The Los Angeles Lakers have put together a miserable 65-181 record in the last three seasons, including a franchise-worst 17-65 this past year. In those three seasons, the Lakers seem to be the talk of the NBA and how the franchise’s mismanagement of Kobe Bryant, their draft picks, and free agency have contributed to its decay.
Henry Abbott wrote what many have called a "hit piece" on Bryant and Kupchak using anonymous sources, Ramon Sesssions and Andrew Bynum. ESPN’s Baxter Holmes continued to pile on with his two-part article on how league insiders view LA’s rebuild. And just to show that not everyone is trying to bring the Lakers down, Matt Moore from CBS did his best to justify LA’s actions.
Sure, the Lakers have messed up in the last three seasons. They coaching position has been a revolving door and they even passed on the Zen Master during the 2012 season. They didn’t manage an aging Bryant’s minutes during the end of that year. Kupchak and management gave Bryant a contract that wasn’t team-friendly and definitely hindered the team’s ability to throw money at players. Ownership is divided and has made this divide public.
But most of the ‘mistakes’ have been miscalculations, and those happen all the time. Steve Nash and Dwight Howard didn’t work out. A deal for Chris Paul didn’t work out. Julius Randle got hurt 14 minutes into his rookie season. Even in those miscalculations, the Lakers got some benefits. They knew miscalculations can happen and put heavy protections on the picks they traded in the event that everything hit the fan.
Well, three years after the franchise’s last playoff appearance, the Lakers look ready to make the leap back to contention. Every article on the rebuild got one thing partially right; a true rebirth will not happen until Bryant left. The Lakers were able to stockpile assets during Bryant’s final years and accelerate any post-Kobe plans, but only his departure from the game would let the team move on. So after seeing the team ripped apart for its lack of rebuilding ability, where do the Lakers stand today in relation to the rest of the league? How many teams are truly in better situations than the Lakers?
Obviously the contending teams are in a better spot. This would mean Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. The Clippers are close, but haven’t been able to get past the second round of the playoffs. Toronto might be a player or two away and the Raptors have some decent trade assets, but DeMar DeRozan’s big payday might slow down the playoff momentum built this season.
Some rebuilding teams are in a better place as well. Minnesota and Portland have great young duos with Towns-Wiggins and Lillard-McCollum that are better than what the Lakers currently have. The Lakers have one edge in that they have more young players who have shown the ability to consistently contribute. Philly is likely in a better spot with the top pick and lots of future draft assets, but the Sixers have to address the issue in the frontcourt.
The Lakers have about $64 million in cap room and potentially four solid starters in D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and the player they take with the second pick. On the bench, LA has a proven scorer in Lou Williams, an energetic two-way big in Tarik Black and an uber-athletic forward in Larry Nance, Jr. Despite the future draft assets not being as great as other teams, the Lakers might be in a better basketball place than the rest of the league.
Aside from the 9 organizations listed above, it’s hard to say the Lakers are in a definitively worse spot than the rest of the league. Here’s a snapshot of how each team compares to the purple and gold.
Atlanta– A talented group of starters and a franchise that consistently makes the postseason. Atlanta has made the postseason in nine straight seasons and even made the conference finals in 2015.
Unfortunately, the Hawks can’t seem to beat LeBron James in the postseason. Atlanta is 0-12 against James in the playoffs and at some point, they will have to blow it up. The Teague-Schroder dilemma is still present and Al Horford is an unrestricted free agent. The Hawks are winners, but they can’t be considered championship caliber based on playoff results. EDGE: Even.
Orlando– A new coach and a dearth of young talent. The Tobias Harris trade didn’t make sense even if it did open up playing time for Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. The Magic have a nice core in place, but it might not be better than LA’s. This team was supposed to make a run at the 8 seed and quickly lost that hope, despite a huge improvement in play and wins. Orlando has the cap space, but have rarely been able to land a big free agent. Maybe that changes this summer. EDGE: Lakers, although Hezonja looks like a star.
Miami – The Heat have always found a way to acquire talent and this summer might reshape the NBA landscape once again and make South Beach the center of the league. Miami has a good group moving forward in Dragic, Winslow and Wade, although the latter’s health is concern. If Chris Bosh was healthy, this team would likely be in the conference finals giving the Cavaliers hell. EDGE: Miami, as long as Bosh comes back to the court healthy.
Washington – The Wizards have arguably the best backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but there isn’t a whole lot outside of that. In a year where it looked like the team was poised to make a run at a top-3 seed, the Wizards fell out of the playoffs. Maybe a new coach and a faster frontcourt will bring Washington back to the postseason, but last season seemed to undo all the work the young backcourt did in previous campaigns. The Durant dream is likely to stay a dream. EDGE: Even.
Charlotte: The Hornets did a 180 last season, going from a defense-first approach to a floor-spacing based threat. Charlotte made a good move with Nicolas Batum, but he’s set to be an unrestricted free agent and will command huge money. Jordan’s snafu from draft day last year might have cost the team dearly, because the Hornets don’t look to have the necessary firepower to challenge the top of the East. Kemba Walker emerged as a star, but he might have nothing around him soon. Al Jefferson has declined significantly and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t evolved offensively. EDGE: Lakers.
Brooklyn – This is easy. The Nets have no reasonable players outside Brook Lopez and no draft assets. EDGE: Lakers.
Boston – This is tough. Boston has so many weapons to trade for a star, but no one seems to want them. Hell, Michael Jordan reported passed on four future first-rounders to draft Frank Kaminsky. The Celtics are making the playoffs and have one of the best coaches in the league. Assuming Boston does eventually pull the trigger on a star, there is no debate here. EDGE: Boston.
