end of the 2014-2015 season in April was a marathon of melancholy for the former powerhouse franchise. Through it all, fans stayed strong in their belief that the Lakers would be back sooner rather than later.
Beginning To Rise
Finishing with the 4th-worse record in the league, the Lakers had an 82% chance of keeping their top-5 protected pick. Fans braced for the worst, but hoped for the best. With everything on the line, the future would be decided by an assortment of ping pong balls.
That's when it happened.
The Lakers didn't just keep their pick, they jumped from the 4th spot up to 2nd. In a draft that features two (2!) impressive bigs at the top, landing the second pick was beyond a stroke of good luck, it was the basketball gods smiling on Los Angeles once more.
The unquestionable victory on lottery night gave fans something they had been missing for so long: real hope for the future. To the Lakers faithful, it was more than just a draft pick, it was a sign that their luck might finally be changing, that the cloud hanging over the franchise since the Chris Paul veto might, at long last, be giving way.
Assuming they don't trade the pick, next season the Lakers will add two top rookies to their lineup (Randle and the 2nd pick) who are both locked in on cost-controlled contracts for some time. They will also bring back promising young players like Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown, and Tarik Black, and will have cap space to pursue the likes of Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency.
A successful summer and 2015-2016 season could lead to the Lakers being one of the top destinations for the loaded 2016 free agent class, which means that one year from now the comeback could be complete. It's been a long and difficult road, but finally, it's time to celebrate and appreciate that things are looking up. The rebirth of the Los Angeles Lakers begins tonight.
Happy Draft Day, Lakers fans.
Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA