At the beginning of this season, a good portion of Los Angeles Lakers fans no doubt disavowed their interest in tanking, preparing themselves for a difficult yet entertaining season in which we could measure the growth of the Lakers' future franchise cornerstones. The team was certainly nowhere near contending for a playoff spot, but the thought was that they would at least be competitive on most nights, Byron Scott or no, thus rendering any hope of keeping their 2016 first-round pick mostly a shot in the dark. Lo and behold, the Lakers are somehow worse than last season, sporting unconscionably awful marks of 29th in offensive efficiency and 30th in defensive efficiency as well as, amazingly, an inferior record as well. Whatever their intention at the start of the season, the Lakers are firmly in position to have a slightly-better-than-a-coin-flip chance of keeping their pick, leading us to our current discussion.
No small amount of (digital) ink has been spilled over the top two prospects in the draft, LSU's Ben Simmons and Duke's Brandon Ingram, and we'll have no shortage of opportunity to discuss their relative merits against each other at some point in the future. But in this context, there is no argument that the better fit of the two for LA is Ingram, who slides seamlessly into the team's vast, gaping hole on the wing and offers a versatile offensive presence who can shoot (see shot chart below), handle the rock, and in general, complement the current core quite well. Especially germane here is the last note, as there's no existing prospect on the roster that Ingram outright displaces from their current role.
The same cannot be said for Simmons, who is in many ways a better version of Julius Randle, sharing Randle's handles and ability to push the pace but is distinguished by his better size, even more athleticism, and excellent court vision. Unfortunately, Simmons shares several of Randle's weaknesses, namely relatively so-so wingspan and defensive awareness, as well as an at best mediocre and at worst nonexistent outside shot (see shot chart below, noting in particular the utter dearth of shots from behind the arc). The former issues make Simmons a hard sell as a full-time five, even considering the seemingly inevitable march of the smallball revolution, and his lack of an outside shot cripples his ability to play the three consistently. At the very least, having both Simmons and Randle on the roster would be difficult to manage, an unfortunate outcome for the Lakers given the scarcity of premium young prospects on the roster.
Mind you, this eventuality is not necessarily a negative thing for the Lakers. "Best player available" (BPA) is a phrase commonly thrown around on draft night in the big four sports leagues for a reason: over the long run, drafting the best player on your board is generally the superior play and you work out the roster redundancies at a later stage. Now, whether Simmons is a better prospect than Ingram is a subject of legitimate debate; CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie has them as 1A and 1B at the moment. This discussion aside, that Simmons is a superior prospect to Randle should be fairly uncontroversial, so however things are sorted out afterward whether through trade or role adjustment, the Lakers should be in a better position than when they started. Although BPA is certainly not an ironclad rule, it does tend to be the prevailing wisdom. As such, an argument for taking Ingram over Simmons should start with how Ingram could end up the better prospect in the long run -- not an entirely unreasonable line of inquiry given how incredibly young Ingram is as compared to Simmons -- and not how taking Ingram would avert the roster crunch we are discussing.
The fly in the ointment here is that resolving this roster crunch is not a simple task. It should be noted that this shouldn't detract from the merits of drafting Simmons, as he's a talent worthy of all we're about to discuss. This is rather an acknowledgment that the resulting situation after drafting Simmons does not lend itself to an easy solution. Indeed, all of the apparent solutions have the potential to be unpalatable and could ultimately present the Lakers with a Catch-22:
This is the easiest way to resolve the issue and the one most directly in line with BPA principles. Simmons is better than Randle, keeping the latter could conceivably complicate the former's development due to their roster redundancy, and if one takes a charitable view of Randle's value, he could fetch a useful asset for the Lakers. After all, Randle was the seventh pick in the draft only two years ago and despite the issues he has shown this season, he's a top shelf rebounder with good tools. There is little doubt that the Lakers in this scenario would receive likely at best seventy five cents on the dollar for Randle, as they're dealing from a position of weakness, but they could also use the opportunity to acquire a piece that makes more sense schematically alongside a core group that would be headlined by Simmons and D'Angelo Russell.
