Lakers Stuck in the Present as Youth Movement Lacks Youth, Movement

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterNovember 26, 2014

Noah Graham/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — It's human nature to be happier working toward something, the basic feeling of growth surprisingly fulfilling even when compared with the delight of success.

This era of Los Angeles Lakers basketball obviously isn't about success.

It isn't about growth, either.

That's a problem.

Free agency is the understandable and logical solution for the Lakers, especially considering how much talent will be available come 2016, but the uncertainty of how that sudden change will occur does nothing for the present day.

The whole misguided “tanking” mindset, diminishing the competitive spirit, is rooted in fans' desire to feel like the games are building toward something bigger and better.

So while it makes sense for the Lakers to fill out their injury-depleted roster with probably the best current player available, ex-Lakers forward Earl Clark from the NBA Development League, Clark is 26 and not quite a beacon of hope for the future.

And the Lakers' efforts to present a player who could be part of a bright future have not worked out so far this season.

The Lakers worked out several younger players—including 22-year-old Quincy Miller, who has been compared to Kevin Durant and Paul George—earlier this month with an eye toward using this time for development. No one blew the Lakers away.

Xavier Henry has joined Julius Randle on the done-for-season injured list.
Xavier Henry has joined Julius Randle on the done-for-season injured list.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

So instead of giving up on him, the Lakers had decided to wait and see if Xavier Henry, 23, could get his injured body back to the point it was at this time last year, when his hammer dunk on New Orleans center Jeff Withey was just the sort of play that can animate a losing team. Henry was re-signed in the offseason largely because his age allowed for a potentially major improvement still to come.

Instead, Henry offered nothing and then tore his Achilles on Monday in practice in a potentially career-ending injury.

And the absence of rookie Julius Randle continues to leave Lakers fans wondering "What if?" With the Lakers at 3-11, it's already a time when many would've been focused mostly on Randle, who turns 20 Saturday.

Instead of being on the practice court Tuesday with the team, Randle was having some good girl talk over lunch with Lakers president Jeanie Buss, Lakers special project manager Linda Rambis and his girlfriend. (Randle's girlfriend posted an Instagram photo of her and Randle with the NBA championship trophies in Buss' office.)

Veteran power forward Carlos Boozer missed the Lakers' loss Sunday night with a strained shoulder and is questionable for Wednesday night against Memphis, and these are games that would've taken on added buzz because Randle could showcase where his development has reached.

Maybe he wouldn't have been ready and things would've gone poorly. But maybe he would've jumped ahead in his progress and offered more reason for hope.

Either way, we would've learned something about Randle—yet that isn't happening with him just spending the season waiting for his broken leg to heal.

There is an intangible value in that possible progress for fans—even more than for Lakers management as it hopes Randle is ready for prime time by 2016 (or as a trade piece to accelerate the rebuild).

Without Randle and Henry, the Lakers' youth right now comprises Jordan Clarkson, 22, and Ryan Kelly, 23. The excitement second-round picks generate only goes so far, although the Lakers remain very high on Kelly as a stretch 4 who can play in the NBA for a long time.

Ryan Kelly is seen as a viable stretch 4, but he's been dealing with a bad hamstring.
Ryan Kelly is seen as a viable stretch 4, but he's been dealing with a bad hamstring.Danny Moloshok/Associated Press/Associated Press

Kelly's hamstring injuries have kept him off the radar most of this season and now for another five weeks, at least. That leaves no one but Clarkson, the rookie combo guard who is flat-out undependable at this early stage in his career.

Given what we're talking about here, however, it makes complete sense for the Lakers to give Clarkson some sink-or-swim opportunities sooner than later.

And Clarkson will get a chance to play backup point guard sometime soon, even though Ronnie Price's bulldog defense fits the team much better as it tries to win. The wild-driving Clarkson isn't ready in any way to be an offensive decision-maker—and Byron Scott told Lakers.com on Tuesday that he would limit Clarkson to a small package of plays when the day comes that Clarkson does enter the rotation behind Jeremy Lin.

Price, 31, is the sort of player whom coaches like to play in order to compete right now, but when the goal is two-pronged for success and growth, any minutes Price plays are fundamentally wasted minutes.

Look back to the Lakers' other really bad team from the recent past in 2004-05 after the departure of Shaquille O'Neal. Even the filler minutes were used on players young enough to be still growing, guys such as 25-year-old Tierre Brown and 25-year-old Jumaine Jones ahead of 20-year-old Sasha Vujacic, who was force-fed some rookie minutes (and shot 28 percent from the field) and wound up contributing to future Lakers championships.

The Lakers have some of that in Ed Davis, 25, and Wayne Ellington, 26, but there needs to be much more than that.

That 2004-05 team was at least young enough at its core to be building up: After Bryant, 26, the secondary options were Lamar Odom, 25, and Caron Butler, 24. And indeed, the growth of Odom (a linchpin for those 2009 and '10 championship teams) and Butler (swapped for Kwame Brown, who was swapped for Pau Gasol) back in 2004-05 did lead the Lakers and their fans somewhere eventually. That's why what happens with Lin, 26, as he determines which way his career path will go is such a relevant storyline.

With Bryant now 36, even though so many fans still enjoy watching him as he tries to fight off injuries and age, these Lakers fundamentally are not in development.

There's something innately encouraging about watching kids play, from Little League to college ball. There would've been something special about every moment Randle was on the court this season, no matter the Lakers' record in those moments.

Without him, it's inescapable just how much the Lakers these days are biding their time instead of growing their future.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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