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Are the Lakers Primed To Strike This Summer?

The Lakers may finally be in position to right the ship. Should they reload, or embrace a youth movement?

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Pardon us if this inspires an unsettling feeling of déjà vu for the fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, but now that the team has set the franchise mark for futility in consecutive seasons it is time to take an honest and straightforward look at the current state and future direction of the organization.

Accepting the cyclical nature of success and positive fortune when it comes to professional sports – such as health, lottery results, etc. – it still feels a bit strange to see the Lakers completely removed from the basketball conversation prior to May for the fifth consecutive year. We won’t dredge up each misstep that led to this point, but it is important to acknowledge a few unavoidable truths about the team.

Now, more than ever, we should feel comfortable enough to simply acknowledge just how much the organization clearly misses the late, great Dr. Jerry Buss. We are just two years and two months removed from his unfortunate passing and I can personally tell you as a lifelong citizen of Los Angeles that Dr. Buss is truly missed.

Not only was he the embodiment of the Showtime era and owner of the team during one of the most successful stretches in sports history (10 Finals wins, 16 total appearances in about 32 years), but it is now becoming abundantly clear just how masterfully he was able to hold the Buss’ “family business” together after all.

That isn’t a slight or intended as a sign of disrespect toward Jeanie Buss (part owner and President) or her brother Jim Buss (part owner and Executive VP of Basketball Operations), as each of them have endured a significant amount of criticism (some deserved, some unfair) over the past few seasons.

When asked about what Dr. Buss meant to the organization, longtime VP of Public Relations John Black once put it into perspective for me.

“It’s hard to put into words what he meant to the organization. In short, he meant everything,” Black said. “Luckily for those of us fortunate enough to have known and worked with him for a long time, the lessons we learned from his guidance and leadership will serve us well as the organization moves forward now that he’s no longer with us.”

It’s difficult to imagine what all that scrutiny must have felt like for Jeanie and Jim given all of the extenuating circumstances plus the fact that each of them have been attempting to adjust to their role while mourning the death of their iconic father. For the record, that is neither an excuse nor an attempt to rid either of the two most powerful Buss’ of their culpability for the current state of the team and responsibility in returning the franchise to a more familiar one, but was offered in order to provide some perspective upon the matter.

Put simply, where there may have been a singular voice that could ultimately make a decision in the past, there are now multiple entities that have been entrusted to at least present themselves as unified. Beyond making sure the overall business interests and basketball operations decisions are aligned, it also probably wouldn’t be the worst of ideas to extend whatever olive branch is necessary to welcome former-player Magic Johnson back into the fold as well, if for no reason other than public appearances. The organization clearly values Johnson as a public figure, having reportedly utilized his services in an effort to recruit free agents as recently as last summer, so smoothing things over in order to avoid additional Twitter-tirades and random media blitzes certainly wouldn’t hurt.

At a time like now, even if some of Johnson’s vitriol is chalked up to him simply expressing frustration as an eternal fan, it does not benefit the organization to have an all-time great lashing out in that manner.

It’s an unfortunate running joke, but it seems the mentality of fans is that when a personnel decision goes right, Mitch Kupchak is obviously behind it, while Buss is responsible for all that is unholy in Los Angeles (including that stubbed-toe suffered at about 3 a.m. the other night). Thanks a lot, Jim.

Tongue-in-cheek moment aside, where does Kupchak fit into all of this?

“I have the same authority I had with Dr. Buss,” Kupchak assured the Orange County Register’s Bill Oram as recently as late-February. “Jerry West had the same authority with Dr. Buss and I’ve got the same authority with Jimmy. Jimmy and I have worked closely together and he does not make decisions in a vacuum.”

Kupchak doesn’t generally make a ton of appearances, but has been much more vocal of late regarding the state of the franchise. Part of this could be because he has to realize that after setting the Los Angeles record for futility just last season (27-55) only to follow that up with the organization’s outright worst single-season performance (21-61), answers will be expected. Kupchak is also savvy enough to know that empty rhetoric and promises probably won’t be met by a favorable reaction.

With that knowledge in mind, one might take it as a very positive sign when Kupchak also takes the time to remind us of just how swiftly the team’s fortunes could turn around as he did during Thursday’s exit interview media session.

“We can get better quickly,” Kupchak told members of the media. “We can be in the hunt quickly. A lot depends on May 19.”

That evening’s announcement of the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery order is one that will likely change the outlook of several teams. These Lakers could certainly use a bit of luck in terms of being able to leapfrog multiple teams in order to land a top 2-3 pick. They ended the season with the league’s fourth-worst record and while they have better than an 80 percent shot at remaining in the top-five and avoiding surrendering the pick to the Sixers (via Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash trade), these Lakers also have a 37.8 percent shot at landing within the top-three.

Regardless of where they ultimately select in the upcoming draft, we’d be remiss if we didn’t also point out this front office’s tendency of looking to acquire established talent when the opportunity presents itself. Not to generate any unnecessary rumors, rather to merely offer the idea for perspective, but what if those murmurings about 24-year-old Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (24.1 PPG, 12.7 RPG) reportedly being available at the deadline were actually true? Say, the Lakers were to land the No. 3 overall selection and the players they most coveted were no longer available at that point. Could, or would, this front office be able to put together a package centered around their two first-round picks (they also own the rights to Houston’s late-first) and perhaps additional parts in order to get such a deal done?

Again, not to offer too much unnecessary credence to unsubstantiated rumors (to this point), but this is a franchise that has certainly been able to generate such moves in the past. Given the additional rumors about an apparent faction within the organization with a great deal of interest in the services of soon-to-be free agent Rajon Rondo (undoubtedly and unabashedly spearheaded by Kobe Bryant), you’ll have to forgive us for simply attempting to connect dots in order to make sense of things.

For an organization that has recently mirrored a stumbling Mike Tyson when he was fumbling around the ring searching for his mouthpiece during that fateful night in Tokyo some 25 years ago, it is time for this front office to get up off the canvas. Tyson, appropriately, once stated, “Everybody has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” And never have truer or more relative words been spoken when it comes to these current Lakers.

These last few years have been a humbling experience for all parties involved and the Lakers have endured their share of blows when you take everything into consideration. That said, having also experienced such heights in years past, you just know such humility is likely to be paralleled by a great deal of organizational pride in wanting to reverse the current course.

Whether they ultimately decide to attempt a reload more expeditiously or determine that building around a top-five pick, plus a returning Julius Randle -cleared for non-contact drills- and (somewhat) battle-tested Jordan Clarkson, Kupchak and Buss know they finally have the total flexibility they’ve been waiting for. Essentially, as Bryant heads into what will likely be the final year of a legendary career, they have the option to rebuild on the fly and be competitive while doing it or elect to go with another youth movement similar to the one they encountered during the Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones days circa 1995.

Either way, there are far worse positions to be in. The Lakers know all about them, having just endured what they can only hope was the rock-bottom period for the franchise. Once your foot touches the bottom of the pool (or ‘lake’ would probably be more appropriate in this case), it’s merely a matter of how quickly you can float back to the top. Fans of the purple and gold are at least hoping this current leadership group can get the team back above the surface this summer.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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