Editor’s Note: This week is “What If?” Week at SB Nation, so we’ll be taking a look at various hypothetical scenarios involving the Lakers. Today, we think about what could have happened if the Lakers had stuck with their young core.
After rebuilding for the greater half of the 2010s, the Los Angeles Lakers are back on top of the Western Conference with a 49-14 record, their best record through 63 games since the 2008-09 season, the same season they beat the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. However, to say they got to where they are now by rebuilding would be inaccurate.
While it’s true that the Lakers drafted well when they were a lottery team, they parted ways with all but one of those players to land LeBron James in 2018, and trade for Anthony Davis in 2019. But what if they didn’t? What if the Lakers committed to building through the draft?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the beginning.
- The Lakers draft Julius Randle with the No. 7 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Randle suffers a broken leg in his regular season debut for the Lakers and misses the remainder of his rookie season.
- Jordan Clarkson, the No. 46 pick in the draft, bounces back from a slow start to his rookie season and makes the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team, ahead of four of the five guards that were taken in the lottery. Clarkson also becomes the first Laker to win the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award.
- The Lakers finish with a record 21-62, the fourth-worst record in the NBA, after Kobe Bryant fails to stay healthy. They land the No. 2 overall pick at the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery.
- With the No. 2 overall pick, the Lakers draft D’Angelo Russell, a crafty combo guard out of The Ohio State University. Russell won the Jerry West Award, which is given to the best shooting guard in college basketball.
- With their second first-round pick, they unexpectedly draft Larry Nance Jr., a bouncy forward that played four years at Wyoming. The Lakers acquired the pick in the 2014 Jeremy Lin salary dump.
- With their final pick in the draft, the Lakers draft Anthony Brown, a 3-and-D prospect out of Stanford. Brown shot 40.3% from 3-point range on 3.8 attempts per game during his four seasons at Stanford.
- Despite having a relatively healthy Bryant for 66 games, a veteran center in Roy Hibbert and one of the league’s premier bench scorers in Lou Williams, the Lakers finish the season with their worst record in franchise history. Byron Scott is fired.
- D’Angelo Russell makes the All-Rookie Second Team.
- The Lakers are awarded the No. 2 overall pick in the draft at the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery.
- Luke Walton is named the new head coach.
Timeout. In the summer of 2016, the Lakers signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to long-term, big money contracts. To be more specific, they committed $136 million to both of them over four years.
Those signings influenced Jeanie Buss’s decision to relieve Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak of their roles in the front office in 2017, but it might be too ambitious to say they would have kept their jobs if they didn’t sign Deng or Mozgov. Jeanie also wanted Jim to deliver on his promise that the Lakers would be in championship contention by the 2017-18 season, and if they were committed to the rebuild like they are in this scenario, that obviously wouldn’t have happened.
For that reason, we’re going to assume that: 1. the Lakers don’t sign Deng or Mozgov to those huge contracts and 2. Jim and Mitch are still fired. With that in mind, let’s continue.
- The Lakers waive Anthony Brown.
- The Lakers draft Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Lakers now have two No. 2 picks on their roster: Ingram and Russell. Their second-round pick is used to draft Ivica Zubac, a 7-foot center from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- Jordan Clarkson re-signs on a four-year, $50 million deal.
- The Lakers clearly have more talent than the year before, but the talent they have is raw, and, as a result, they only marginally improve by nine wins.
- Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are fired midway through the season. Magic Johnson is named the team’s vice president of basketball operations, and Rob Pelinka is hired as general manager.
- In Johnson’s first move, he trades Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Corey Brewer and Houston’s 2017 first-round pick.
- The Lakers are awarded the No. 2 overall pick at the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery.
Timeout. On draft night, the Lakers had both the 27th and 28th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the latter of which they acquired in the trade that sent D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to Brooklyn in exchange for Brook Lopez. Because that trade never happened in this scenario, the Lakers only have the 28th pick, which they used to trade back and draft Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant. I bring this up because there’s a realistic scenario in which Kyle Kuzma would have been available at 28, but with Nance and Randle already on the roster, we decided to assume the original trade still went through.
- The Lakers draft Lonzo Ball with the hope that he and Russell can form a dynamic backcourt for years to come. They finish the draft by picking up Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant.
- The Lakers sign Alex Caruso to a two-way contract, the first in the team’s history.
