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NBA PM: Lakers’ Struggles a Necessity

The Los Angeles Lakers’ current struggles happen to be exactly what they need to return to prominence.

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Lakers’ Struggles a Necessity

At 0-5 the Los Angeles Lakers are off to their worst start since leaving Minneapolis, yet as each loss makes history in the wrong way, it also creates hope for the future that they actually need more than wins right now.

The Lakers have been notorious for reloading quickly rather than rebuilding, especially since the start of the Kobe Bryant era back in 1996. They missed the playoffs just once after trading away Shaquille O’Neal, the league’s most dominant presence at the time, in 2005. Two years later, they were back in the Finals thanks to the acquisition of Pau Gasol and the development of Andrew Bynum.

After missing the playoffs last year for just the fifth time since their move from Los Angeles in 1960, the Lakers had hopes of another quick reloading period this offseason by trying to lure Carmelo Anthony away from Big Apple. For years they privately planned to go after LeBron James, but knew before free agency even started that they weren’t going to be strongly considered by the league’s top player, who was choosing exclusively between the Miami HEAT and Cleveland Cavaliers – not giving other teams any type of serious consideration other than cordial meetings with his agent. They also showed interest in Chris Bosh, but Anthony was always the most obtainable target – and they almost had him. Anthony, who originally wasn’t even going to meet with the Lakers because of their state at the time, left their pitch meeting sold on his ability to succeed there. Gasol was going to re-sign if Anthony made the cross country move, but in the end the money and potential to succeed so close to his hometown with the New York Knicks was too great for Anthony to pass on.

With Anthony’s decision to stay put, and Gasol’s subsequent move to Chicago, a harsh reality finally caught up to the Lakers: They have to rebuild through the draft for the first time, because in today’s day and age in the NBA with the Collective Bargaining Agreement structured the way it is, quickly reloading the way they used to has become much more difficult.

Once a prime destination that all players in the league would love to play for, a good portion of the Lakers’ free agency luster has worn off due to the fact that increased luxury tax penalties strongly discourage the kind of spending they did to put together a championship roster in the past, they lack championship potential as currently assembled and with the way the league is covered globally today, players can become stars anywhere. Playing in Hollywood is no longer a necessity to become one of the league’s most popular players, look no further than LeBron James in Cleveland and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City for proof.

Looking elsewhere around the league at the construction of the other contenders and there’s a commonality between them that further proves building through the draft is the Lakers’ path back to contention. The Bulls, Thunder, Cavaliers, Spurs, Warriors, Clippers and Blazers are built largely off of players they drafted and developed. They had to go through some grueling seasons like the Lakers have last year and so far this year in order to acquire them, but it was really their only way to contention.

The Lakers got their first promising young player with All-Star potential since Andrew Bynum in Julius Randle from Kentucky with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft. Unfortunately, Randle broke his leg in the season opener and will miss the remainder of the season. Add in a top five pick from this year’s talented incoming draft class that is headlined by Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Karl Towns (Kentucky), Stanley Robinson (Arizona), Cliff Alexander (Kansas) and Emmanuel Mudiay (China), and the Lakers become a much more attractive situation for potential free agents, while having two young guys they can feature and build around in the meantime.

Their ability to build through the draft is restricted a bit since they gave up so many future picks to acquire Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. In order to keep this year’s pick it has to be in the top five, but that looks like a strong possibility based on current projections. They should draft in the first round regardless, though, since they are owed Houston’s pick from the Jeremy Lin trade.

“The Lakers can’t tank, though!” a lot of their fans are probably thinking to themselves due to their rich history and high expectations.

However, it’s not tanking when the potential to be good simply isn’t there. Without Randle or Nash, who are both out from the year, the Lakers went from being a middle-of-the-road team at best to one of the league’s most talent-starved teams.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently made some interesting comments in regards to tanking, questioning whether teams really benefited from it, given what you sacrifice in terms of team morale and building a winning culture as a result. That’s less of a concern for the Lakers, though, thanks to Kobe Bryant.

