The NBA Draft lottery could very well determine where the Los Angeles Lakers are headed for the next two seasons.
General manager Mitch Kupchak has already stated that the plan is to rebuild for a year or two, and then acquire talent to potentially contend for a title. Accepting short-term mediocrity comes with a price, though: Kobe Bryant could become close to irrelevant on a bad Lakers team.
The two-year, $48.5 million extension that Bryant signed early in the season will keep him with the franchise until the conclusion of the 2015-16 campaign. Presumably, he will retire then and clear L.A.’s cap sheet.
Bryant missed 76 games because of a torn Achilles and fractured knee, while Steve Nash dealt with ongoing back and nerve injuries that kept him sidelined for 67 games. By the time training camp opens, Bryant will be 36 years old, and Nash will be 40.
That’s Los Angeles’ projected starting backcourt.
Free-agent Pau Gasol will turn 34 years old before next season. He has already hinted he might leave the team but has also publicly been a great endorser of all things Lakers, which means he might stay another two years or so.
The Lakers as presently constructed are heavy on mileage and light on athleticism. What’s more, the injuries of Bryant and Nash this year are enough to have you wonder whether their bodies have suffered irreparable damage.
It gets worse.
L.A. has yet to replace head coach Mike D’Antoni, who resigned in late April . Hence, fielding a competitive team with these parts could prove quite challenging.
Enter the draft lottery.
Its results will have an impact on a multitude of levels that will help shape the direction of the franchise over the next few years.
A Respectable Roster
Los Angeles’ roster isn’t attractive, and that’s not likely to change while Bryant is under contract.
The Lakers should have around $26 million in cap room this summer, but the team no longer appears interested in going after big names after initially wanting to get in on the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes.
Years and years ago, you could outbid for free agents. You really can’t do that now. We have to get players that want to take less. It’s harder to use your cap space. Pertaining to the free-agent market, it’s more difficult than it is now than in the old collective bargaining agreement. Therefore, draft picks are more important than ever.
Kupchak’s been preaching patience, and that likely means the Lakers won’t be looking to make any substantial roster moves.
However, if the lottery gives L.A. one of the top-five picks in the draft, it could change the outlook of the team.
Keep in mind, ESPN.com’s Chad Ford (membership required) noted in November that this year’s draft class might be the deepest ever. As a result, obtaining one of the early picks is a perfect way to help shape the roster.
Have a look at the projected top-10 picks and their closest NBA player comparison:
|2014 NBA Projected Top-10 Picks|
|1||Joel Embiid||Tim Duncan/Hakeem Olajuwon|
|2||Andrew Wiggins||Vince Carter/Rudy Gay|
|3||Jabari Parker||Carmelo Anthony|
|4||Dante Exum||Penny Hardaway|
|5||Noah Vonleh||Wayman Tisdale/Jamal Mashburn|
|6||Marcus Smart||Dwyane Wade|
|7||Julius Randle||David Lee/Billy Owens|
|8||Gary Harris||OJ Mayo|
|9||Aaron Gordon||Kenneth Faried|
|10||Zach Lavine||Russell Westbrook|
It’s not merely a matter of selecting one of these players, though. Los Angeles could certainly pair Embiid with Bryant and form a solid tag team, but there are more options at play.
The Lakers could also trade down in the draft and obtain a quality player from another team. That move still allows L.A. to pick someone up from the draft.
One of the most appealing options on the table might be to acquire a star in a trade involving a high Lakers draft pick. Kupchak shared as much with ESPN.com’s Andy Katz: “A high pick is valuable. You can select a player if there's a player there that you like, or you can look to move the pick and improve your team.”
The Lakers might be willing to sit out on free agency, but if there’s a big name that’s available out there and the Purple and Gold can get him, it would be foolish not to at least consider the possibility.
The Minnesota Timberwolves appear willing to entertain deals for Kevin Love because he wishes to exercise his early-termination option in the summer of 2015, and L.A. will be part of his suitors, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski:
The Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns are among many teams determined to make hard runs at trades for Love, league sources said. Boston and Los Angeles plan to make high-lottery picks in the 2014 NBA Draft available in offers for Love, sources said.
Love will be 26 years old by the time the 2014-15 campaign starts. He would give the Lakers scoring, rebounding, shooting, and more importantly, a talented player entering his prime.
Love went to college at UCLA, which likely makes the City of Angels an interesting destination. Remember, one GM told ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard in late January that Love to L.A. was a “100 percent certainty.”
However, six years of losing may have changed Love’s mind with respect to a future landing spot. ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne have the details:
Sources told ESPN.com that the Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls are among the potential trade destinations that intrigue Love.
The Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks have likewise been mentioned all season as big-market landing spots that would tempt Love, but going to the best situation for immediate contention is said to be the power forward's priority.
In the event that a deal involving Love is reached with the Lakers, the franchise would have to be vigilant. L.A. probably only makes a play for Love if he agrees to sign an extension in a pre-trade handshake deal. The reason for that is simple: Dwight Howard.
The Lakers traded for Howard in the 2012 offseason with a year remaining on his contract and then watched him leave during free agency the following summer. Ignore history’s lessons, and the same traps will follow.
Let’s not forget, the lottery is a huge part of this process. Without a top-five pick, the Lakers probably don’t have enough assets that move the needle for a Love swap.
Furthermore, if they strike out on Love, keeping the pick and building around the selected player might be the first domino in possibly convincing Kevin Durant to join the Lakers in the 2016 offseason when L.A. has a clean cap sheet per Sham Sports.
The 'Right' Coach
The Lakers are not an attractive destination for any marquee coach as presently constructed.
Los Angeles possesses a list of names in its back pocket while Kobe Bryant has his own wish list, per Yahoo Sports’ Wojnarowski: “Bryant will wish for Tom Thibodeau to free himself from Chicago. He loves Jeff Van Gundy, and shares management's affinity for Euro legend Ettore Messina, who spent a season on Mike Brown's staff.”
But ultimately, the Lakers could end up settling for Derek Fisher. As Fisher gets ready to participate in the Western Conference Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder, his name has gained traction because teammates and coaches have always thought highly of him.
The former Laker has received tutelage from Phil Jackson in his 12 seasons with the Los Angeles, and also from Jerry Sloan when he played for the Utah Jazz. Fisher's played for Golden State and the Thunder as well. Those experiences have helped him get a feel for the dynamics of winning and losing locker rooms, which should surely help him as a coach.
Why the infatuation with Fisher you ask?
Well, the Lakers are probably an alluring destination for Fisher given his ties to the franchise. The rest of the coaching candidates might not be all that interested because of the roster.
However, a top-five lottery pick or the presence of Love on the team slightly alters the perception of the franchise. Instead of signing up to steer Kobe and a multitude of subpar role players, a prospective coach would know that a bright future looms for L.A. during the final two seasons of Bryant’s contract and beyond.
It all comes down to assets, and the lottery could give Los Angeles the one it so desperately desires.
At stake is the immediate and long-term future of the Lakers. Now it’s all up to ping pong balls.