The math was always against them vaulting into the top three, but the Lakers held out hope. Why not them? Why couldn't they defy the odds and be rewarded for an abominable 2013-14 campaign that saw them gutted by injuries and humanized by the cycle of losing? This could be their year from a lottery standpoint.
Cruel Ping-Pong gods slighted the Lakers. Not only didn't they give Tinseltown one of the top three picks, but they awarded No. 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in what can only be classified as a sick and twisted act of karma.
Cleveland had just a 1.7 percent chance of winning the lottery, so its luck came at the expense of the Lakers, among other teams. Hollywood had the league's sixth-worst regular-season record. The Cavs' incredible rise handed Los Angeles the seventh overall pick.
Just like that, all the whimsy was gone. Fantasies were killed. Bryant wouldn't be mentoring Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. It was all over.
But not really.
Miracles weren't worked on behalf of the Lakers, but that doesn't change much. They still face the same dilemma: Do they keep or trade their 2014 first-round draft pick?
Trade for Who?
Dealing their top pick is good in theory.
Marc Stein of ESPN.com got the ball rolling in March when he suggested the Lakers would try to dangle their first-rounder in a deal for Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Kevin Love. The thinking didn't have to apply to only him either. The Lakers could trade their top selection in an uber-deep draft for any star, for anyone who would help accelerate the rebuilding process.
Well, Love is available, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Additional stars—Rajon Rondo, perhaps—might reach the chopping block as well. But the Lakers won't acquire them. Not Love, not Rondo, not anyone.
Flipping a rookie—remember, the Lakers would actually have to pick for another team since their 2015 first-rounder belongs to Phoenix—for star-level talent was going to be hard enough with a top-three selection. It's impossible to do at No. 7 unless the Lakers have the requisite tangible assets to candy-coat their offer.
Only three Lakers are under guaranteed contracts next season as of now: Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Bryant. Nash might have some value as an expiring pact, but not enough to land Love. Both the Timberwolves and Pau Gasol would scoff at a sign-and-trade, too.
For starters, David Kahn is no longer in the Timberwolves' employ. They're not going to sell unbelievably low on Love. If and when they move him, it's going to be for a respectable return, one that includes draft picks, active talent and financial relief.
One can easily argue that the Lakers could have won the lottery and the Timberwolves still wouldn't have entertained their offer, because it's true. Love is a superstar. A legitimate, established superstar. Draft picks, no matter who you're talking about, are crapshoots. The promise of Wiggins or Parker would have meant little to the Timberwolves if it wasn't accompanied by reputable or supplementary pieces.
Now that the Lakers have fallen to seventh, forget about it. Love is not an option. Acquiring another star by trade is not an option. The likelihood that they do anything other than keep their draft pick has plummeted, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin:
One team staffer already conceded to ESPNLosAngeles.com late Tuesday night that falling to No. 7 hurts the team's chances for a potential trade, before adding, "but you never know how that might have turned out," no doubt still scarred by the memory of the franchise trading for Dwight Howard only to see him fail to sign an extension.
Any player the Lakers net for their No. 7 pick isn't going to be the transcendent player they want, the trajectory-altering star they need. He will be a consolation prize who just isn't good enough.
What's The Draw?
For argument's sake, let's say the Lakers can land a star. Let's say that star is Love. Is that really good enough?
Stars don't just wander onto the trade market. It starts with a rumor. They're barreling toward free agency in most cases, looking to upgrade their current situation and future outlook.
The Lakers don't offer that kind of improvement by trading their draft pick.
This team is already shallow. Again, only three players are on guaranteed deals. Even if you assume that Kent Bazemore, Kendall Marshall and Nick Young will come back, the Lakers still have a thin core. Not many stars—even Love—will guarantee their return in free agency without a clear look at what the future holds.
Historically, the Lakers find ways to win. They land talent. But they couldn't keep Dwight Howard, and they're coming off the worst season in franchise history. Replacing one asset for another won't work wonders for a team that needs all the talent it can get.
Counting on this summer's free-agency class to solve that issue is a risky gambit. Stars make tons of money. The player they acquire would strip the Lakers of their impending financial flexibility.
Add Love's $15.7 million salary to their books next season, and they would have almost $50 million committed to him, Bryant and Nash before filling out the rest of their roster. And at that point, their options are limited.
The Lakers could use whatever money they have on free agents considered impact players, but 1) none of them will be stars and 2) it prevents them from landing another marquee name in summer 2015, when even more studs become available.
If the right star, who is tied to a contract for the next few years, can be had, then yes, it makes some sense.
That star, that franchise-saving trade piece with staying power, just isn't out there.
Drafting for Keeps
Write this down: The Lakers are going to keep their draft pick.
And that's just fine.
Better than fine.
Drafting seventh overall isn't the end of the world. There is plenty of young, promising talent that should still be available by then.
From Marcus Smart to Julius Randle to Aaron Gordon, the Lakers are going to have options—great options.
Forum Blue & Gold's Darius Soriano lays it out for us quite nicely:
Most pundits would tell you that this draft, like every other, has talent that falls into tiers. The very top tier consists of 3 players — Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, and Jabari Parker. The next player on most draft boards is Dante Exum, a player who is the most intriguing prospect and has a high ceiling, but also someone we don’t know much about due to him being from Australia and not playing in a major European league. So, lets slot him in his own tier right below the aforementioned big three.
The next tier, however, is about four players deep and consists of Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh, Aaron Gordon, and Julius Randle. If the top four picks go as expected, at least one of these players will be available when the Lakers pick. Any of these players would instantly help a talent barren Lakers’ roster that only has 3 players under contract heading into free agency.
By using their pick, the Lakers aren't guaranteeing themselves a future star. But they could be. Over the last 20 years, there have been more than a few noteworthy players drafted seventh overall.
Here's a quick taste:
- Richard Hamilton (1999)
- Nene (2002)
- Luol Deng (2004)
- Eric Gordon (2008)
- Stephen Curry (2009)
- Greg Monroe (2010)
Soon enough we may be able to add Harrison Barnes (2012) and Ben McLemore (2013) to that list.
Smart could wind up being a star. Same goes for Gordon. And Randle. And so many others in this incredible draft. The sky isn't falling in Los Angeles. If anything, this is a blessing in disguise.
"They're in a situation where they can take the best available player and not give a s--t about hype," one front-office executive told McMenamin.
Had the Lakers snagged a top-three pick, they would have been under pressure to select the next big thing or flip the next big thing into a present-day big thing. They would have been expected to turn that pick into Love or someone else.
Truthfully, no matter where their pick fell, the Lakers shouldn't have been convinced to trade it. There's little point in sacrificing a potential star for a current star when you have the financial means to house both by remaining patient into next summer.
This is what happens during a rebuild. You get good draft picks and you keep those draft picks, hoping they turn into someone special, someone worth building around and moving forward with.
"But right now having not made the playoffs, the draft is our first step, and that is exciting," general manager Mitch Kupchak told Lakers.com's Mike Trudell ahead of the lottery.
More exciting than the alternative, which is to say, much more exciting than forfeiting a potential franchise cornerstone for marginal improvement and a transient cure to overblown lottery sadz.
*Contract information via ShamSports.