The following is Part III of a three-part series on the future of the Los Angeles Lakers, written by Kevin Ding, who has covered the team since 1999. Part I was on the front office, Part II on the team's roster.
LOS ANGELES — For pretty much the past 15 years, the Los Angeles Lakers have been doing it.
Hire Phil Jackson and immediately knock out three consecutive titles. Get backed into trading Shaquille O'Neal and get back only a percentage of his body fat yet still net an invaluable Kobe Bryant title companion in Lamar Odom. Use your one good draft pick on a chubby dude with horrible knees and turn him into an All-Star center.
Swap out a bumbling Rudy Tomjanovich for a refreshed Phil here, drop 81 points there, sell No. 24 jerseys everywhere. Trade Kwame Brown and the guy set to stand trial for murder this June for Pau Gasol and head back to the top. Play post-championship hardball with free agent Trevor Ariza, gamble on Ron Artest…and prevail again.
Those days are gone, replaced by the worst season in L.A. Lakers history—only after the death of Jerry Buss, being desperate and then dumped by Dwight Howard, seeing Kobe unable to bounce back and watching Jackson fly off to run the New York Knicks.
The one and only angle to the Lakers' story that leaves them looking like the old, winning crew is their 2014 first-round draft pick. They've discarded literally every other first-rounder in an eight-year span (2008-15) without picking, yet in this one year when the draft is really good, the Lakers are really bad and still have their pick.
These are the kinds of things that break right for winners, like the San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan, first pick in the 1997 draft) and Boston Celtics (2007 draft trade of the fifth pick to acquire Ray Allen).
And the onus falls on the Lakers now to maximize this one asset to get back on that track.
Lakers assistant scouting director Ryan West acknowledged: "It's very exciting."
"Definitely this year, we really concentrated on seeing the top guys multiple times," West said. "There are a lot of guys who are considered high on the draft board I've seen maybe six or seven times. So we definitely have our bases covered, for sure. And not just me; all of our other guys (scouts), as well."
It's still to be determined how high the pick will be. With the Boston Celtics beating Mike Brown's Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday, the Lakers were able to get into a tie for the fifth-worst record, but a loss at Utah on Monday would likely improve the Lakers' chances of landing a top-three pick further: from 21.5 percent before Boston's victory to 25 percent now to 29 if the Jazz, Lakers and Celtics all tie for fourth-worst.
If the Celtics also beat the Philadelphia 76ers earlier Monday, then the Jazz and Lakers would pass Boston in the inverse standings and gain even more. (Update: The Lakers beat the Jazz, 119-104; the Celtics lost, 108-113.)
|Team||W-L||W%||GB||TOP 3||#1 OVR|
Notes: x-to Philadelphia (top-5 protected); y-to Orlando, worse of Denver or New York picks; z-to Denver. Source: tankathon.com.
Most draft prognostication has focused on Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid and Duke's Jabari Parker, all freshmen, as the top-three picks. There is less of a consensus in the rest of the top 10, despite it being described by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak in January to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com thusly: "One through 10 is as good as I've seen in a long time."
There are reasons to believe each of those three prospects would be great for the Lakers.
Wiggins has displayed improved shooting and NBA moves, to go with the athletic prowess at small forward at both ends of the court that led to outrageous initial hype, including breathless chatter of him being a max-salary-quality player before even reaching the NBA.
Embiid is a unique physical specimen who has played organized basketball for only three years, meaning the smooth 7-footer has tremendous growth still ahead, to the point he could well be the best center in the league someday.
Parker has an NBA-ready game and skill set that will allow him to pretty easily become Rookie of the Year from the wing spot on any NBA team.
The Lakers aren't going to make their pick based on current team need. But there's no doubt that Embiid makes tremendous sense for them in that regard.
The Lakers lack a rim protector, which Embiid already is, and it's not inconceivable that winding up with the third pick could still net Embiid, considering likely top-picking teams—Milwaukee Bucks (Larry Sanders, on a huge long-term contract) and 76ers (Nerlens Noel, the sixth overall pick last season)—have already committed to centers.
Fundamentally, basketball remains a game where size matters, which played a big part in the Lakers' moves to get O'Neal, Andrew Bynum and Gasol to help Bryant to his titles.
If the Lakers' research so far and in the next two months offers proof that Embiid's back is medically sound and his drive for greatness matches his 7'5" wingspan and sweet footwork from the soccer fields of Cameroon, it's easy to envision him atop their draft board.
"This year, we definitely have to do our homework a lot more so than we ever have," West said, "because there could be a chance we're taking an underclassman, and we need to know every intricate detail about them."
There has also been a lot of local buzz about Australian combo guard Dante Exum, who signed with Bryant's Los Angeles-based agent, Rob Pelinka, and is working now with Bryant's training adviser, Tim Grover, being a logical fit for the Lakers. Exum has even attended Lakers games at Staples Center this season, and the 6'6" ball-handler fits the mold of someone with truly unknown upside.
In many ways, Exum makes more sense for the Lakers than Parker, and it's possible Pelinka's workout schedule for Exum could skew in the Lakers' favor the way Bynum's did after the Lakers promised they'd take him.
But there's no current reason to believe Exum can match the fire inside Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Marcus Smart, another top draft option. The 6'4" Smart has the sort of relentless attitude and physical aggression that predict NBA success one way or another, and he's actually the sort of guy who makes a lot of sense as someone like Bryant, in mindset, for Bryant to mentor.
Neither Exum nor Smart has a jump shot you can trust yet, but the Lakers also aren't expecting a finished product. The draft lottery on May 20 will give them a better idea of what they can get, and then June 26 will be a big day after so many previous Lakers drafts only meant a chance for reporters to ask Mitch Kupchak about upcoming free agency.
Lottery picks are not the area to focus on one clear NBA skill; the Lakers want a game-changing pick with epic upside, even if it is a gamble. As with the Bynum pick at No. 10 in 2005, the Lakers will accept some risks for potential rewards.
So when examining the group of three power forwards, all college freshmen who might go in the top six picks, Indiana's 6'10" Noah Vonleh looks to have the edge in true basketball potential compared to Arizona's 6'9" athlete Aaron Gordon or Kentucky's 6'9" brute Julius Randle.
Vonleh, who won't turn 19 until August, has a 7'4" wingspan, an outstanding motor and a sweet touch—and he very much appeals to the Lakers.
But when it comes to the best of the best as a game-changing pick with epic upside in this draft, my personal opinion is that Embiid is the clear choice.
Whether the Lakers have a shot at him, we shall see.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.