Fixing the Los Angeles Lakers
With a developing core, the Lakers’ new front office willl have tough choices to make, writes James Blancarte.
The Los Angeles Lakers are a team and franchise in flux. The Lakers have gone through six head coaches since the 2010-11 season and have won 85 regular season games over the last four seasons combined. Los Angeles finally said farewell to Kobe Bryant at the end of last season, which officially launched a new era of Lakers basketball.
The Lakers have been accumulating young talent over the last few seasons, and now have a promising head coach in Luke Walton to guide the team forward. They have made some mistakes along the way (e.g., the contracts of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov) and they recently went through a significant shakeup in the front office, which has serious long-term implications. As things currently stand, the Lakers have an opportunity to take significant steps forward as a franchise. However, there is the potential to make some costly mistakes.
Executing the following four principles could help push the Lakers forward as they seek to reclaim their former glory.
Be Honest About the Core Young Players
The Lakers have several young players still playing on their rookie contracts, including guard D’Angelo Russell as well as forwards Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Additionally, Jordan Clarkson has three years remaining on his deal at a decent annual salary. Each player has shown varying degrees of promise and appears capable of being a valuable piece to a developing core of talent. However, none of these players have proven themselves to be unquestionable franchise players worthy of max-level contracts. Eventually, each of these young players will be positioned to earn a significant, long-term contract. When that time comes for each player, the Lakers need to be extremely calculated and shrewd, rather than being overly eager to hand out massive contracts to keep their players around.
With this in mind, the Lakers need to continue to evaluate which of these players are franchise cornerstones, and which are simply quality players that do not warrant a max-level commitment.
Walton has seemingly already started this process by benching veteran players like Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in favor of his young players. In addition, at the trade deadline, the Lakers traded away Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Corey Brewer and a 2017 first-round draft pick. The Lakers need to continue monitoring and executing on moves like these. Moving veterans like Williams generates additional future assets and opens up playing time for younger players to show what they can do, which must be the priority for Los Angeles over the next few seasons.
Clarkson is one of the more interesting talents for Los Angeles. He’s not a true point, is undersized for a wing player and has been disappointing as a defender. However, Clarkson has flashed the sort of skill and explosiveness that grabs the attention of each NBA team. The issue is, at this point, it’s not clear if Clarkson is a player worth making another significant investment in or just a promising, but limited contributor on the wing. This is a question the Lakers’ front office needs to determine before his current contract is set to expire.
Answering this question isn’t particularly easy. For example, on March 12, Clarkson contributed a career-high 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds to go along with 10-11 shooting from the free throw line. This is the kind of performance that leads many to believe that Clarkson could develop into one of the better guards in the NBA. However, at 6-foot-5, Clarkson is undersized as a wing-defender and hasn’t displayed the fundamentals or discipline to make up for this limitations. The result is that more often than not, Clarkson is a liability on defense, which is reflected in his on/off court numbers this season – he has the third-worst defensive rating on the team, per Basketball Reference. Despite his offensive talents, his poor has made him mostly a net negative for the Lakers.
The Lakers have seen flashes of brilliance from Russell, who has both wowed and frustrated fans in his short NBA career. At times, he displays the vision of a player like Chris Paul, and at other times he proves himself to be an underwhelming athlete who is often overmatched by opposing point guards.
So is Russell the point guard of the future? He may be, but it’s notable that Coach Walton has played started Clarkson at point guard recently. Walton offered an explanation for this move.
“Just to see what it looks like when he’s out there running the point guard position against starting groups and what not,” Walton explained. “Part of our evaluation is always seeing how players respond to different opportunities.”
It’s likely too early to tell just how good Russell could be. Russell struggled last season under ex-head coach Byron Scott, who seemingly prioritized trying to make the playoffs and celebrating Kobe’s final season over player development. In just his second season, Russell is showing that he has the tools to be worthy of a significant, long-term investment from the Lakers. But Russell has also been maddeningly inconsistent at various points and has displayed maturity issues, so the Lakers need to continue monitoring his development closely.
Julius Randle has teased with high impact games throughout his young NBA career, including a 25-point, 12-rebound effort against the Utah Jazz on December 27. In addition, Randle has upped his shooting from 42.9 percent last year to 48 percent this year. Notably, Randle is shooting 74.8 percent of his shots from 0-10 feet, per Basketball Reference.
While his shooting percentages have gone up overall, his shooting primarily takes place close to the basket. In the current era, where big men are increasingly expected to stretch the floor with their shooting, it’s imperative that Randle be able to expand his range. He is currently shooting 25 percent on three-pointers, down from 27.8 percent last year, on 0.6 attempts per game. In his third year on the Lakers, three-point shooting, unfortunately, remains outside of Randle’s arsenal. While Randle can put up strong statistics on any given night, the question remains if he has the overall skill set to be a premier player worthy of a significant investment.
Larry Nance Jr. has suffered multiple injuries throughout his young career. So far Nance has missed significant time both in his rookie season and this year specifically because of knee injuries. Nance has played well at times, and even started 22 games for the Lakers last season. However, in 49 games this season, Coach Walton has yet to insert Nance into the starting lineup. So far, Nance hasn’t made a significant statistical leap and it’s still unclear just where his ceiling may be.
Gifted with notable athleticism, Nance has the potential to be a nice contributor moving forward. But the Lakers need to remain grounded in how they evaluate him and refrain from giving him an inflated contract that exceeds his relative on-court impact and future potential.
