The rest of the NBA beat and bloodied the Los Angeles Lakers last season as they lost 55 games, but the once-great franchise has dragged itself out of that dark alley called the 2013-14 season, and hope sits on the smoggy horizon.
The team remains in shambles for the time being—the Lakers need to add a dozen bodies to the roster and find a head coach (again) as well—but the journey of 1,000 games begins with the first step. That will come with June 26's NBA draft, in which the Lakers pick seventh, not to mention a satisfying conclusion to their coaching search. Rumors abound regarding both matters, but those are distilled here to illuminate the team's likeliest moves.
The Lakers have kicked the tires with workouts of numerous guards, including Tyler Ennis, Zach LaVine and Elfrid Payton, but two prospects long predicted to go in the top eight remain the top bets for the Lakers: Julius Randle and Marcus Smart.
L.A. needs a ton of help on the roster. According to ShamSports.com, three players have signed up for the 2014-15 season: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre. Trading the seventh pick remains a possibility to increase assets, but the Lakers have not been impressed with the return being offered for No. 7.
As ESPN's Chad Ford noted in his June 10 mock draft (subscription required):
The Lakers keep shopping this pick but are struggling to find an All-Star caliber big in return. If the Cavs can't get that type of player with the No. 1 overall pick, the Lakers are probably not getting it at pick No. 7. If the Lakers keep it, they'll want a player who can come in and contribute from day one, and three players—Randle, Smart and Doug McDermott—seem to be the targets.
Creighton forward McDermott became the consensus pick for National Player of the Year and wrapped up his NCAA career having scored more points than all but four players in college history. However, Randle and Smart have been projected as top picks for months. Ford placed them Nos. 2 and 3 in his September 2013 mock draft (subscription required); McDermott sat at No. 21 back then.
Smart offers the most potent mix of offensive and defensive skills of any guard in the draft and, perhaps, at any position. A Lakers source confirmed to ESPN's Dave McMenamin that Smart impressed the team during workouts.
Randle turned heads as a freshman by recording 24 double-doubles despite facing plenty of attention and double-teams from opponents.
Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News quoted a Lakers source who thought Randle offered the most "diversity" in his skill set among the top-three forwards in the draft.
So if it's tenacity versus diversity, the former usually wins.
The two other forwards at the top of the draft, Noah Vonleh and Aaron Gordon, profile as different types of players from Randle. Vonleh offers a battler down low who will make his greatest impact on the boards and on defense, although he's capable of stepping out and hitting from long range. Gordon brings freak athleticism and energy in the vein of Blake Griffin, but he didn't display the interior prowess shown by Randle.
|2013-14 NCAA Stats for Lakers' Top Draft Targets|
|Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma St.||32.7||18.0||5.9||4.8||2.9|
|Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky||30.8||15.0||10.4||1.4||0.5|
|Noah Vonleh, PF, Indiana||26.5||11.3||9.0||0.6||0.9|
|Aaron Gordon, PF, Arizona||31.2||12.4||8.0||2.0||0.9|
|Elfrid Payton, PG, La.-Lafayette||35.9||19.2||6.0||5.9||2.3|
|Doug McDermott, SF, Creighton||33.7||26.7||7.0||1.2||0.3|
However, due to concerns over a balky foot, Randle slid past the Lakers in Ford's June 17 mock draft, and Smart slotted right in:
We've had Julius Randle here for the past few mocks, but issues with his foot that were detected at the NBA combine might lead to his stock sliding a bit. It depends on who you talk to. Several teams I spoke with weren't concerned at all with the injury, saying it was a minor procedure to fix it and of all the players that have had Jones fractures in the past, none have had lingering issues with it in the league. However, other teams have said that it concerns them enough that they'd pass in the mid-lottery...Smart becomes a strong possibility here. He goes back in for a workout this week against Elfrid Payton.
For what it's worth, Randle revealed to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding that an expert told him the foot is fine: "I met with the best foot doctor in the country, and he said he wouldn't do anything with my foot." However, going in another direction could still make sense regardless of the status of Randle's foot. He also could be chosen in the first six picks.
As for Payton, he has rocketed up draft boards for his defense and energy at the point, but playing for the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns did not typically pit him against the best competition in the nation. Payton likely serves as a fallback choice at point guard if Smart goes before L.A. picks.
Smart seems like the best option for the Lakers if he lasts until No. 7. He helps address the defensive deficiencies that saw the team rank 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. He could also learn under Nash as the eventual successor at point guard for the 40-year-old legend.
While the Lakers have a more pressing need in the frontcourt for next season, they still need help up and down the roster. Smart's two-way ability would best address their long-term needs, and he would provide greatly needed backcourt depth from the outset.
Despite some dismaying behavior from Smart during his sophomore season with the Cowboys that included kicking a chair during a frustrating game and, several weeks later, shoving a fan, he can't possibly be as vexing to the Lakers as Nick Young was last year.
Unlike the echo chamber of draft speculation, rumors regarding the Lakers' coaching search have become as intensely focused as a movie theater laser pointer on a nostril.
Fox Sports' Sam Amico heard from a chorus of sources that Byron Scott will become the next Lakers coach. Most recently, Scott presided as head coach over the post-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers before getting fired in 2013.
Scott played for 10 years with the Lakers and has strong ties to the franchise. He also coached the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, and he claimed Coach of the Year honors in 2008 for guiding the New Orleans Hornets to 56 victories.
Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote on June 11 that Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis "remains a favorite for the Lakers' head-coaching position, according to league sources," with the other two "primary candidates" being Scott and Alvin Gentry.
Mike Dunleavy Sr. has also seen his name crop up in connection with the Lakers job. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported on May 21 that Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak met with Dunleavy to discuss the position. Dunleavy coached the Lakers in the early '90s, but his most recent coaching gig came with the rival L.A. Clippers as recently as 2010.
For the time being, Scott looks to be the most likely candidate for the job by far. However, any hiring will likely not come until July, and Scott's job prospects could be greatly impacted by the free-agency period beginning July 1.
According to USA Today's Sam Amick, the Lakers will delay hiring a coach in hopes of recruiting a marquee star like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony and offering them input on the team's next coach.
While the draft will only add one quality player to a roster bursting with uncertainty, locking up a head coach would provide the franchise with some direction in advance of next season. Though things can change quickly during a coaching search, Scott appears bound for L.A. once again.