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NBA AM: Lakers Have Little Room For Mistakes

The Los Angeles Lakers are in position to exit the NBA’s basement, but their margin for error is slim.



Lakers’ margin for error this summer is slim

Five years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers franchise was riding high – winners of back-to-back NBA titles, and making three consecutive Finals appearances.

For Lakers fans today, five years must feel like an eternity.

The Lakers (21-60) are wrapping up their second straight season with more than 55 losses, franchise cornerstone and future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant is losing the battle to Father Time, the team has been unable to land marquee free agents despite cap space and – in the case of former All-Star center Dwight Howard – unable retain a star that was already in the fold.

The once mighty has fallen on hard times, while the once dormant Los Angeles Clippers franchise gears up, yet again, for another run at a title.

However, the Lakers are in a prime position to exit the league’s basement and turn their respective fortunes around – in relatively short order. But the margin for error is slim and any stumble during the next phase of the rebuild could set the franchise back years.

There are three ways to improve in the NBA; the draft, free agency market and trades.

From a financial standpoint, the Lakers will enter the summer with just $35 million in guaranteed salaries on the books. Center Jordan Hill has a player option worth $9 million that could inflate the team’s payroll, but the franchise will still have the necessary wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency. Veterans Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer, who accounted for $11 million on this season’s cap, are unlikely to return. The team will also have free agency decisions to make on Wayne Ellington and Wesley Johnson, but those guys aren’t expected to break the piggybank in order to retain their services.

Working the free agency market is never a certainty, but the team has money to spend, a storied legacy, great location and, most importantly, exposure. Those are their big selling points.

In terms of strengthening their youth pipeline, the Lakers will likely end up with a top-five pick in the upcoming draft that is stacked with explosive talent at the top end. The team’s lottery pick in 2014 was forward Julius Randle, seventh overall, who only played 14 minutes before suffering a season ending injury.  The high energy forward should be ready to go by training camp and coupled alongside the new rookie should form a solid young core for the future.

When it comes to trades, the Lakers don’t have many assets to dangle. Robert Sacre, Tarik Black and Jordan Clarkson all have non-guaranteed deals for under $1 million next season, which would limit the type of return in a potential deal. The biggest “movable” trade chip the Lakers have on the roster is arguably volume scoring guard Nick Young – set to earn $5.2 million in 2016.

Young has struggled through an injury riddled campaign in 2015, but his fun loving attitude has made him a hit with Lakers fans the past two seasons full of low points.

But there are no safe roster spots for 60-loss teams and, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, the Lakers intend to shop Young this summer.

The Lakers have a decent amount of salary cap room, a high lottery pick and an asset that can net some value on the trade market. The stage is set for the franchise to turn the corner and exit the league’s basement, but the margin for error is very low. The next four months has the potential to shape the franchise’s fortunes over the next three seasons.

New York pressure contributed to Deron Williams’ decline?

At one point, Brooklyn Nets guard Deron Williams found his name mentioned prominently in debates with Chris Paul on which point guard was better. In fact, the Nets felt Williams could be their franchise savior and traded a wealth of assets to Utah in order to acquire the guard.

To date, Williams just hasn’t panned out for Brooklyn in the way they originally envisioned when the club signed him to a max contract.

Utah Jazz: 17.3 points, 9.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 47% FG, 36% 3PT, 81% FT
Brooklyn:  16.7 points, 7.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 42% FG, 36% 3PT, 84% FT

The numbers aren’t jarringly different, but Williams’ impact on the team (and the game) has deteriorated. While still a productive player in the rotation, Williams is no longer considered a star (All-Star or superstar).

Former teammate Paul Pierce played one season with Williams in Brooklyn and believes the pressure to be great got to his former colleague.

“Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate,” Pierce said according to Jackie MacMullen of “But I felt once we got there, that’s not what he wanted to be. He just didn’t want that.

“I think a lot of the pressure got to him sometimes. This was his first time in the national spotlight. The media in Utah is not the same as the media in New York, so that can wear on some people. I think it really affected him.’

The mental aspect of the game is one seldom discussed but one that is always present. How will guys react to the fame? To the influx of mega money? How will they handle a change of scenery? Family demands? The women? Media obligations? Critics on social media? The list can go on and on.

Some guys rise to the occasion while others, despite still being serviceable, fade to the background.

At 30, it might be too late for Williams to reach the trajectory once projected for his talents but with the right talent around him, he still could help Brooklyn transition into their next phase.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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