This time around, the opportunity to tear it way down might be too hard to resist.
If Joel Embiid and his newly broken right foot—reported by Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski—fall to the Lakers at No. 7 in the draft next Thursday, it will be the ideal opportunity for the Lakers to swing for the fences the way they absolutely must with this rare lottery pick.
The 7'0" Embiid is that good. Big men might be less heralded in today’s NBA, but until someone lowers the basket a foot, size still matters in an irrefutable way.
Embiid’s sizable skill set is so proven—the natural, graceful footwork, soft hands and sweet touch to go with shot-blocking timing and tenacity—that it’s mind-boggling to estimate his true upside at 20 and having played the game for just three years.
The risk is that his bones might be brittle, although his much-discussed recent back injury is not considered serious. The foot is a big-deal injury and could keep him out for the year. That’s the sort of dice roll it’s easier to envision Philadelphia, Milwaukee or Orlando undertaking than the Lakers, who hardly want to stink even worse while the Clippers gear up for a title run.
The reality is that the coming season can't offer a whole lot. The best it can be is Bryant’s comeback year. There will be entertainment value in seeing just how high the soon-to-be 36-year-old can bounce back if the Lakers are prepared just to give him the ball.
If he does something amazing, great. If not, well, it’s not tanking, but there is some benefit to breaking bad:
If the Lakers are even worse next season, they don’t have to give their 2015 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers owe Phoenix that pick for the Steve Nash trade, but it is top-five protected.
By keeping it, the Lakers could almost go from talent-poor to talent-rich overnight.
Entering the season a year from now, the Lakers could have Embiid and another top lottery pick ready to be unveiled next to a monster free agent (or two) and Bryant. It would come at the cost of a discouraging 2014-15 season, but the Lakers are limited in their assets for rebuilding.
They owe the Suns that pick (which is top-five protected in ’15 and top-three protected in ’16 or ’17), and they also owe Orlando from the Dwight Howard trade another first-round pick (top-five protected) two years after the one goes out to Phoenix.
The Lakers being bad next season would also help in a smaller second-round way: Their second-rounder is protected from going to Orlando through the top 10 picks in that round.
You could argue that with so few draft opportunities, the Lakers can’t afford to gamble on Embiid’s health. This is where the Lakers have historically differed from other franchises: Jerry Buss was willing to be patient only until he saw the opportunity to strike, and in keeping with his poker-playing ways, he’d go all in.
That’s how the Lakers won so many titles—and how they wound up stuck in this current dilemma after the Howard-Nash pairing blew up in a very uncool way.
The draft is inherently a crapshoot. The Lakers are bringing in point guard Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton for a crucial second predraft workout Friday because they love their defensive potential and other qualities, but the honest truth is that neither guy can even shoot very well right now. Athletic forward Aaron Gordon, also coming back in Friday, shot 42.2 percent on his free throws last season at Arizona.
Everyone is a gamble, but Buss was always willing to gamble on the highest-end talent. That’s what Embiid is—far more so than Nerlens Noel, whose torn ACL took him off the court for last season and dropped him from projected No. 1 to Philadelphia’s No. 6.
Embiid is higher-end than Andrew Bynum, too, although there are some similarities in how the Lakers gambled on Bynum’s genetic predisposition for lower-leg injuries. The Lakers saw the upside and the up-size in the 7’0" Bynum in 2005, and they had him shut down his workouts in hopes he would last to them with the 10th pick in the draft. (Philadelphia gambled on Noel and also Bynum, just at the wrong time, taking a high-value All-Star in Bynum via a trade with the Lakers in 2012 before he really fell apart.)
It would be almost impossible for Embiid to be higher-end than Bryant, but the Lakers do have a longstanding relationship with L.A.-based agent Arn Tellem, Embiid’s representative. Tellem was Bryant’s agent when he entered the NBA in 1996, and he was instrumental in limiting Bryant’s exposure and deterring the New Jersey Nets to get Bryant through to the 13th pick, where the Lakers had arranged to trade with Charlotte to land him.
There’s no smokescreen here; Embiid is definitely hurt. But Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has a better feel for Tellem than most and should be able to get a better read on Embiid than almost all. This would be a dream opportunity if Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, Utah and Boston all pass.
Would Jim Buss, under pressure by even his own sister to show now he has what it takes to lead the Lakers to be winners the way their father did, be willing to sacrifice a season with Embiid offering no immediate return? It’s Buss and Kupchak’s expectation that this isn’t going to be solved next season anyway.
And in a much lower-stakes game, the Lakers did gamble on Ryan Kelly’s broken right foot with their only draft pick last season.
As bad as this news is for Embiid, perhaps the silver lining could turn gold.
This was Embiid’s tweet back on March 9:
I want to live in LA so bad #beautiful— Joel-Hans Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) March 9, 2014
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.