As for Brandon Ingram, this is just his rookie season and he is barely 20 years old, so it’s much too early to make any sweeping determinations about what kind of player he can ultimately become. It will be up to Coach Walton and his staff to closely monitor and mentor Ingram, to help him develop his body and refine his game. Ingram’s potential is arguably higher than any other Laker, but he has a long way to go before coming close to it.
The Lakers have done a good job putting together a nice core of young talent. However, as these players inch close to their next contracts, it will be imperative for the Lakers’ front office to maintain proper perspective. If a player doesn’t fit or isn’t developing, it may make sense to move them before their respective contract is set to expire – similar to how the Philadelphia 76ers traded Nerlens Noel earlier this season. Committing significant money to players that are unlikely to ever play up to a max-level deal could hamper the Lakers and squander their chance at assembling a roster with the talent and range of experience to return to the top of the Western Conference.
Draft the Best Player Available
No single event would be more helpful than if the Lakers were to get lucky and again keep this year’s protected draft pick. With the league’s second-worst record (they won’t catch the Brooklyn Nets), the Lakers will have a 55.8 percent chance of retaining the pick rather than sending it to the 76ers, who will receive it if it falls outside the top three. Fingers crossed.
In the draft, the Lakers could find a star point guard. Although a point guard may not a constitute a perfect fit for the roster, it’s not clear if any of the Lakers young guards currently represents an untouchable cornerstone. Point guard prospects Markell Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA are projected as top two picks in the upcoming draft, and each could be a franchise-level talent.
Additionally, the Lakers should take the best talent available and don’t be overly concerned about the fit. For example, in 2003, the Detroit Pistons took European prospect Darko Milicic. Milicic had a decently serviceable career. However, that pick, which was seemingly a nice fit with the Pistons championship core at the time, came at the expense of draft prospect and current New York Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony.
Too often teams become overly concerned about drafting for need. When a franchise-worthy talent comes your way, the best approach is usually to take that player and figure out roster composition later. Like the 76ers, you can always trade players later to reassemble a roster.
Gamble on Young Talent
By most measures, the Lakers are simply not a good team right now. They have the potential ingredients for success going forward, but the likelihood is they are still a few years away from being a high-level playoff team in the West. Thus, it makes sense for the Lakers to gamble on investing in young talent that may have been overlooked by the rest of the league, rather than investing in over the hill veterans whose respective salaries will likely exceed their production.
This season, the Dallas Mavericks have been rewarded for taking a few chances. Two notable successes include guard Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, a mid-season D-League signing. These players have bolstered Dallas’ collection of young talent and are significant contributors to Dallas’ current push for the playoffs. Finding gems like Curry and Ferrell could go a long way towards accelerating the Lakers’ rebuild, especially compared to signing veterans like Deng and Mozgov to massive deals. These sort of inflated deals can hamper a franchise for years and carry little upside.
The Lakers should be willing to pass on these sort of veteran deals, and should allocate their resources towards scouting and acquiring young talents that may have been overlooked. This is especially true since it will help the Lakers avoid taking on long-term salary and it will bolster their collection of young talent.
Create and Maintain a Unified and Stable Front Office
The Lakers already have many of the essential ingredients to be successful going forward. The team has a smart head coach who gets along with his players, a number of good, young players and now, a seemingly unified front office after the franchise instilled Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka as the president of basketball operations and general manager, respectively.
This transition marks the end of a tumultuous period for the Lakers’ front office, which has struggled to work cohesively together since the passing of Jerry Buss.
One illustration of this dysfunction came out in a recent report. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne recently reported that ex-Coach Bryon Scott and Lakers’ part owner and President Jeanie Buss never spoke.
“I never talked to Jeanie. It just felt like it’d be a betrayal of Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim [Buss],” Scott stated.
It’s clear that the Lakers’ front office has been fractured for years, and has harmed the team as a result. Whether it was Jim Buss hiring Mike D’Antoni while passing on Phil Jackson, or Buss and Kupchak putting on notoriously ineffective free agent pitches, there was always something negative happening in the Lakers’ front office.
As a former high-profile agent, Pelinka expressed recently the importance of unity.
“The one thing I’ve seen with the great organizations that have had success recently [is] that the coach, general manager, the president, the basketball operations folks have to be in lockstep and have to be collaborating and sharing,” Pelinka stated.
This change in personnel and unity in upper management could help make it clear that the Lakers have a clear direction going forward and together can create a winning culture. This perception could aid in attracting marquee free agents. One of the Lakers’ most recent high-profile targets, prior All Star LaMarcus Aldridge, cited a misguided pitch as a primary reason for passing on Los Angeles. Lakers former head coach Bryon Scott explained.
“I think we looked at it more as a business presentation. It wasn’t basketball, and that’s probably where we made our mistake,” Scott said.
With a new approach, the Lakers can potentially leverage Johnson’s legendary status and Pelinka’s relationships with players across the league to give the Lakers a better chance to put together well-rounded roster that features a few star players. However, it will be up to Johnson and Pelinka to be very selective in chasing these star players, and to do so when it makes sense for the franchise. The Lakers have seemingly suffered from a constant desire to bring stars to the team, which hasn’t worked out so well in recent years. This new regime needs to keep the long-term outlook in mind and follow a plan that is reasonably calculated to create a roster that is capable of contending both in the short and long-term.
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