Toughest Decisions the LA Lakers Need to Make

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IMarch 29, 2015

Toughest Decisions the LA Lakers Need to Make

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    How does Kobe Bryant fit into Lakers rebuilding plans?
    How does Kobe Bryant fit into Lakers rebuilding plans?Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers have nowhere to go but up. Or so it seems.

    Spiraling toward another record-busting season of losses, the 19-52 Lakers face tough decisions at almost every level of the organization, though primarily on the court.

    In obvious rebuilding mode, the Lakers are taking a hard look at which players they'll keep when the season ends in a couple of weeks. There are talented pieces on this team who, with the addition of several top-level free agents and draft picks, stand ready to elevate L.A. back to respectability.

    The Lakers could have as many as four picks, two in each round, with the remote possibility of getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery. Most likely they will pick in the fourth or fifth position.

    Who should the Lakers draft: the best player available or the one who fits a need?

    With 11 games left, the coaching staff is evaluating everyone on the roster. Veterans, like Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer, are being rested more so as to give such players as Tarik Black, Ryan Kelly and Jordan Clarkson the opportunity to develop.

    Competing supplanted winning as the team's mantra long ago. Though it was exciting to see Clarkson lead the Lakers to an overtime win against the Minnesota Timberwolves last week, the victory did absolutely nothing to enhance the team’s critical draft position.

    Questions also surround the Lakers front office. Just who among the triumvirate of Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss and Jeannie Buss is running the team, and what is their game plan to fix it?

    A panel of ESPN Insiders this week ranked the Lakers front office 28th out of 30, a drop of 12 spots from a year ago. Those same pundits also ranked Kupchak 26th among the league’s 30 general managers.

    That's not a ringing endorsement.

    And, last but not least, just how will Kobe Bryant fit back into a club that clearly needs a major infusion of youth, speed and athleticism to set it back on the right path? And what will be his legacy?

    There are lots of questions and few clear-cut answers.

1. Who to Draft?

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    Emmanuel Mudiay is NBA-ready and could be the Lakers' pick in the draft.
    Emmanuel Mudiay is NBA-ready and could be the Lakers' pick in the draft.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Let’s assume the Lakers don’t uncharacteristically go on a big winning streak to end the season.

    The team ends up drafting fourth, which means it will have a shot at one of a few prospects who ultimately could be game-changers in the league. The Lakers should also get a late first-round pick, part of the deal that brought Jeremy Lin from the Houston Rockets.

    The Lakers' needs are many. Having the opportunity to draft a potential superstar at the guard position is too tempting to pass up.

    Several mock draft sites, including NBA Draft and NBA Draft Room, predict the Lakers will take 6’5” point guard Emmanuel Mudiay with the No. 4 pick. The 19-year-old chose to play for $1.2 million in China this season rather than take a scholarship and join SMU as a college recruit.

    And though he only played in 18 games due to an ankle injury, Mudiay feels he made the right decision. He told Scout.com's Evan Daniels: "Definitely. Honestly it challenged me as a basketball player. I’m not saying I’m better than everybody in college, but I felt like it gave me a better challenge than college would have given me."

    I could think of worse things to have than Mudiay and Jordan Clarkson on the same team heading into training camp this fall.

    Should Mudiay be off the board when the Lakers pick, they might find Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell available. Another big point guard (6’5”) with NBA-like skills, the freshman had a tremendous year in Columbus, and many feel that he is now the best at his position entering the draft.

    Other possibilities with that first pick may include Kentucky big men Karl Anthony-Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein or Arizona small forward Stanley Johnson. Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor is still the odds-on favorite go No. 1, with the pick probably going to the New York Knicks.

    Should they finish with the fourth-worst record, the Lakers have a 10.4 percent chance of winning that No. 1 pick via the draft lottery, to be held on May 19.

2. Who to Let Go?

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    Jeremy Lin can make more as a free agent than the Lakers might want to spend.
    Jeremy Lin can make more as a free agent than the Lakers might want to spend.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press

    If the Lakers are indeed intent on evolving, they'll need to let go of the players they brought in as a stopgap measure to getting under the salary cap. They will also want to jettison veterans who don't fit the description of ascending talent.

