Los Angeles Lakers Finally On The Upswing?

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The Los Angeles Lakers continued their upswing in terms of positive organizational momentum by landing the No. 2 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft (June 23), but that hasn’t stopped some from still questioning the direction of the franchise. Following the most brutal stretch of the team’s history – three consecutive “worst seasons ever”- the Lakers finally appear to have things headed in the right direction, but that still doesn’t seem to have eased the minds of analysts like ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and even some of the less optimistic fans that still express distrust with the front office.

We can rehash and debate the steps and/or missteps that led to the team’s current situation to no end, but the fact remains they have an intriguing young core of players, as much as $68.3 million to work with on the market this summer and a pick that will land them either Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. While there have admittedly been some questionable coaching hires from a timing standpoint, and failed free agency strategies and moves along the way, you cannot deny these Lakers are in a pretty good spot as first-year head coach Luke Walton gets set to take over the reigns once his season is complete with Golden State.

Another key for the Lakers will be how Walton puts together his supporting staff on the bench. The luster and promise of a fresh start can be intoxicating, but let’s not forget it will still be important that he surround himself with assistant coaches who not only share his overall philosophy but also provide the type of support a young head coach will need in his first full season at the helm of a team. There have been reports of long-time assistant and former head coach Brian Shaw potentially having an “offer” to join his staff, but Shaw remains undecided at this point. The veteran coach could certainly be another positive addition if things were to work out. Shaw may have seen his share of difficulty as a head coach for a transitioning Denver Nuggets team (2013-15), but he’s always received praise and recognition for his work as an assistant with the Lakers and Indiana Pacers. Like Walton, Shaw is generally credited with having positive relationships and the respect of players.

In fact, if you were to draw up a hypothetical “best-case scenario for the Lakers” checklist, the team would have seemingly checked off a number of things. They sent long-time franchise player Kobe Bryant off with a fond farewell, kept their first-round pick and made the decision to go with Walton (who was viewed as one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the NBA). It would be tough to say these Lakers haven’t absolutely nailed it thus far.

Beyond all of that, it must be a nice change for this front office to finally have the freedom to fully embrace the current youth movement. While no one wanted to kick dirt on Bryant’s proverbial basketball grave, and the organization was certainly grateful for all he did for the game in general, there’s no way you can refute the idea that the current circumstances are more appealing to potential free agents. Outside of a somewhat foolish self-imposed contention deadline, executive vice president and part owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak now have the ability to present a team with a clear vision of what they intend to be as well as assets to play alongside when meeting with desired free agents. For as much grief as the duo got following reports of sub par meetings over the last few summers, there really wasn’t much they could honestly present to sway the players they met with.

Now, they’ll head into those same meetings with the certainty that Walton’s (eventual) vision and desire to play a variation of the current pace-and-space trend predicated upon player activity and moving the ball around until the most optimum shot is available. It will be interesting to see if the front office entertains the idea of moving the No. 2 pick as some reports have intimated, but at least they now have options and various routes they could legitimately decide to go.

Say they don’t decide to move the pick prior to the draft, there really is no bad option between Simmons and Ingram. Ingram’s impressive size (listed at 6’9.5), shooting ability and versatility might actually make him the perfect fit for this current core and Walton’s system. He’ll obviously have to add a bit of weight and overall strength, but scouts and draft experts rave about his potential and some have even called him the most talented prospect in the draft. Simmons could also be a franchise-altering talent if he continues to develop. He may have endured a disappointing season at LSU, which at least in part contributed to the questions about his potential as a leader and shooter, but the 6’10 forward is still very much one of the draft’s most intriguing (albeit, unproven) talents as he blends the ability to handle the ball and act as a playmaker with freakish athleticism and fluidity for a player with his size.

There may be the fear of redundancy in terms of pairing him in the frontcourt with Julius Randle since neither of them are knockdown shooters from distance at this point in their early careers, but the Lakers could hardly be disappointed if presented with the dilemma of having to figure out how to make things work with another talented, potential star in the mix. Either way, whether the two of them ultimately fit or not, it can never be seen as a bad thing to give this front office another weapon at their disposal when continuing to reshape the roster. The questions or concerns about the timing of their coaching hires (prior to Walton) and free agent meetings are probably valid, but Kupchak and Buss have generally shown an ability to evaluate young talent and put together favorable transactions for players in the past. 

Then there’s the question of what to do with restricted free agent-to-be Jordan Clarkson. The former second-round pick surprised some with a strong second half of his rookie season that actually earned him All-Rookie First Team honors. Clarkson then showed additional progress as a scorer and three-point shooter (hitting 34.7 percent on 4.1 attempts per contest), but still has room to continue developing and definitely needs to bring a more focused and consistent effort on the defensive end in order to take the next step as a player. Our own Eric Pincus broke down some potential contract options for Clarkson and the Lakers, but the real question is whether the front office truly sees the 6’5 athletic combo guard as a fit alongside D’Angelo Russell and what other options might be out there.

Under the new system, conventional positions might be less significant, but it is interesting that there have rumors of mutual interest between the organization and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who can opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent. Although the Lakers are not in the business of spreading their plans prior to the fact, the 26-year-old’s Southern California ties do at least make the reports intriguing enough to keep an eye on him this summer. But with the Toronto Raptors currently in the Eastern Conference Finals and Toronto likely to throw the kitchen sink at DeRozan as a market that generally hasn’t been able to attract a lot of the bigger free agents in the past, it remains to be seen if the Lakers will have a realistic shot at DeRozan. There’s a general feeling around the league that you can expect to hear the Lakers’ name thrown into any major negotiation simply due to the cachet of the market, but with things suddenly starting to turn around and plenty of money in the pot, you can almost certainly expect to see the tactic employed this summer.

It may take some time to restore the general good will and trust this organization has always enjoyed in past years, but they are certainly on the right path at this point. With total roster flexibility and seemingly the right coach at the helm to lead things, this will be an extremely pivotal summer for the organization.