LOS ANGELES — The team's vision was obvious. Several young first-rounders would form the core of a long-term rebuild, showing growth each year as they developed. Eventually, the core's improvement would result in playoff appearances and possibly even championship contention.
The preceding describes how the Los Angeles Lakers are building right now, but it could also sum up the Utah Jazz's road to their current position. The Jazz (19-13) currently hold the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoff race, and have done so largely on the strength of the players they drafted.
“They did a great job,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said of Utah’s rebuild before the Lakers’ hard-fought 102-100 loss to the Jazz. “They've been on the verge of being a playoff team for the last couple years. They stuck with what they do, what they believe in.
“I think Quinn does a great job of the way he has them playing. The ball moves side to side and it never really sticks in anyone's hands too long,” Walton continued. “They were on the verge, on the verge, and they just kept doing it. They just kept grinding away, and it looks like they've gotten better each year, and again this year I think they're a better team than they've been in the past couple years.”
Point guard George Hill (an offseason trade acquisition) has been invaluable for Utah, but otherwise the bulk of the Jazz's production and improvement has come from players they drafted. Of the team's top-five in win shares (a metric from Basketball-Reference that attempts to divvy up credit for each of a team's wins) this season, Rudy Gobert (5.4, taken 27th overall in 2013) and Gordon Hayward (3.4, taken ninth overall in 2010) rank first and second, respectively.
Hill (2, acquired by sending out a 2016 first-rounder this summer), Joe Ingles (1.9, acquired after the LA Clippers cut him during his rookie season), and Rodney Hood (1.5, 23rd overall pick in 2014) round out the top-five for Utah in win shares.
Their draft pedigree isn't quite the same as the Lakers' gaggle of lottery picks mixed with later selections like Larry Nance, Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, but the principles of the rebuild are the same: nail your draft picks and ride the young guys to contention, which isn’t always a smooth journey.
“The things you're asking them to do are usually habitual. It's mundane, and it requires a commitment,” said Jazz head coach Quin Snyder. “We were so young. We had the youngest team in the league, we just didn't have veterans. Joe Ingles was a rookie, and I think he was our oldest player, so we had a lot of guys who hadn't had those experiences.”
It meant the team had to show patience, and couldn’t evaluate themselves based off of wins and losses.
“Fortunately for us we had a situation where [Jazz owners] Dennis and the Millers just wanted to see progress, and that was our goal as much as anything was to see some growth and improvement,” Snyder said. “But it's hard to not evaluate yourself based on wins and losses. It's really hard.”
The Lakers are in a similar boat, and there are potential pitfalls to rebuilding like the Jazz. Even if Utah makes the playoffs this season, it will be only their second appearance in the seven years since they drafted Hayward and began to rebuild, and with Gobert agreeing to a mammoth extension and Hayward primed for a major payday in unrestricted free agency, they're reaching a point the Lakers will eventually reach: Is their core good enough to commit to going forward? Do they even have another option?
This is just one of the possible issues with building patiently like the Jazz have. The team's frontcourt logjam essentially forced them to trade Enes Kanter for a top-14 protected 2018 pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder, while their 2014 fifth-overall selection Dante Exum hasn't blossomed while struggling with injuries.
Gobert's emergence as one of the top centers in the league makes parting with Kanter much more palatable, while Hill's strong play makes it easier for the Jazz to go slow with Exum, but those still aren't ideal outcomes for lottery picks.
These are realities of rebuilding in the NBA. Not every draft pick lives up to expectations, and not every team is as primed to survive that as the Jazz were. Still, Snyder thinks the Lakers are on the right track to follow in their footsteps.
“They have a lot of talent on their team. A lot of guys that are capable of scoring points in bunches, and so they're very dangerous,” Hayward said. “When one of them gets going, it can be a long night for you. They're a good, young, talented team with a lot of good pieces.”
“I think Luke's got a vision for what he wants to do,” Snyder said. “Obviously Luke has got a presence, and he's a substantive guy, and that makes it easy for guys to listen to him. There's a sincerity there that they can believe in as well.”
And wherever the Jazz will ultimately end up after their own current generation plays out, the Lakers do look to them as a model they can follow.
“That's our goal,” Walton said. “We hope to build a foundation and a system that will lead us to success. With time and understanding we become a better team, and then a playoff team, and then we compete for championships.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per basketball-reference.com or NBA.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.