    Jeremy Lin was never intended to be the team's point guard savior when the Lakers traded for him last summer. What they really wanted was the first-round draft pick the Houston Rockets threw in as a way to rid themselves of Lin's big contract.

    And while Lin has performed well since the All-Star break, the Lakers have just as talented a player in 22-year-old Jordan Clarkson. The 6'5" rookie from Missouri is set to make $845,000 next season, and the Lakers can make him a restricted free agent before the 2016-17 campaign for $1.18 million, per the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus.

    It would also seem to be a one-and-done season for veteran Carlos Boozer. Even though the 6'9", 33-year-old is playing under a small contract ($3.25 million), it makes more sense for the Lakers to not re-sign him and use their dollars for free agents and draft picks.

    Other Lakers who may be done include Ronnie Price and Robert Sacre. Neither offers big upside for the future, although the 25-year-old, 7'0" Sacre does provide steady play on the defensive end and could probably be signed this summer at a bargain rate.

    Small forward Wesley Johnson's future with the team may depend on what other players the Lakers bring to camp this fall.

    The 6'7" Johnson, a former first-round pick out of Syracuse, has been given all the time in the world to match consistency with his brilliant athleticism, but it hasn't materialized. His salary of $981,000 this year has not been a burden, and the Lakers could probably re-sign him for about the same amount for next year.

    Nick Young has been injured and a major disappointment for the Lakers after signing a four-year, $21.3 million contract with his hometown team last summer. Nevertheless, he is likely to stay with the purple and gold since his $5 million annual salary doesn't make a huge dent in the cap and his production will likely increase next season when he comes back healthy.

    Another big decision involves the contract of center Jordan Hill and his team option $9 million salary for next year. Through 63 games, the 6'10" former Arizona Wildcat is averaging career highs in minutes (27.5), points (12.3), rebounds (eight), and assists (1.5). His field-goal shooting of 46 percent, however, is the second worst of his career.

    The decision on Hill will likely come after the draft in June and free agency in July.

3. Who to Go After in Free Agency?

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    LaMarcus Aldridge would change the landscape at Staples Center.
    LaMarcus Aldridge would change the landscape at Staples Center.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    There really aren't that many top free agents the Lakers should set their sights on this offseason. But, if there appears to be a chance to sign one of these guys, the team should pull out all the stops.

    The cream of the crop might include LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Kevin Love and Greg Monroe.

    A sleeper would be Tobias Harris of the Orlando Magic. The 6'9" small forward is a restricted free agent, and the big question is whether the Magic will match what are likely to be some big offers on the open market. He is averaging 17 points and 35 minutes per game for Orlando.

    Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders had this to say about Harris:

    Harris has posted a solid season since the Magic tabled extension talks in October. Harris is believed to be obtainable in free agency even though the Magic plan to issue a qualifying offer and restrict his free agency. There have been a number of teams linked to Harris including the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and even Atlanta Hawks.

    Point guard veterans Rajon Rondo and Goran Dragic might also be on the Lakers' free-agency radar. The big question is, why?

    Both will be seeking big money in the offseason. Rondo, at 29, has had a series of injuries the last few years, and Dragic, at 28, looks set to explore free agency when his first season with the Miami Heat ends this summer.

    With Jordan Clarkson and a possible top draft pick such as Emmanuel Mudiay or D'Angelo Russell, the Lakers would appear to be in pretty good shape at the point guard position. Why mess up the team's future by signing Dragic or Rondo to a long, expensive contract?

    The Lakers are better off spending the money to lure a big man with star power.

4. How Best to Fit Kobe Bryant into Next Season's Lineup

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    Kobe Bryant will be 37 when training camp opens this fall.
    Kobe Bryant will be 37 when training camp opens this fall.Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Kobe Bryant will be 37 when the Lakers break camp in Hawaii this fall.

    As the Mamba seeks to finish out his 20-year career on a healthy note, the biggest question is how the aging veteran will fit into a lineup of mostly young, athletic and inexperienced players.

    Will we see the defiant Bryant who so yearns for that elusive sixth championship ring and wants management to bring in other stars to get it done now?