New York – The Knicks have Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. They have a ton of cap space and the supporting cast more established than what LA can put on the floor. However, the Knicks have a problem in the management department and they haven’t shown the ability to draw a free agent outside of Amare Stoudemire. If Porzingis develops into a star, this team might be able to make a run in Anthony’s twilight years and that’s assuming Carmelo is still in New York. EDGE: Lakers.
Chicago – If you want to find management that seems to be running in circles, this is the place. The Bulls ousted a successful coach for one that was more friendly and easier to work with. Young players regressed due to the coaching change. Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, considered a deadly backcourt, couldn’t play together. Joakim Noah has reportedly told the team he is leaving and Pau Gasol is likely on his way out as well. The Bulls came close to beating LeBron and then folded. They have draft picks and some young players, but the front office is a disaster: EDGE: Lakers.
Indiana – The Pacers have also done a 180, going from a team that pushed LeBron to the brink a few times to a smaller, faster group. The approach kind of worked, with Indiana returning the postseason after a one-year absence. But then the Pacers let go of a good coach and have started on a path toward throwing away a few more prime years for Paul George. Indiana has a superstar and that’s something the Lakers cannot say, but LA will likely have a better collective unit. EDGE: Even, tilting slightly towards the Lakers.
Detroit – The Pistons might be on their way to something, but Andre Drummond has to be at least competent at the free throw line to stay in games. Reggie Jackson looks like a solid pickup and Tobias Harris fills a void on the wing. Detroit gave the Cavaliers a tough fight in four games and the team should be better next year. The Pistons haven’t sacrificed major assets for temporary short-term gains and that strategy might pay off sooner rather than later. EDGE: Detroit.
Milwaukee – The darling of the Eastern Conference. This team was supposed to make a jump after landing Greg Monroe in free agency and instead nose-dived into oblivion. The Bucks have talent, but there are some serious fit questions. The Monroe signing might be an exception to the norm and the Bucks are going to have to hope their young players can play together, something that didn’t happen last year. EDGE: Lakers.
Houston – This was a contender-turned-dumpster fire. Dwight Howard seems to be the cause and he reportedly wants out of Houston. James Harden is an offensive stud, but his defensive skills are non-existent. Daryl Morey may have to accept that Houston needs two more stars, not just one more. The Rockets tend to find ways to recover quickly, but this might take a few seasons. Also, Mike D’Antoni is the new coach. EDGE: Lakers.
Memphis – The Grizzlies are great for everyone who preaches that basketball should be about the team, not about stars. Memphis has pushed every West contender in the playoffs and has built a great identity, but it’s starting to fall apart. Marc Gasol is getting older and while his game might age well, his body has failed him recently. Mike Conley might be out of town. Zach Randolph is a shell of his 2007 self. The Grizzlies have sacrificed some assets and it likely won’t pay off. Memphis had its window and injuries/lack of offense have shut that window. EDGE: Lakers.
New Orleans – The Pelicans have a young Anthony Davis and that alone might be enough to create a great basketball situation. However, the front office has failed to surround him with good talent when he was on a cheap rookie deal. Imagine trying to complement AD when he’s making max money. Alvin Gentry had to deal with a ton of injuries, but his coaching ability has been questioned this season. This could get ugly in a few years. EDGE: Even, only because Davis is a star.
Dallas – The Mavs are in a rough spot and it’s no fault of their own. Dallas had projected a strong lineup with DeAndre Jordan on the front line and Wesley Matthews on the wing. Once Chandler Parsons returned from injury, the Mavs expected to compete with the rest of the conference. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way. Big questions this offseason for a franchise that might finally have to hit the reset button and look to the post-Dirk era. EDGE: Lakers.
Denver – The Nuggets have assets and are in a traditional rebuild. Emmanuel Mudiay will take a few years, but Nikola Jokic looks solid. Denver has some complementary players, but the young core it’s looking to assemble will take a few years. The Nuggets are almost ready. Almost. EDGE: Lakers.
Utah – The Jazz could have been a playoff team if not for injuries to Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum. Utah has a young nucleus with Gobert, Exum, Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood and a talented coach in Quin Snyder. The Jazz also haven’t sacrificed the future for short-term gains. EDGE: Utah.
Sacramento – The Kings have a young star in DeMarcus Cousins, but will they ever be able to find the supporting pieces at all levels of the organization to keep him productive and happy? Cousins is known for his mood swings and tantrums and the front office hasn’t really helped him out. Rajon Rondo was a revelation last season, but he might be gone in free agency. This roster has more talent than LA, but there’s isn’t any cohesion or direction. EDGE: Lakers.
Phoenix – Talk about dumpster fires. The Suns overachieved in Year 1 of Jeff Hornacek’s tenure and then couldn’t turn that success into a playoff appearance in his second year. This season, the Suns crashed and burned and Hornacek was canned after 49 games. Phoenix has lost Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas from its backcourt and the versatile Morris twins from the frontcourt. Bad ownership hasn’t helped the cause. At least the Suns haven’t mortgaged their future. EDGE: Lakers.
Of the 29 others NBA organizations, the Lakers appear to have the definitive edge on 13 of them. Three situations are comparable to LA’s. This means there are really only 13 basketball situations definitively better than LA at this point. Six of these teams are truly contenders and three are undergoing a more successful rebuild.
So, enough about the Lakers not "progressing with the rest of the league" in terms of analytics, playing style or ownership. Championships are won primarily with superior talent and the Lakers are well on their way to that goal. Minnesota and Portland had their first leap this year. Expect the Lakers to follow suit next season.