What happens, however, if the best return available for Randle is only fifty cents on the dollar or worse? The trade market can always be fickle and the Lakers in the past few years have been noticeably reluctant to pull the trigger on trades if the return is not commensurate with their stated asking price. Do you trade Randle regardless then if only to clear the rotation for Simmons? That might be a move that the Lakers in their current stage of their rebuild, highly dependent on their current young players due to the lack of upcoming draft picks, cannot afford to do from a sheer asset management perspective.
Keep both Simmons and Randle
That leads us to the second solution, in which the Lakers hand the reins to their (hopefully new) head coach and ask him to figure out an arrangement in which Simmons and Randle can coexist. Giving up on an important asset so quickly could end up being a mistake for the Lakers, so at least initially, trying to make things work with the present roster could be warranted. As mentioned earlier, this is difficult because Simmons and Randle have similar strengths and weaknesses, and creating synergy between them might be an uphill battle. Both are most effective with the ball in their hands attacking, neither can (yet) stretch the floor effectively, and between the two, there is a noticeable dearth of defensive awareness and rim protection. In this light, the most suitable way to rectify this is to stagger their playing time as much as possible.
Staggering their time on the court isn't a complete solution, however, as there's bound to be some overlap in which they will have to play together. As such, this presents a choice between Simmons playing next to Randle at the three or the five. Given Simmons' current lack of an outside shot and the modern inclination toward smallball, the correct choice is intuitively obvious here. Indeed, CBS Sports' Matt Moore has endorsed the notion of Simmons at the five, arguing that he could be deployed as a "super Draymond Green" by using his multifaceted game to act as a point center directing the flow of a very uptempo offense. Needless to say, this approach is a further dive down the smallball rabbit hole and really demands a coach committed to testing the limits of current convention - Luke Walton anyone? - but it certainly could be interesting, even if Randle is being forced here into a glorified version of Lamar Odom's sixth man role on the recent championship Laker squads.
And that's the bugaboo here: Randle has to respond well to such a role and the pairing with Simmons has to work out and his progress down his development curve has to remain relatively unimpeded for his value to not take a nosedive. Should the pairing not work out, then you're forced to move Randle for what may be twenty-five cents on the dollar and wasted anywhere from half-a-season to a year in which Simmons could have been much more seamlessly integrated with the present core. Given the aforementioned similar weaknesses, the chances of this eventuality coming to pass are very real and avoiding it definitely requires a coach dedicated to making it work. Of course, this presumes the preexisting paradigm in which both can't shoot, an assumption that might not be true come next season, but it's more likely than not that this will be the case.
All of this though starts to beg the question of what the endgame looks like. Is it to find a way for Randle to coexist with Simmons in the long-term? If so, is the team comfortable with Randle being placed into a Lamar Odom role? In a vacuum, this isn't a bad outcome and might be the most efficient way to handle the situation from an asset management perspective, but Randle, the head coach, and the front office are all going to have to be on board for it to work. Alternatively, are you keeping Randle in an attempt to increase his value and better the team's trade position when they deal him to clear the way for Simmons? This runs the risk of Randle's value taking a beating as the team works out the kinks of how he and Simmons pair together, in which case you would have been better off dealing Randle immediately.
Of course, we are also operating from the assumption that Randle is the one who will have to sacrifice, whether in his role or his roster spot, for Simmons' sake, when the possibility exists that the latter could be the one who is dealt. Of all of the Lakers' current assets, Simmons would likely have the most value, even exceeding Russell's, so exploring the idea of what Simmons could get on the trade market is at the very least warranted from a due diligence perspective. The Lakers' front office has no doubt been looking for that key trade that could jumpstart the team's rebuild and leveraging Simmons in that respect could very well make that happen.
The problem that arises here is that finding a trade that would be acceptable for a talent on Simmons' level is incredibly difficult. Consider the most recent instance this happened, in which Cleveland dealt Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love, then a 25-year-old coming off a 27 PER season. The merits of the trade with the benefit of hindsight notwithstanding, there aren't a whole lot of players on that level who are available (and no, DeMarcus Cousins isn't available, so stop asking). Players of Simmons' caliber on rookie scale deals are ridiculously valuable, especially with the cap explosion rendering rookie scale deals even more incredible bargains than usual, and moving forward, getting what amounts to a guaranteed seven to eight years of Simmons is hugely beneficial for the Lakers' rebuilding process.