    Or, will it be the Kobe of late, seemingly at peace with his place as one of the game's greats and as a tutor to some of the up-and-coming stars of tomorrow like rookies Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson?

    It may be a combination of the two. While he has been much more vocal and open about basketball and what lies ahead, Bryant is also not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

    When asked if he might retire soon after going through another surgery and recovery, this time for a torn rotator cuff, he told reporters, via James Herbert of CBS Sports: "Who the hell said I'm retiring? It was never a question of if I was going to play next year."

    If his body holds up and his recovery is successful, we all expect Bryant to be in the starting lineup next season. The question then becomes: How will coach Byron Scott choose to use him?

    Given the relationship and his recent experience of perhaps using Bryant too much, the smart decision might be for Scott to limit those minutes to 25-30. If healthy, Bryant at 37 is still better than a vast majority of NBA players and could be effective as a facilitator who draws a lot of attention from the defense.

    Bryant may be far removed from his prime, but he can still shoot, pass and inspire teammates with his work ethic and commitment to the game.

    Kobe responded to some recent comments by Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak about not wanting to compromise the team's future in order to satisfy his star's title hopes for one season, as captured by Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. "It’s a balance of both," he said. "You always want to set the franchise up for the long term. Mitch and I are on the same page. What he said in the interview is not something that we haven’t talked about before. It’s nothing different. You don’t want to compromise the future of the franchise for one season. You try to balance that.

5. How Best to Rebuild a Decimated Franchise

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    Jim Buss says he will step down if he can't fix the Lakers in three years.
    Jim Buss says he will step down if he can't fix the Lakers in three years.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press/Associated Press

    If we are to believe this week’s rankings of NBA’s owners, front offices and coaches, the Los Angeles Lakers are due for a total makeover.

    ESPN Insiders, including Tom Penn, Chad Ford, Amin Elhassan, Kevin Pelton and David Thorpe, played jury and judge in the annual ESPN.com's FORECAST front-office rankings.

    The Lakers front office, according to the team from ESPN, ranks only above the equally inadequate Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. In fact, L.A. dropped 12 spots in the ESPN rankings from last year as the team suffered through its two worst seasons in franchise history.

    L.A.’s ownership of Jim and Jeannie Buss dropped from 14th in 2014 to 24th this year, according to the rankings. This actually was a bit of a surprise, as six other NBA owners were ranked lower than the children of the late Dr. Jerry Buss.

    Lakers head Coach Byron Scott, directing an injury-riddled, talent-starved, inexperienced ballclub, was ranked 29th by the panel. Only former Laker Derek Fisher, now in his first year coaching the New York Knicks, got a lower grade.

    In other words, the Lakers franchise is decimated. Aside from the team's obscene monetary value—Forbes recently pegged that at a league-high $2.6 billionthe Lakers are a mess in need of repair.

    What's the best way to climb back up in the ESPN rankings and, more importantly, the NBA standings? Win games, divisions and championships. It's that simple.

    Well, only the answer is simple. What will be hard is the execution at all levels. It starts with ownership and deciding when to get involved in player and coach decisions.

    As ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton writes on Lakers ownership:

    With a few notable exceptions, such as (Mark) Cuban, the best owners are the ones who provide the necessary financial support and trust the executives they hire to do their jobs...The worst owners are meddlesome and impatient, producing heavy turnover. This often tends to happen with new owners, such as Ranadive and the Sacramento Kings, or those who inherit teams, such as Josh Kroenke with the Nuggets, the Buss family with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dolan with the New York Knicks.

    Sound familiar?

    Even with the title of vice president of player personnel, Jim Buss should not have as much input into which players the Lakers draft, trade for or sign in free agency. That job should be left to Mitch Kupchak, who is the entrenched general manager and knows the league personnel as well as anyone.

    This summer represents a critical juncture in the history of the Lakers franchise. The team has an opportunity to select players in the draft who can be a part of the long-term plan.

    The Lakers also have enough cap space to go after at least one big-time free agent.

    And Byron Scott will have more tools to work with as he continues to preach team defense, athleticism, unselfish play and the winning tradition of a team with 16 world championships.