“A 20-year chapter has come to a close,” Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak on Friday, as the franchise wrapped exit meetings at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. “It is hard to close the book on this chapter, but it has come to that point.”
All-Star guard Kobe Bryant finished his career on Wednesday with a remarkable 60-point outburst. Now, the Lakers are charged with replacing one of the greatest basketball players in NBA history.
Returning to form will be a challenge for the Lakers after a franchise-worst 17-win season – four worse than last year’s 21-win debacle.
The good news for the Lakers is that they have tremendous cap flexibility and a number of young prospects who could help the team turn around what has been an unprecedented (for the Lakers) three-straight seasons without a playoff berth.
After managing just 38 wins over two seasons, does head coach Byron Scott deserve a return? To date, the team has not made a decision.
“Byron and the staff are under contract,” Kupchak said. “[We’ll] take a couple of days. That could be three or four days or a week, let things settle down a little bit, and meet.”
Scott has two years left on his deal, but the second is a team option.
Throughout the 2014-15 season, the Lakers suffered through more injuries than any team in the league and only had Bryant for 35 games. This past year, the team was healthy, but lacking in mature talent.
“I think Byron has done an excellent job under the circumstances he has had to deal with the last two years,” Kupchak said, citing Bryant’s inconsistent status in the lineup and the youthful, inexperienced roster.
Kupchak acknowledged that the game has changed over time. Scott has an older-school style. Does that mesh with today’s young player?
“More so this year; I think last year, was more of an adjustment period,” Kupchak said. “He’s much more open to everything that’s available to coaches, including analytics.”
How much of a positive (or negative) impact did Scott have on youthful players like D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson? That remains to be seen.
“We have to wait a couple of years to see; you’re not going to get results in a month or three or four with players who are 19 and 20 and 21,” Kupchak said. “You have to provide the structure, and it’s going to take some time. We’ll know in two or three years how effective Byron was as a parent to the young guys on this team.”
How long can the Lakers be patient with rebuilding? How long can they be patient with Scott?
“I know he’s hoping that he coaches here forever, but a lot of times what we do is we’re really doing is preparing for the next GM or the next coach, and that’s tough sometimes,” Kupchak said.
The Lakers would be better off parting ways with Scott, looking instead at free agent coaches like Scott Brooks or Tom Thibodeau. Brooks, in particular, should be the replacement.
Brooks, according to people close to the 2010 NBA Coach of the Year, has interest in a position with the Lakers should it become available. A number of teams are expected to pursue Kevin Durant’s former coach (and Durant himself), including the Washington Wizards.
The Oklahoma City All-Star will be a free agent this July; teammate Russell Westbrook will be available in 2017. If Brooks gives the Lakers an edge at landing either All-Star, or both, that’s the move to make.
There’s no move the Lakers can make to win the May 17 NBA Draft Lottery, other than hope their 55.8 percent chance comes through. The team would be well served with the top overall pick (19.9 percent odds) or second selection (18.8 percent), whereas the third slot is the consolation prize (17.1 percent).
Duke’s Brandon Ingram or LSU’s Ben Simmons are widely expected to be the top two picks, in some order. The gap at three is sizable, but others like Dragan Bender (whom Kupchak scouted recently in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv), California’s Jaylen Brown, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Providence’s Kris Dunn are viable options among others.
The value in the pick is not just the player, but trade opportunities that may arise too.
“If you get a top-three pick … not only does it get you the ability to take a player that is considered top-three in the world, you have the ability to move the pick,” Kupchak said. “I think there are some quality players that can be starters or All-Stars in this league, [and] that goes beyond two players.”
If the Lakers’ selection drops to four or five, their pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers as a result of the ill-fated Steve Nash trade. Losing the pick could add another $3-5 million in cap space for the team.
Over time, the Lakers have built an interesting young core. Randle was taken seventh in 2014 and acquired Clarkson via trade with the Washington Wizards the same year at 45th. Last June, the Lakers added on Russell (second overall), Larry Nance Jr. (27th) and Anthony Brown (34th).
The development for each has gone in fits and starts.
“Overall, in this league, the toughest thing for young players that are drafted high, or drafted in the first round, is getting playing time,” Kupchak said. “A lot of rookies over the years have a hard time getting on the court, and what that does is slows their development and really puts that team in a tough spot.”
Could that be an argument for passing on another first rounder?
The positive of adding on a forward like Ingram or Simmons to the team’s young core is that the Lakers could be bringing in a franchise player. The downside is that it may take a few years for that group to develop.