- Ball is a better defender than most people thought going into the draft, but he’s not as good of a 3-point shooter as he was in college, and his scoring game is non-existent beyond that. Luckily, Russell operates the best with the ball in his hands, allowing Ball to focus on the things he does best: get rebounds, push the pace, make plays and play defense. They’re not a perfect fit, but the potential is undeniable, a Russell benefitted from playing with someone like Ball.
- The front court is where things start to get messy. Randle, Nance and Zubac are all good on their own, but neither of them are reliable 3-point shooters, which often led to the paint being crowded. Unfortunately, Ingram isn’t much help in that regard, either. The front office makes a note of this and plans to target floor-spacing big men in free agency.
- The Lakers make another leap, but an injury-riddled season for Ball results in them ending the season with 35 wins. They don’t have their own first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Timeout. As we all know, the summer of 2018 is the year that the Lakers signed LeBron James. With the cap space the Lakers have in this scenario, they’d be able to sign James, sign another impact free agent and re-sign Randle, but they’re committed to letting Ingram grow through his mistakes, and they think Randle is a star on the rise. They pass on signing James, and instead sign Brook Lopez to a three year, $30 million deal.
Meanwhile, Randle bets on himself and accepts the qualifying offer from the Lakers, worth $5.6 million. Randle and the Lakers couldn’t agree to a number, and there was no money for him in free agency once he started to consider his options.
Let’s move on.
- With two late second-round picks, the Lakers select Isaac Bonga and Svi Mykhailiuk. Mykhailiuk impressed the Lakers with his shooting at his workout.
- The Lakers agree to a four-year, $44.8 million contract extension with Larry Nance Jr.
- Lopez’s presence in the front court with Randle opens things up for the Lakers offensively. Not only are Ball and Ingram able to become drive and kick threats for the Lakers’ shooters — Lopez and Russell — but there’s also more room for Randle to operate in the paint.
- Meanwhile, the Lakers’ bench, led by Clarkson, Hart, Nance and Zubac, is among the most efficient in the NBA. Their reserves are too young to make an impact, but once they develop, their depth promises to be solid.
- Unfortunately, their season once again gets derailed because of Ball’s health. To make matter’s worse, team doctors discovered a blood clot in Ingram’s arm. Prior to getting shut down for the season, Ingram looked like he was on the verge of breaking out.
- With Ball and Ingram out, Russell became the focal point of the Lakers’ offense again and put up big numbers. His last two months of the season earn him max contract buzz going into free agency. Randle is also generating a good amount of interest from teams in free agency.
- The Lakers finish the season with a 37-45 record.
Timeout. We’ve reached the 2019 offseason. D’Angelo Russell signs a four-year, $117 million max contract with the Lakers, and Randle signs a three-year, $63 million deal to stay in Los Angeles. The Lakers also make long-term commitments to Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant, the latter of whom led the league in field goal percentage the season before.
With Russell, Randle, Zubac, Bryant and Caruso secured, here’s what the roster looks like:
PG: Lonzo Ball, Jordan Clarkson, Alex Caruso
SG: D’Angelo Russell, Josh Hart
SF: Brandon Ingram, Svi Mykhailiuk, Isaac Bonga
PF: Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr.
C: Brook Lopez, Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant
That 12-man roster costs the Lakers $119 million, which is $10 million over the salary cap.
Also, for those wondering, LeBron James signed with the Knicks in 2018, and New York’s looking to pair him with Anthony Davis in 2019. The Knicks did not make the playoffs in 2019.
- The Lakers are miraculously awarded the No. 4 pick at the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. With a clear hole on the wing behind Ingram, the Lakers draft 3-and-D wing De’andre Hunter. They also buy a second-round pick and draft Talen Horton-Tucker, putting their roster at 15.
- With their roster set, the Lakers set out to make their first playoff appearance since 2013. Ingram looks like a more confident players in year three, as does Ball, who spent the entirety of summer trying to get as healthy as possible.
- Ingram gets voted into his first All-Star game after leading the Lakers in scoring.At the All-Star break, the Lakers are one of the teams in the hunt for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
The question is: will this team make the playoffs? In my opinion, yes, but I don’t think they’ll win a series, and after that, the front office will be forced to reevaluate the ceiling of the team because of Ingram’s impending free agency status. If Ingram is the cornerstone of the team, which players fit best around him, and which ones can be moved for a sure fire All-Star that complements him?
The point is, the group would have been broken up eventually, and they probably wouldn’t have reached the heights that James and Davis have reached in their brief time together. It was an long and windy road to get here, and the process can be questioned, but in the end, it seems like the two star plan was always the best route.