LA Lakers Will Have Long Road Back to the Top of Pacific Division

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LA Lakers Will Have Long Road Back to the Top of Pacific Division
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Even under purple-and-gold skies, the future looks bleak for the once-mighty Los Angeles Lakers.

There will be some blissful moments and perhaps a transcendent acquisition or two. However, they'll be more like bandages when surgical procedures are needed to correct what ails this franchise.

This organization has tied its fate to crossed fingers and wishful thoughts: to the hope that 35-year-old Kobe Bryant, who's been battered by injuries like never before, hasn't left all of his best days in the history books;  to the dream that assistance from outside the organization (Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, a 2014 draft stud) is not only coming, but that it will bring monumental relief when it does.

False hopes can cripple a franchise. With certainty, assuredness and the potential for greatness now running rampant elsewhere in the Pacific Division, have the Lakers fallen completely behind a group they've historically dominated?

If so, just how long is L.A.'s road to recovery?

 

Staples Center's Changing of the Guard

It was maddening at the time, but it looms catastrophic now.

If only former commissioner David Stern hadn't intervened, perhaps it would be the Lakers—not the Los Angeles Clippers—following Chris Paul down the path to the podium. Unfortunately, there is no way to rewrite history, nor deny its massive impact on the present.

Paul didn't just give the Clippers All-NBA talent at the point guard spot, he changed their reality. The influx of talent that has since joined Staples Center's other tenant is staggering—Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison on the perimeter, Doc Rivers in the coaching box.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

L.A. not only has a championship ceiling, it knows that one exists.

Ability helps, but championship-caliber confidence can be the real difference-maker.

According to Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, Paul (currently out with a separated shoulder) hits All-Star Blake Griffin with five words every game: No one can guard you. Clearly, Griffin has taken those words to heart. His stat sheet has since made Paul seem prophetic. In the 18 games since his floor general went down, Griffin has produced at an MVP level: 27.5 points on 55.4 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists.

"It's time we start putting Griffin in the same category that's currently occupied by Kevin Durant and LeBron James," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "He's still below that duo of superstars, but the Los Angeles Clippers big man has become a legitimate MVP candidate."

If Griffin's in the MVP race now, where might he be going from here? After all, the walking highlight reel hasn't even hit his 25th birthday yet.

Paul's just 28 and inked a five-year contract extension with the Clippers last summer. Center DeAndre Jordan, a 25-year-old Defensive Player of the Year candidate (league-best 14.0 rebounds along with 2.3 blocks and 1.0 steals per game), has one more season left on his deal. Redick (39.6 three-point percentage) is 29 and has three more years on his contract.

The Clippers are scary good now and project to stay at that level for a while. It's hard for the Lakers to expect greatness when they're not even the best team in their home arena.

 

Golden State Snipers

Lakers fans remember the times fondly, unlike their Northern California counterparts, when the Golden State Warriors would be lucky to hit 30 wins in a season. Considering the Dubs fell short of that mark in eight of their last 16 seasons, it wasn't that long ago.

Well, it's still early February and Golden State has already made 30 entries in the win column. Some nights, this group seems like it could add another 30 more before this campaign comes to a close.

The Warriors have some issues with focus (i.e., bad losses), but their ceiling reaches up like a skyscraper. The one-time lovable losers are one of only three teams (along with the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards) who have claimed victories over both the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder this season.

Largely free from the wrath of the injury bug, Golden State has shown what it's capable of when that "if healthy" caveat needn't be applied. With rising star Stephen Curry leading the offense (24.5 points, 9.1 assists) and former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut anchoring the opposite end (14.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes), the Warriors have tantalized with an intriguing mix of two-way production.

Six players in coach Mark Jackson's 10-man rotation are under the age of 27. Three players in his top seven are under 25 (Klay Thompson, 24, Draymond Green, 23 and Harrison Barnes, 21).

Golden State has the league's eighth-best record (30-20), third-rated defense (99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, tied with the Thunder) and 16th-rated offense (103.5 points per 100 possessions). And there's a very good chance this team's best basketball hasn't been seen yet.

Realizing the chance to do something special, Golden State isn't content with resting on their laurels. According to USA Today's Sam Amick, "rival executives are of the belief that anyone not named Stephen Curry or Andrew Bogut is up for discussion."

In other words, this talent-heavy roster could grow even heavier before the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

The Warriors are out two of their next four first-round picks and each of their next five second-round selections, so draft night might not be of much assistance anytime soon. Still, there's an abundance of potential internal growth—along with whatever the front office can find outside the organization—setting this team up for an incredibly bright future.

 

The Surprise Contender from the Desert

The Phoenix Suns were supposed to be years away from relevance and even further removed from substantial success.

Apparently, no one bothered to share that information with first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek or his far-better-than-advertised players.

The Suns (29-20) aren't quite on the cusp of contention, but they're closer to landing the No. 1 seed than the No. 1 pick. Having an All-Star snub (Goran Dragic: 20.1 points on .506/.392/.779 shooting, 6.0 assists) and a budding superstar (Eric Bledsoe: 18.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists) in the same backcourt seems to have its perks.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Bledsoe going under the knife for knee surgery in early January tossed the Suns into some turbulent waters, but it hasn't sunk this ship.

There's "optimism of a post-All-Star break return" for Bledsoe, according to ArizonaSports.com's Craig Grialou, and ample evidence the Suns aren't waiting for him to save them. Dragic has upped the ante in Bledsoe's absence (22.6 points on .533/.453/.752 shooting over his last 19 games), and the front office has been scouring the trade market for impactful help.

Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper that his team was open to the idea of cashing in some 2014 first-round picks (Phoenix could have as many as four) for "a star." ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein have since reported that star search has led the Suns to the Lakers in a potential trade for four-time All-Star Pau Gasol. The Suns are said to be holding out to see how Gasol recovers from a strained groin, but there remains "substantive interest on both sides."

With as little as $27 million committed to next season's payroll, the Suns could go swinging for the fences this summer if their home run hacks come up empty before the deadline.

Assuming Bledsoe, an impending restricted free agent, sticks around in Phoenix, that help—no matter when it arrives—won't be joining an empty cupboard.

 

The Lakers' Old Nemesis

The new Sacramento Kings owners don't buy into that patience-is-a-virtue way of thinking.

This regime helped the fans hold on to their franchise last summer and has since switched its focus to giving them a winner. From granting budding big man DeMarcus Cousins a max-contract extension to swinging trades for Derrick Williams and Rudy Gay, this group has been intent on building the franchise's talent base.

So far, those efforts haven't made their way to the standings (the Kings are 17-33, 14th in the West). But it's hard to argue with any of the moves Sacramento has made.

Cousins has pushed his stat sheet into the video-game realm. He's scoring (22.9), rebounding (11.7), assisting (3.0), stealing (1.7), blocking (1.2) and shooting (49.0 field-goal percentage) at career rates. His 26.73 player efficiency rating is fifth-best in the entire league, via ESPN.com.

Gay, the former punching bag of the league's analytical movement, has shined alongside the added help he's found in Sacramento. His scoring (20.8), assists (3.2) and field-goal percentage (52.5) with the Kings would all be career highs for the eight-year veteran.

Williams is a smaller piece of Sacramento's puzzle, so his stats don't carry the same wow factor. Still, his true-shooting percentage (54.9), effective field-goal percentage (48.5) and free-throw rate (.553 per field-goal attempt) with the Kings would all be personal bests.

The short-term future remains a bit murky for the Kings. Gay can opt out of his contract at season's end, and starting point guard Isaiah Thomas is on the path to restricted free agency. Rookie Ben McLemore had one of the highest ceilings of the 2013 draft class, but his numbers (7.7 points on 36.4 percent shooting) show just how much work the 20-year-old has left to do.

It might take a minute before Sacramento's aggressive approach impacts the win column, but if there's a move that can improve this team's outlook, this front office won't hesitate to make that call.

 

Where Does This Leave the Lakers?

There's a massive risk-reward gap in creating an empty slate, and the Lakers are about to find out which side of that equation awaits them.

Through a purple-and-gold-tinted lens, L.A.'s uncertain future looks magnificent.

"It is a rebuilding year and they’re going to be in play for a high draft pick in one of the best draft classes in years," former Laker Luke Walton said, via Sean Deveney of Sporting News. "So you do that, then you have the cap space to sign a big-time player, Kobe comes back, Steve Nash comes back, and the Lakers will be right back on top."

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? It's almost as if the NBA landscape is simply awaiting the Lakers' Midas touch for order to be restored.

That's not necessarily outside the realm of possibility. With just $35 million on the books for 2014-15, via ShamSports.com, the Lakers will almost assuredly be one of the major players in free agency.

The only problem is there are no guarantees that L.A.'s barren shelves will be restocked. There's an arms race taking place in the Pacific, and it's incredibly ambitious to think that an aging Bryant, a faceless free agent and a rookie to be named later would give the Lakers the strongest arsenal.

The Clippers, Warriors and quite possibly the Suns are all in win-now mode. They've also managed to put championship hopes in their present without completely mortgaging their future.

The Kings are aggressively trying to join that conversation. While there's plenty of work still to be done, Sacramento's core seems to strengthen by the day.

As for the Lakers, their roster has a certain wait-and-see feel to it: wait for Bryant to get his body back, wait for that potential free-agent prize, wait for the lottery balls to fall in their favor...then see what happens next.

Which Pacific Division team is best set for the future?

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Scanning across the fully loaded Pacific, what happens next could be a steady stream of nightmares.

L.A. has crash-landed at rock bottom this season, and better days clearly await it as the roster improves both in terms of health and talent. How good can those days be, though, when the rest of the division is matching (or surpassing) the Lakers' pace.

If the Pacific Division becomes the survival of the fittest over the ensuing seasons, the Lakers could be looking at the shortest end of the stick. When every team is a tough out, it's hard to make the divisional portion of the schedule (16 of 82 games, nearly 20 percent) into anything that increases L.A.'s playoff odds.

For example, the Memphis Grizzlies are floundering outside of the postseason picture for now. Marc Gasol's prolonged absence put a massive wrench in Memphis' playoff plans, but so too has the team's inability to tread water in the jam-packed Southwest Division. The Grizzlies are 2-11 in divisional games, an almost insurmountable hurdle in the tightly contested Western Conference postseason race.

Could the Pacific become the next monstrous division? There seem to be improvements happening all across its landscape—at least for everyone but the Lakers.

L.A. used to use this division to pad its win total and climb the West's standings. Not anymore.

Now, it's shaping up to be a nightly war zone. If the Lakers don't bring their best—whatever their best ends up being—the division that used to lift them up, might now become what winds up holding them back.

 

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, and accurate as of Feb. 7, 2014.

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