Kendall Marshall has Los Angeles Lakers fans dreaming of a brighter future.
At least, he should after a pretty stellar debut as a starter who wears a purple-and-gold jersey. After two lackluster games off the bench, Marshall carved out a larger role with the team. He responded with 10 points and seven assists against the Milwaukee Bucks, albeit in a 15-point loss.
Then he jumped into the starting lineup and was nothing short of dominant.
In an 11-point victory over the Utah Jazz, the former UNC floor general exploded for 20 points, six rebounds and 15 assists. Even more impressively, he did so while shooting 8-of-12 from the field. Before moving on, let's put this in perspective.
Only three players in the history of this storied franchise have ever matched or exceeded the first three numbers: Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Marshall. There's the little fact that Magic has done it 48 times, according to Basketball-Reference, but it's still impressive that Marshall is on a list with such legends.
And it gets better.
Magic turned the ball over at least twice in all but three of his performances, and Marshall's field-goal percentage was better than all but four of the legendary point guard's entries.
And it's not like anyone had negative things to say.
Now obviously, it's a big leap of faith to assume that Marshall will continue looking this strong throughout the rest of the season. But let's take it anyway and think about the question that's at the center of everything the Lakers do in 2013-14.
Should the tanking debate change? Does a strong season from Marshall have the ability to sway the decisions about the future?
The Plan Is Still Building for 2015-16
Even if Marshall is the future starting point guard for the Lake Show, he isn't going to change the overall direction of the franchise's plans. Regardless of what happens throughout 2013-14, the plan still remains that the team rebuilds in 2015, not 2014.
"If they go small this year, they can still contend for a guy like Kevin Love next offseason, or have no one on the books in 2016," writes B/R's D.J. Foster. "It's hard to play for the future, but Los Angeles can be the home for the NBA's next great superstar meet-up so long as they don't panic."
Yes, the 2014 draft class is unbelievably stacked. Yes, the free-agent pool is supposed to be loaded (it won't be). Yes, the money comes off the books at the conclusion of this season.
It still doesn't matter.
Let's say that Marshall earns his spot in the starting lineup even when Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar are all healthy. That seems unlikely, especially given the way Blake was playing before learning that he had a torn UCL, but just roll with it.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, whether or not the Lakers make it into the playoffs, the team isn't primed to be extremely competitive in 2014-15. There aren't enough keepers on the current roster.
We're assuming that Marshall is a starting point guard, and the Lakers would also have Nick Young and Kobe Bryant in the lineup. That's it.
They'd be left forming a roster quite similar to the one currently constructed, and there aren't enough stellar free agents to make it worth their while. That's especially true as the Lakers only have a first-round pick in the draft, and it's likely to be one either in the teens or early 20s (if Marshall is a stud).
"But the Lakers have tons of money, and the free-agent class is stellar," you might say.
Lots of money, yes. The Lakers will have just over $37 million committed, thanks to the exorbitant extension signed by the Mamba. That leaves a lot of space but not as much when you remember that only six players are under contract, and Kobe is the lone star in that category.
Unfortunately, the second part of your statement won't necessarily be accurate.
For the free-agent class to be stacked, Carmelo Anthony and the Big Three in Miami will all have to opt out of their contracts and hit the open market. If that fails to happen, we're looking at a summer in which Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki, Greg Monroe (restricted), Danny Granger, Lance Stephenson (restricted), Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph (player option), Evan Turner (restricted), Eric Bledsoe (restricted), Rudy Gay (player option), Isaiah Thomas (player option) and Kyle Lowry are the headliners.
The Lakers have enough money to sign—maybe—three of them.
So let's say Marshall and Kobe are stars. Is a starting lineup of Marshall, Kobe, Deng, Dirk and Monroe impressive enough to win a championship?
The answer isn't a definitive yes, especially when the rest of the roster would be a makeshift compilation of non-guaranteed salaries, rookies and minimum contracts. And that's why the Lakers have to wait for 2015.
Mitch Kupchak will still have plenty of cap space to play around with, and the free-agent pool gets both deeper and stronger.
Marshall, no matter how good he is, isn't going to change that.
Value Could Be Tied to D'Antoni
We've been down this road before with Mike D'Antoni and an out-of-nowhere point guard.
Marshall isn't quite as obscure as Jeremy Lin was when he broke out for the New York Knicks, but he's still 22 years old and already playing for his second team after flaming out with the Phoenix Suns. There's no guarantee that his success would be sustainable at the end of the mustachioed head coach's tenure in the Staples Center.
D'Antoni's system is built to maximize the talents of role players.
It's why we've seen so many obscure names rise to relative prominence in Hollywood this year. From Xavier Henry to Nick Young. From Shawne Williams to Steve Blake. They've all looked good because D'Antoni is coaching them.
An offense-heavy system with plenty of up-tempo basketball boosts numbers, especially when tied to the talents of the players on the roster. J.M. Poulard broke down exactly why the MDA effect exists for Bleacher Report in early December, but it's worth noting that we typically see this type of influence on point guards more than any other position.
It's also impossible not to think about Lin. Even D'Antoni himself is doing so:
D'Antoni on Kendall Marshall: "I'm not making any comparison but Jeremy Lin did the same thing."— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) January 4, 2014
Remember what happened to Lin as soon as the innovative head coach was no longer calling the shots for him?
He struggled immensely during his first season with the Houston Rockets, posting a below-average 14.9 PER, according to Basketball-Reference. His per-36-minute numbers plummeted, and he displayed a striking inability to get to the basket and draw foul calls.
To Lin's credit, he's reinvented himself during his second go-round in a Houston uniform, but he's still not as sensational as the player who once sparked Linsanity. It took adjustment, and that's as clear an indication as any that MDA has an overwhelmingly positive effect on his point guards.
Will Kendall Marshall be the future starter for the Lakers?
One player obviously isn't a trend, but we could start drawing conclusions if Marshall kept up his level of performance for a long portion of the 2013-14 season.
A strong season from a young point guard—especially one who most NBA teams haven't taken the time to heavily scout—is not a reason to start tanking, or even to reverse course if that's the route du jour. The Lakers would be making a mistake to consider Marshall anything but a D'Antoni-created luxury until proved otherwise.
Hope for the best, and plan for the worst.
Even when there's reason for optimism, that's the motto the Lakers must continue to adopt.