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LA Lakers Emphasizing Free Agency, Even LeBron James Long Shot, over Draft

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LA Lakers Emphasizing Free Agency, Even LeBron James Long Shot, over Draft
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MIAMI — Another theoretically meaningful game came and went on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2013-14 schedule Thursday night.

Forget Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James in the NBA Finals. We can’t even get them together for a regular-season game anymore. (And not for the All-Star Game either, if a reluctant Kobe were to get his way.)

For a Lakers franchise that has conditioned itself to view moral victories as abnormal, the head coach made plain that this game in which the Lakers never led against Miami Heat and lost their 14th out of 17 wasn’t all bad at all.

Mike D’Antoni, whose Lakers did put forth a nice fourth-quarter effort against a Heat team he admitted was in its own “battle of complacency,” did a lot of shrugging afterward. And D’Antoni said: “Some things have to go perfect for us to beat them.”

For some Lakers fans out there, things did go perfect, same as in the loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday: The Lakers played reasonably hard and were competitive…and they—hurrah!—still lost. So the Lakers (significantly) decreased the playoff hopes for this season and (incrementally) increased the chances of a higher pick in the June draft.

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Let’s be clear about this much: The Lakers do not—listen up, you most skeptic of septic tankers, they do not—plan to get back to championship level through the draft.

To be honest, they’ve rightly planned far more for the chance to snag the best player in the game who was still very much doing his thing for Miami on Thursday night with 27 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

Same as they did in preparation for 2007 free agency on the chance that James wouldn’t be staying in Cleveland, the Lakers have structured their payroll to be ready whenever James is next a free agent. They’re ready if he opts out this summer (though it’s unimaginable he would leave if Miami won again and also unimaginable he would leave and evoke memories of Cleveland by deserting Miami if the Heat lost), if he opts out next summer (possibly) or when his contract expires in 2016 (valid).

But this is not all about LeBron; this is about free agency, which has always been the Lakers’ plan because they rightly believe—Dwight Howard’s provincial view notwithstanding—that they are an attractive destination with a very warm and large spotlight.

Everyone who is all caught up in the upcoming draft understandably wants something exciting and game-changing to happen as soon as possible. The reality there is that rookies are uncertainties who take years to mature. Even the clubs who have been rebuilding in that slow way (and have to because they aren’t destinations with spotlights) tend to go all-in at some point with their draft-pick assets via trade to net more proven talent and contend sooner.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

For the record, since James and Howard came out in consecutive years, the NBA has seen three underwhelming No. 1 overall picks (Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden), then two great albeit injury-muted ones (Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin) and three with potential but some limitations so far (John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis).

And that’s the No. 1 overall pick, which the Lakers aren’t close to likely to get. There have been loads of busts from the top 10 overall. As of the current standings with so many horrid teams in the Eastern Conference, the lottery odds would have the Lakers picking ninth overall. Even with Irving, how many high picks have the Cleveland Cavaliers had since James, and how bad are they still?

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If James isn’t available to them this offseason, the Lakers have their doubts that they want to invest in anyone. It’s more likely that they piece the team together around Bryant again on short deals for next season—probably picking Nick Young, perhaps Jodie Meeks, to give a raise and keep—and make their big move with the best free agent they can get in 2015.

That could be James or a hungry non-winner such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love or Marc Gasol. Then the Lakers head right back out shopping a year later in 2016 for the best free agent they can get again, ideally James or Kevin Durant. If not, maybe it’s two really good players at that point to go with their 2015 prize. And maybe whoever arrives in ’16 doesn’t actually replace Bryant, who could decide to put off retirement at a reduced rate if a championship is within reach.

The Lakers have the salary flexibility now to rebuild that way, which would be lightning fast in today’s NBA and amid all the new, harsh spending penalties. Maybe they land another young prospect by trading Pau Gasol—his strong game against Miami on a TNT broadcast only raising his trade value for some contender out there—before the February trade deadline. If they get a hotshot kid to pan out from the 2014 draft and help out, wherever the Lakers wind up picking, all the better.

Vince Bucci/Getty Images

But the draft is merely a piece to the puzzle, same as it was when the Lakers found nice value with the sore-footed 13th-to-last pick. Ryan Kelly has become by far the most productive guy to come out of the 2013 draft’s second round, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau singled Kelly out Monday, saying he has “a great feel for the game.”

That’s a reminder for you just how few rookies do. 

Jim Buss sat down with me before last season and outlined the Lakers’ intentions to use free agency to build an ongoing contender around Howard. Much has changed since then, but the crux of the plan has not.

For the Lakers, the draft is a slot machine.

Free agency is the card game where they can really win big.

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