Los Angeles Lakers Must Find Opportunity Despite Julius Randle's Injury

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2014

October 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle (30) moves to the basket against the Utah Jazz during the second half  at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If the Los Angeles Lakers search long enough, if they try hard enough, they will unearth opportunity and value in Julius Randle's soul-splitting absence.

In the aftermath of most NBA injuries there exists a silver lining, its shimmer often faint, its presence nevertheless crucial to acceptance, survival and, most importantly, recovery. The Lakers, despite initial shock, have more than one bright side to occupy.

All they need do is find them.

Long-Term Hope

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28: Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers battles for position against the Houston Rockets on October 28, 2014 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Not even a full regular-season contest into his NBA career, the 19-year-old Randle—the top-seven pick who is arguably the most important Lakers rookie since Kobe Bryant—fell victim to misfortune that many players, no matter how long they play, won't ever experience.

Facing up against the Houston Rockets' Donatas Motiejunas midway through the fourth quarter of Los Angeles' season-opening loss, Randle showed left, went right and attacked the basket, where he was also met by Tarik Black. He rose up off his right leg, then came crashing to the floor, where he laid, writhing in pain.

Before even leaving the court on a stretcher, CNN's Rachel Nichols reported on-air he had broken his right leg. Not 24 hours later, he underwent surgery, his prognosis both bleak and bright, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahn:

"It's heartbreaking," head coach Byron Scott said of Randle's injury, per Los Angeles' official Twitter account.

Indeed, this is a devastating detour Randle and the Lakers must journey through. Watching him squirm in pain was like seeing the team's future go up in flames. He's supposed to be its foundation for the future, one of the players capable of ushering Los Angeles into the post-Bryant era.

Here's the first silver lining: Randle's injury doesn't change that—any of it.

This is a delay in the process, a bump that, while imposing, isn't insurmountable. Barring any complications the public isn't privy to, Bleacher Report's injury guru Will Carroll says Randle will be just fine:

Assuming the healing time is normal, that there is no involvement of cartilage or other soft tissue and that the foot is not a complicating factor, there is no reason to believe that Julius Randle will have any difficulty returning to his normal level. The injury is painful and disappointing, but there's no impact beyond the immediate.

At the moment, Randle's outlook leaves the Lakers with a time-worn consolation prize: Things could be worse.

"There is some encouraging news in the deep, deep dig for the bright side," writes NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper. "Randle is 19. He is missing what would have been his sophomore season at the University of Kentucky. He has plenty of time to grow into his potential." 

Immediately, that won't mean much. Randle, while raw, was one of the best offensive weapons this team employed. Losing him puts more pressure on an already-strained offensive model thin on talent and heavy on questions.

But the Lakers were never going to contend for anything more than moderate respectability this season. A postseason appearance has been out of the question for some time, regardless of Bryant's or Scott's merry musings.

Soldiering on without Randle, then, doesn't change much. He isn't the difference between the Lakers being awful and good. Only three rookies in the last 10 years have represented more than seven of their team's victories: Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin. Even under the most ideal circumstances—Paul, Howard and Griffin started every game they played; Randle was initially coming off the bench—Randle adds maybe seven wins. For the Lakers, that could be the difference between keeping and forfeiting their 2015 first-rounder, nothing more.

That makes a positive outlook all the more valuable. 

Today has been compromised, but it hasn't come at the expense of tomorrow. And considering there wasn't much invested in today to begin with, the Lakers can find comfort in knowing tomorrow's hopes are still intact.

Ed to the Davis

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 29: Ed Davis #21 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the game on October 29, 2014 at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user i
Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Someone will have to step up in Randle's stead. That someone should be Ed Davis, the free-agent steal who, for reasons unknown—and probably invalid—hasn't seen consistent playing time over the last four years.

If there was ever a reason the Lakers shouldn't be playing Davis 25-plus minutes every night (there wasn't), it's gone now, disallowed out of necessity, negated by a talent famine up front.

Carlos Boozer has been underwhelming through two games. Though he tallied 17 points in his Lakers debut, it's become abundantly clear he left his will to rebound in Utah and his semi-reliable jumper in Chicago.

Quite predictably, he's also been a sieve on the defensive end. Like, the rim has provided more protection than him. He's 32 years old as well. Even if he went full 2006-07 starting right now, Boozer isn't part of the Lakers' future. 

Davis might be.

At only 25, he could be a long-term building block. His play to date certainly warrants such consideration.

Through seven preseason games, he amassed 60 points, 38 rebounds and 14 blocks in 143 total minutes. That's 15.1 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes and more than enough cause to play him—and possibly start him.

Nothing about his first two regular-season performances suggests otherwise. Davis has logged 55 minutes and recorded 25 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks—16.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes.

In the Lakers' most recent loss, a 119-99 drubbing handed to them by the running, gunning Phoenix Suns, Davis played more than 30 minutes for the first time since last December. He went for 14 points, nine boards, three assists, two steals and two blocks.

It's a small sample size, and the Lakers remain winless despite his exploits, but Davis is a productive prospect worth exploring further. 

He's also, without question, their best and only rim protector.

Last year, he ranked 14th in opponent field-goal percentage among 228 qualified players who contested two or more shots around the iron, according NBA.com. Jordan Hill finished 100th in that same category, while Boozer ended up placing 179th. If the Lakers are to have any hope of somehow, someway staving off the bottom-three defensive status they claimed last year, it begins and ends with Davis providing what no one else on the team will.

To wit: There are no excuses anymore.

With Randle done for 2014-15, the stage is set for Davis to assume the pivotal role he's never played before—the one he deserves. The Lakers, in turn, now have a greater opportunity to see how for real he is and whether or not he factors into a long-term vision that, quite possibly, includes both him and Randle.

Incidental Tanking

So long as Bryant is healthy enough to play, the Lakers won't dare start tanking by selling off assets, hoarding draft picks and deliberately stockpiling losses. That's the implicit promise they made by signing him to a lucrative two-year extension.

Contrived tanking is not an option.

Incidental tanking is, and it may be inevitable.

As currently constructed, even with a healthy Randle, the Lakers are not a contender. They aren't even a good team. Their defense is porous, their offense archaic, their roster ravaged by injuries and age. The only thing standing between them and the Western Conference's basement is a 36-year-old Bryant, who, despite his truculent defiance of reality and personal limits, cannot carry this team anywhere it isn't built to go.

Let him go nuts. Hope he has a logic-eluding return. This is a chance to accept rebuilding without having to wonder if Bryant will set the team back by playing too well.

The bright side of Randle's absence is hard to find, but it does exist.
The bright side of Randle's absence is hard to find, but it does exist.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Losses are seldom sources of solace, but if the Lakers lose enough, they shall be rewarded. Their upcoming first-round draft pick has top-five protection, per RealGM. Given the hardships plaguing this team, and given the mega-competitive conference they dwell in, that flimsy protection may be enough. The Lakers could feasibly retain their selection, at which point they would add another top-five (draft) talent to their near-depleted stable of assets.

When the losing has subsided and their season is over, the Lakers will still have ample cap space to burn, per ShamSports, and plenty of household names to chase. Months into a rehabilitation that should be nearing completion, Randle will also be a selling point once more.

No, it's not the playoffs. It's not Bryant leading the Lakers further than logic and the wicked West allows. It's not even a promised break in the clouds. But it's something. And right now, the Lakers need something, anything to help them view their latest loss—and any that follow—as a misadventure that hasn't totally fleeced their season of worthwhile opportunity.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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