The 5-Step Plan for Los Angeles Lakers to Return to the Playoffs Next Season
For decades now, the Los Angeles Lakers have prided themselves on reloading instead of rebuilding, never going through a prolonged drought.
After a disastrous 2013/14 campaign, the Lakers came into the season with a real—if misguided—belief that they would be back in the playoff hunt if everything broke right.
They had a new coach, a high-upside rookie lottery pick and some solid veteran additions to go along with the triumphant return of their Hall of Fame backcourt pairing of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
Fast forward six months and L.A. is coming to the end of yet another "worst season ever" with serious doubts as to whether the reload over rebuild mantra will hold true this time around.
It's still possible, but it will take an amazing effort at all levels of the organization. With the right plan in place, the Lakers could very well be in the mix for a playoff spot this time next year.
What sort of plan would accomplish that? Well, here's the blueprint of a five-step solution that will make it happen.
1. Nail the Draft
This starts with securing a top-five draft selection, which the Lakers very nearly screwed up by winning games against teams they were in direct competition with for lottery balls.
However, L.A. has corrected course with a recent slide that has essentially locked them into the fourth-worst record in the league. The lotto math tells us that the Lakers have roughly an 83 percent chance to stay in the top five.
Those are good odds, but the front office and the fanbase will still be sweating it out on Draft Lottery night, praying to the basketball gods that two teams do not rise above the Lakers in the draft order.
Once the pick is secured, the next task is to make the best selections possible during the actual draft. Remember that L.A. has a second first-rounder coming to them this year by way of the Houston Rockets.
It's not a great pick—it will end up being somewhere in the 25-28 range depending on how the final week of the season shakes out—but every draft has good to great players slip to the end of Round 1 or lower.
The Lakers' front office showed some astuteness in the 2014 draft by stealing Jordan Clarkson—who absolutely deserves to make the All-Rookie 1st Team—in the middle of the second round, giving way to some optimism that they can hit pay dirt again outside the lottery.
Last year's first-round pick, Julius Randle, should be back healthy as well. Along with Clarkson and two more quality selections, the Lakers will have a solid foundation of talented youngsters to build for next season and beyond.
2. Reshape the Offensive Philosophy
Byron Scott has the Lakers stuck in the last century on offense.
We know after years of compiling data and seeing how offenses have evolved that you want to maximize the number of layups, free throws and three-pointers (specifically corner threes) you take, while minimizing inefficient mid-range jumpers.
The Lakers have that backwards.
According to NBA.com, L.A. is tied for the lead in most mid-range attempts per game. They compound that misery by shooting the third-lowest percentage in the league on said attempts, so you can't even make the argument that Scott is simply running stuff to play to his team's strengths.
Meanwhile, L.A. ranks 22nd in shots taken within the restricted area, 28th in right-corner treys and 29th in triples from the left corner.
Another hallmark of the modern NBA offense is ball movement—and you won't believe it but the Lakers are lacking in that department too.
Only two teams make fewer passes per game or create fewer points via assists, and nobody completes fewer secondary assists, per NBA.com.
In a league full of beautiful playmaking machines such as the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks, L.A. is unwatchable. The Lakers have to get their offense up to date if they want to compete in today's NBA landscape.
3. Sign at Least One Marquee Free Agent
Since Dwight Howard bolted two summers ago, the Lakers have been unable to woo an elite player to Los Angeles.
A lot of that has to do with Kobe Bryant's massive contract, which limits what L.A. can do to fill out the roster around Bryant and Star Player X.
But with the salary cap on the rise and the end of Bryant's deal in sight, the Lakers are ready to be major players in the free-agent market again. They can take the first step to regaining their place as the destination most feared around the league by signing at least one megastar this offseason.
The obvious candidate here is Kevin Love.
Love has the undeniable talent of a top-10 NBA player, and he cannot possibly be happy with his situation in Cleveland—at least in private. He's also got clear ties to the city and is young enough to be part of an extended run with the Lakers, provided the organization can put together the right pieces around him.
There are other exciting targets out there as well. Goran Dragic will be on the market and might come at a slight discount after a rocky 2015 campaign. Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson and Brook Lopez have been tearing the league up for the past month as they head toward free agency (restricted in the cases of Leonard and Jackson). DeAndre Jordan has blossomed into a legit piece.
If one of those guys signs in L.A. the roster gets a whole lot better, especially alongside the core of young draft picks. Healthy returns from Bryant, Julius Randle and Nick Young could propel them into the playoff race.
And looking past next season, with the termination of Bryant's deal in 2016 coinciding with a huge spike in the cap, the Lakers will be an attractive landing spot for the upcoming free-agent class as well.
4. Keep Kobe Bryant on the Court
He's not the Kobe of old, but he's still Kobe.
The name alone makes opposing teams game-plan differently, even if Bryant is no longer a threat to win games on his own.
Bryant remains L.A.'s biggest offensive threat, the best guy on the roster at creating for himself and others. The team needs that presence on the court to compete.
The formula has already been perfected. We've seen the San Antonio Spurs keep Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili fresh for deep playoff runs. LeBron James turned his season around after a two-week in-season hiatus. The league-leading Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks have rotated their squads to leave some gas in the tank for the postseason.
It's up to the Lakers to preserve Bryant in the same manner. They started the process this season, but the damage may have already been done. Fewer minutes and periodic rest days are in order for the lion in winter (Or is it a snake in his case?).
This is the Era of Rest in the NBA. The Lakers must use that to their own benefit.
5. Improve the Defense
The single most disappointing aspect of the Lakers' season is their utter lack of resistance on the defensive side of the ball.
After all, that was the reason L.A. replaced Mike D'Antoni with Byron Scott. But the Lakers are giving up the exact same number of points per possession as their previous iteration.
Remember when we went through the indicators of a competent offense? The inverse is what you want to achieve on defense, and again, the Lakers have it all wrong.
Los Angeles concedes the third-most attempts in the restricted area—at the sixth-highest percentage no less—the fourth-most made triples and the third-highest number of foul shots per game, according to NBA.com.
In other words, opposing offenses have no trouble getting the very looks the Lakers know they are aiming to create. When you can't even slow down your opponent's first option, you have no hope of throwing them off their game.
Personnel is an issue, as the Lakers don't possess adequate rim protection. Rather, the likes of Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer and Ryan Kelly are turnstiles around the hoop.
But, more concerning are the breakdowns in communication and the wavering focus all over the court. Sometimes, the Lakers are literally not ready to play defense, and that's on the players and coaching staff.
Improvement on the defensive end is paramount to L.A. making a run at the playoffs in 2016.