“We’ve never had this many young players on the team at the same time. There’s a price to pay for that,” said Kupchak, noting the team’s poor record.
Finding a high-impact player remains paramount, and the draft may be the best way for the Lakers to do so.
“The only way to move on after a player [like Bryant] has played 20 years is to hope that you can get some young players to build around. Unless you draft a young player, you cannot get a young player,” Kupchak said. “You can get free agents, but typically they are players that have been drafted in the first round, have gone through four years of a contract and then have probably signed an extension for another four years. Those players are going to be in their mid-to-late twenties, if they’re available.
“As much as we’d like to build through the draft with young players, that could take 10 to 15 years and we don’t feel like we have that kind of timeline in Los Angeles. So our approach has been to build through the draft, be aggressive in free agency and, if you have the assets, then you have the ability to make trades.”
If the Lakers do keep their pick, they should look to make a trade. Yes, Simmons or Ingram may be special, but if the Lakers want to land top free agents this summer, they will need more of a lure than the potential of youth.
Players like Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler and Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins may become available via trade.
The 2016 first-rounder may not be enough to lure either. Other teams would certainly make competing bids. If the Lakers are fully committed to rising quickly back into contention, then they need to get out of the business of developing young players.
The pick plus one of Russell or Randle might be needed to foster a deal. This may seem like a heavy price, but an All-Star in the Lakers’ pocket in June may be a greater draw to a player like Durant in July.
Go Star Shopping
The NBA’s salary cap projects to jump to $92 million for the 2016-17 season, giving the Lakers roughly $60 million (enough space for two maximum-salaried players). Most teams will have room for one, but the Lakers do have that advantage.
“We had cap room last summer, but we’ll have almost triple of what we had,” Kupchak said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll use it all. We’ll have to recruit effectively. We may only use what we feel is prudent, but we feel like we’re in a much better situation.”
The past couple of summers, the Lakers have not been able to lure their top free agent targets like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
“We do feel this year, we have more assets on our team than we did last year,” said Kupchak, noting the uncertain status of Bryant and Randle’s broken leg that knocked him out on opening night in 2014. “If you were a max player a year ago, you’re looking at our team and saying, ‘They’ve got the number two pick [Russell], they’ve got Julius Randle who played one game and you’ve got Kobe Bryant who rarely played is going into his last year probably. That’s not an attractive situation.’
“This summer, we can get at least two max players – or you could get a max player and two or three other veteran. So you could get multiple players, whether they talk amongst themselves or whether we figure out who wants to play with who beginning on July 1.”
The Lakers will still have to pitch, but they hope their recent infusion of talent improves their odds.
“We are selling the city, the franchise and our fan base to potential free agents. That’s what we sell,” Kupchak said. “In the last two years, we would try to sell and advertise our best assets that continue to be playing for the franchise, the organization, the city of Los Angeles, our fan base, business opportunities, connections that you might make here that you might not make in another city [and] lifestyle. A summer ago, with the exception of Kobe, that’s all we had to sell.”
Will the Lakers be pitching a top-three pick, presuming they win the lottery, along with Russell, Randle, Nance and Clarkson? Or will they make a bolder move and find a deal for a player like Butler or Cousins?
Regardless, the top targets should be Durant and James. Will either leave their existing teams? Durant has incentive to re-sign with the Thunder for one more season to maximize his earnings in 2017 when the cap will jump another $15 million. James, who is likely to decline his player option, would certainly face a sizable backlash if he left the Cavaliers again. Regardless, the Lakers are undoubtedly rooting for the Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons in their first-round matchups against Oklahoma and Cleveland, respectively.
Both are long-shots, even if both James and Durant are sponsored by Nike. Bryant, who is one of Nike’s biggest stars, is leaving a sizable vacuum in the Los Angeles market. Both Los Angeles Clippers stars, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, are on Jordan Brand – affiliated with Nike, but without their own Nike flagship brands.
While there may be pressure from Durant and James’ primary sponsorship for a move to Lakers, both players will make the best decisions for themselves – not Nike.
The Lakers will start with the best players available, then move on through the list until they succeed or fail with options like DeMar DeRozan, Hassan Whiteside, Nicolas Batum, Al Horford and others. Restricted free agents are a dim possibility, but only if there’s a compelling reason to believe their existing team won’t match an offer sheet. Restricted players this summer include Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond.
