The Los Angeles Lakers can't win for losing.
No sentiment seems more appropriate for this talent-deprived team that runs the risk of losing a top-five NBA lottery draft pick next June if it ekes out too many wins during the regular season.
At 8-18, that’s just where the Lakers stand during another record-setting, gosh-awful season.
What’s a coach and his players to do? For a small handful of Lakers who may have a legitimate future with the team, the answer is simple: Play hard and play to win every night. Your job depends on it.
If it was left up to Magic Johnson, the Lakers would purposely lose every game to ensure they obtain a coveted lottery draft selection next June. Johnson told Neil Best of Newsday:
If you're going to lose, you have to lose, because you can't be in the middle of the pack. You either have to be great or you have to be bad, to get a good [draft] pick.
Unfortunately, Magic has no role in how the team performs. And players aren't going to take the court in order to tank games—it's just not their nature.
So this year's Lakers team follows a pattern of of mediocrity that seems to keep it just good enough to eventually miss out on gaining that top-five draft pick. There's still plenty of season left for L.A. to sneak into the bottom five or even three, which made its one-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Friday night such a nail-biter.
What's obvious is that the Lakers lack talent and depth. And the only way to get more of each is through the draft, trades and free-agent signings.
Regardless of how they go about getting better, the current Lakers who seek job stability with the purple-and-gold can only control what they do and how they perform.
The current number of Lakers with a legitimate shot at sticking around is small. The club will probably turn over at least half of its roster before next season, which means everyone, save for Kobe Bryant, lacks job security.
By the time Bryant's contract ends in 2016, the Lakers most likely will look a lot different than they do today. A few players stand a good chance of being part of that future core group.
If there is one sure thing, it would have to be retaining the 20-year-old power forward from Kentucky who broke his leg after playing just 14 minutes this season.
Randle is off crutches and back in the gym as he rehabilitates for next year. Based on his NBA Summer League play and training camp, Lakers management expects the 6’9” stretch power forward to be a prominent force for years to come.
And Randle can’t wait to get back, per the Los Angeles Times.
You miss the competitive atmosphere, going to war with your teammate. It's a brotherhood out there, and it's tough to just sit back and watch, but I'm learning a lot throughout all of this.
Randle is one of the key building blocks for the Lakers' future. That's a lot to put on a kid so young, but he seems up to the task and will just get better with time.
Swaggy P was the only Laker given a long-term contract in the offseason. He eagerly signed it, even though he might have received more had he gone elsewhere, per the Los Angeles Daily News.
Young finished tied for eighth in the voting last season for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. And though he missed the first six weeks of this season due to a thumb injury, Young has to be considered one of the league's front-runners to win the award this year.
In 16 games, all coming off the bench, Young is averaging 14.9 points and shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. He's hit some big shots, including a low-percentage three-pointer over Manu Ginobili that helped the Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs in overtime on the road.
Young had six three-pointers in that win over the Spurs and finished with 29 points in just 25 minutes.
Bryant has had nothing but praise for Young since welcoming him back to the lineup, via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:
You got a player who can get buckets and create. He does wonders. Nick is a phenomenal talent. He has a pull-up jump shot and is creating mismatches. I’m very happy to have him back.
At 29 years old, Young would seem to have a bright future in Los Angeles. He brings energy, excitement, scoring and personality both on and off the court—sounds like a Lakers leader.
If he doesn't get traded first, Jordan Hill could be a fixture at power forward and center for L.A. the next few years.
After hearing that the Lakers had no interest in shopping Hill, rumors circulated last week (via USA Today) that L.A. offered Hill and a first-round draft pick to the Boston Celtics for Rajon Rondo. But that was nixed in Boston, and Rondo ended up with the Dallas Mavericks.
Starting all 26 games at center for the Lakers, the 6'10", 235-pound Hill is averaging close to 30 minutes a game—a career high. Thirteen points and eight rebounds are also high-water marks for the 27-year-old, sixth-year veteran.
The Lakers have the option on Hill's $9 million contract for next season, and The Sporting News recently reported that they had no desire to trade him now. Thanks to a better diet and training, Hill is playing the best basketball of his career:
With D’Antoni, it was hard for me to find the minutes. He wanted me to do the things he wanted me to do to get the minutes. I couldn’t really do what I wanted to do, to play the way I know I could play. So, things happened and now it’s a whole new year. Now, I am one of the main focal points of the team, so I can go out there and do what I am capable of doing.
He may be on the rookie shuttle between the NBA and the D-League, but Clarkson has a bright future with the Lakers if they have the patience to let him develop.
The 22-year-old, 6’5” rookie guard from Missouri was splendid during the Summer League, averaging close to 16 points and a team-leading five rebounds per game.
Clarkson is the third option at point guard this season behind Jeremy Lin and Ronnie Price, making it hard for the rookie to see playing time. Make no mistake, though—management likes this kid.
Clarkson averaged 17.5 points at Mizzou but wasn’t drafted till the second round as the 46th pick, after the Lakers paid the Washington Wizards for the right to pick him.
Shuttling between the Lakers and the D-League D-fenders, Clarkson is in his NBA infancy. He displayed some of what the future holds during Summer League but is averaging just 11 minutes and 4.5 points at the NBA level. He has impressed the Black Mamba (via Los Angeles Daily News):
I like him. He’s a hard worker and a curious player. He tries to pick things apart and tries to learn and absorb as much as he can.
Bryant calls him "a steal of a pick."
Clarkson as a point guard is a work-in-progress. But he is a natural at driving to the basket, and he's not afraid of being physical. He has a developing mid-range game and, given more playing time, will eventually turn into the kind of player who might average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists a game.
Wesley Johnson and Ed Davis are both on the bubble in terms of their future with the Lakers. The 6'7" Johnson has improved his defense immeasurably, and that is where he'll probably make his biggest mark.
Likewise, the 6'10" Davis excels at the defensive end of the floor but is also a sure bet to score close to the basket. Davis scored 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting in 32 minutes of the Lakers' one-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday. For the season, he is making 63 percent of his shots.
Davis is 25, while Johnson is 27. They are good role players who would fit in nicely with a future Lakers team that may include high draft picks and top free-agent signings.
Kobe Bryant's future with the Lakers is obviously going to be short-lived. He'll either retire after next season or continue for another year or two if he sees a championship team being built.
Bryant has often looked tired and is shooting just 38 percent, the worst of his 19-year career. The 36-year-old is playing 35.4 minutes per game, which is about five minutes too many.
The way Bryant is being used by coach Byron Scott may heavily contribute to what sort of future, if any, he will have with the Lakers. Unless Scott manages his minutes better, the future for Bryant could end before his contract does.