Throw his statistics (27.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 40 percent from the field, 30 percent from three) out the window. The heart, effort and intensity that he’s displaying every night while coming off the most serious injuries of his career and playing for a team that has zero chance of winning a championship is nothing short of applause-worthy. The wins may be few and far in between, but as long as Bryant is on the roster, losing is never going to be acceptable in the Lakers’ locker room.

“The thing with him, he plays every game like it’s his last game,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said to Baxter Holmes of ESPN. “That’s what you want.”

“Look, man. I think the most important thing is to understand the relentlessness that you have to play with,” Bryant said. “I’ll go out there and I’ll leave it on the floor, everything, and compete and be relentless and not be fearful of criticism or fearful of not playing well and missing shots. And that’s the same way I want the guys to play — Jeremy [Lin] in particular. Because he’s a really good player, man. And he’s just getting used to playing with that [expletive] attitude.

“Can I shoulder the load and these minutes consistently? Probably not. But every now and then it will be necessary.”

It’s important to note that the Lakers have had one of the toughest schedules in the league up to this point and that it does not get any easier anytime soon. They’re not losing because they want to (see: Philadelphia 76ers), they’re losing because the team they put together had a low ceiling to begin with and they’ve been decimated by injuries (we haven’t even mentioned Nick Young’s broken hand that has kept him out since the first week of training camp). They’re competing every night, but just don’t have the fire power to match up with most of the league right now.

This is one of the rare instances where a team could end up drafting in the top five despite their best efforts. And, it could help put another decade or so in between their next multi-year playoff drought, because with a top five pick, the return of Randle and Bryant looking like he could play well beyond what’s left on his current contract, the Lakers could become attractive to top-tier free agents once again, this time while they have cap room to spend. Without another top pick in the mix, though, it’s hard to see how the Lakers won’t go through another summer like the last two – which is what they need to avoid more than anything. Losing in free agency is worse than losing on the court for this proud franchise, and winning in the draft lottery looks to be the key to changing that. It has been for the teams who are contending right now at least.

J.R. Smith Suspended

New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith has been suspended one game without pay for striking Washington Wizards guard Glen Rice Jr. in the groin, it was announced today by Rod Thorn, President, Basketball Operations.

The incident occurred with 5:45 remaining in the fourth quarter of Washington’s 98-83 win over New York on Tuesday, Nov. 4, at Madison Square Garden.

Smith will serve his suspension tonight when the Knicks visit the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

D-League Announces Rule Changes

The NBA Development League today announced that it will implement new rules for the 2014-15 season, including an innovative coach’s challenge and an “advance” rule. Additionally, the league will increase the team foul penalty limit and extend a rule deterring teams from deliberately fouling an offensive player away from the offensive action.

The coach’s challenge enables NBA D-League coaches to initiate instant replay review of referee calls of personal or shooting fouls, including offensive fouls, as well as those plays that have been identified as triggers for instant replay. Violations such as traveling and palming may not be challenged, nor can continuations or act-of-shooting determinations.

To initiate a challenge, a coach must call a timeout and immediately signal to the referees that a play is being challenged. The referees will then review the event in question and determine whether to uphold or change the original call. The challenging team will retain its timeout if the challenge is successful and will lose its timeout if it is unsuccessful. Teams will be granted one challenge during regulation and another challenge in each overtime period. An additional challenge in regulation will be granted if the first challenge is successful.

Additional rules changes for the 2014-15 NBA D-League season are below.

• “Advance” Rule:

o Allows the team with possession to stop play, substitute and advance the ball to the 28-foot mark in the frontcourt without using a timeout.

o Each team will be granted one “advance” that can be used only in the last two minutes of the fourth period and one to be used in the last two minutes of each overtime period.

• Away-From-The-Play Foul Rule:

o An away-from-the-play foul is defined as any illegal contact by the defense which occurs either deliberately away from the immediate area of offensive action, prior to the ball being released on a throw-in, or both.
o If an away-from-the-play foul is committed at any point in the game, personal and team fouls will be assessed and one free throw attempt will be awarded to any player in the game at the time the personal foul was committed.

• Team Penalty Foul Limit Increase:

o Team foul limits will be increased from four per period to five per period before free throws are rewarded.

The 2014-15 NBA D-League season tips off Nov. 14 with an all-time high 18 teams playing for the NBA D-League Championship.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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