The difficulty of free agency is that the teams have limited power. The players make the decisions.
Re-sign Jordan Clarkson
Clarkson is a restricted free agent. The Lakers have his early Bird rights, which limits how much other teams can offer to just the average salary (under $6 million a year) for his first two seasons, then roughly $23 million apiece for a third and fourth year.
The Lakers are best off if a team does give Clarkson an offer sheet, so they can lock him in cheaply for the next two years. Whether he’s worth $23 million a year, down the road, is irrelevant. The team can always look to trade him at a later date.
If Clarkson doesn’t get an offer sheet, the Lakers can simply re-sign him. Until he’s inked, he’ll take up $2.7 million of the Lakers’ cap room. The most that the Lakers can pay him is $5.6 million in the first year, unless they dip into their space to do so.
Another option is a sign-and-trade, although Clarkson would have to agree to a deal with another team. Because he’s restricted, the possibility is greater than with an unrestricted player – but by no means is it assumed.
Best Case/Worst Case
The Lakers can, mathematically, trade away most of their youth (the potential pick, Randle, Russell, Clarkson, etc.) and veterans (Lou Williams and Nick Young) to try and bring in two players like Butler and Cousins. Not to say it’s likely, but going all in at exactly the right time – some in June, some in July – could change the Lakers’ fortune.
Done perfectly (which all but never happens), the Lakers could maintain cap room for two max signings in addition to a pair of blockbuster trades.
Math says Durant, James, Butler and Cousins is possible, but common sense says it’s not.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Lakers may not even have a first-rounder to trade. Other teams are going to pursue Durant and James, though both probably stay at home.
Cousins and Butler may not even hit the trade market.
If they fail in free agency, the Lakers may end up going after a player instead like Derrick Rose in trade with the Bulls, an expiring $24.5 million salary (accounting for a 15 percent trade bonus), although he doesn’t address a current position of need. The cost may not be high to the Lakers, as Chicago may be looking to dump salary.
Trade or Stretch Swaggy P
Regardless, the Lakers need to move on from Young. His salary may be needed in a trade, but he is due $5.4 million next season with a player option at $5.7 million for 2017-18. That may or may not be an impediment.
“Nick didn’t fit this year,” Kupchak said.
The Lakers can, and should, stretch Young if they can’t deal him, giving the team a cap hit of $2.2 million a season over five years.
Kupchak said it’s an option (although he didn’t specify Young by name).
“All it does it help you with cap room,” Kupchak said. “If you did look to stretch a player … it depends what you would do with that extra $2 million. It may not make sense to do it.”
Avoid Long-Term Mediocrity
“I think our backcourt is better off than our frontcourt, depending on the lottery and where we end up with our pick,” Kupchak said. “I think we do have to address the frontcourt – and if you could put a wing player in the frontcourt, that would be a good thing to do as well.”
As the Lakers’ core is currently constructed, the team has two guards in Russell and Clarkson as well as two forwards in Randle and Nance.
Free agency, the draft and trades could shift that dramatically. In addition to their potential lottery pick, the Lakers also have the 32nd overall pick.
“Our fans have been incredibly understanding and patient,” Kupchak said. “We cannot not show great progress going forward.”
Jim Buss, the team’s vice president of player personnel and a part owner with his siblings, has vowed to step down from his position after next season if the Lakers do not return to contention. It would take major, major movement to jump from a 17-win team to the 50-win mark. Buss’ position in the franchise is anything but secure.
The future for the Lakers could include Phil Jackson, the fiancé of team governor and part owner Jeanie Buss and currently the president of the New York Knicks. He is the odds-on favorite to replace Jim Buss.
But Kupchak was clear that the team won’t make knee-jerk moves this summer to try and force any leap that doesn’t happen organically.
“From where I sit, I’m going to try to encourage the decision-makers to be prudent with the money that we have – not just fill out a roster with players that will give us no flexibility going forward, yet maybe we can win 40 or 42 games for the next five years,” Kupchak said. “That’s never been our goal in this city. I know it’s frustrating for fans, but it’s my goal and I know it’s the organization’s goal to get the team and the organization in the position to do a lot more than that.”
If Buss steps down, Kupchak’s future is unclear, though he may be welcome to stay with Jackson.
Perhaps building through youth is the answer, although given how long it typically takes for young players to win in the NBA, the payoff may come well after Buss is deposed of power.
Outside of serious wins this offseason, fixing the Lakers may be a long-term job that exceeds Buss’ tenure.
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