This probably makes trading Simmons the least appealing of the three available options, but by the same token, the proper direction to follow isn't very self-evident. How this plays out thus might ultimately turn on the front office's view of Randle and the type of player he can turn into. If they see him as a future star, the hit to his value after drafting Simmons might make finding a trade commensurate with that view very difficult, forcing the team into the awkward balancing act of fitting he and Simmons together. Given what the front office has said publically about Randle, this seems like the most likely course of action, especially considering how loathe the front office has been so far to deal any of the youngsters to speed up the rebuilding process.
And, if the situation wasn't already tiresome enough to parse with Simmons in the equation, the Lakers could have a similar situation on their hands with the most likely choice available third overall. Maccabi Tel Aviv's Dragan Bender could be an exception here, but if he's unable to come over immediately because of his contract situation, the Lakers' willingness to pick him would no doubt decrease tremendously. That leaves a conundrum of who exactly the Lakers would select if they had the third pick, but at this point in the season, Providence's Kris Dunn is safely head and shoulders above the pack. Cal's Jaylen Brown, Kentucky's Skal Labissiere, Marquette's Henry Ellenson, and Utah's Jakob Poeltl are on the fringes of this conversation, but they have either played too poorly to warrant consideration third overall (Brown, Labissiere), don't quite have the ceiling of Bender or Dunn (Poeltl), or play Randle's position without Simmons' upside to consider (Ellenson). It's not completely outlandish that one of these names could insert themselves into the conversation for LA with a strong finish to the college season, Brown in particular, but for the purposes of this discussion, Dunn looks like the clear-cut choice at number three should Bender be unavailable.
And Dunn would create a similar level of displacement as Simmons, albeit not quite as serious, in pushing Jordan Clarkson to the bench. Not the prospect Randle is, Clarkson moving into a purely sixth man role would not be quite as dramatic a role change, as there's a fair argument that Clarkson's shot-first style is well-suited for such a role. At age 23, Clarkson is far closer to realizing his potential than say Randle is, although equally persuasive arguments could be raised that Byron's inadequate offensive system has limited Clarkson's production and given us a slanted view of his play. What drafting Dunn does here, however, is to all but cement that Clarkson's ultimate role on the team will be that of a sixth man, something that could be potentially awkward considering the Lakers will likely be giving Clarkson eight figures a year this offseason. On another note, drafting Dunn would almost certainly force a trade in the backcourt to clear room, the most likely casualty being Lou Williams, but should Lou still be around come draft time, it is not inconceivable that Clarkson could be the one dealt.
All in all, Dunn presents fewer problems than Simmons because demoting Clarkson just isn't quite that big of a deal as doing the same to Randle and since Dunn complements Russell quite well. The latter item is particularly important as one of the issues with integrating Simmons is how much he clashes with the current core, namely Randle, and presents an issue from a synergy perspective, albeit one more than offset by his overwhelming talent. In contrast, Dunn, a guard with superb defensive tools, can take the harder defensive assignment from Russell every night, ease his playmaking burden with his distributing skills, and slides nicely into what should be a very uptempo ethos on offense that should guide the team moving forward. Granted, the team has to really sell themselves on making a Russell/Dunn/Clarkson backcourt work, especially by jettisoning any other backcourt pieces who could take playing time away from those three, but the obstacles are not nearly as daunting as with Randle and Simmons.
Still, Dunn will present some fit issues, if only because it will take the trio of guards time to acclimate to one another, and things could get complicated if Dunn isn't able to develop a serviceable outside shot in the pros (see above shot chart; a streaky shooter at best). Altogether, the bottom line being presented here is that the Lakers have passed the stage in which freely picking BPA created no roster tensions due to the utter void of young players on the roster. Although BPA should still be followed for the most part, the integration of certain picks will now cause complications on the roster that very well could influence how the team proceeds in free agency and in general with roster construction. The front office has continually emphasized their faith in this burgeoning core and thus far refused to cash them in to accelerate the rebuild, but barring a situation in which the Lakers are comfortable taking Ingram or possibly Bender, the draft pick may force the team's hands.
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