No. 2 Pick Means Darkest Days Are over for L.A. Lakers

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistMay 19, 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24: Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils puts up a shot against Tyler Dorsey #5 of the Oregon Ducks during the West Regional Semifinal of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Lance King/Getty Images

After an extended stretch of mediocrity, the Los Angeles Lakers may finally be turning the page.

Tuesday night’s NBA draft lottery produced a major stroke of good luck with the No. 2 pick. It could have been a whole lot worse—L.A.’s top-three protected slot would have gone to the Philadelphia 76ers with a less fortuitous combination of bouncing balls.

The Sixers still get to choose first on June 23 by virtue of their own top selection. But drafting right behind them is still a sweet spot for Los Angeles. That means the tag team fate of LSU's Ben Simmons and Duke's Brandon Ingram will already be settled by the time the Lakers are on the board. 

Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold sees it as a win-win situation:

It’s one more major piece of a rebuilding puzzle that includes the hiring of Luke Walton as head coach, a war chest of money to play with in free agency and a core of talented young players.

Out with the Old...

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 14:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers hugs Golden State Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton after their game at ORACLE Arena on January 14, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The worst season in franchise history came to a close when Kobe Bryant went out like a lion, delivering 60 points in his final game. Another page was turned when Byron Scott’s option was declined less than two weeks later. The old-school traditionalist never gained traction as a coach in L.A., preaching tough love and mired in uncreative play-calling as the league evolved around him.

There will be other veteran goodbyes as well this summer, albeit with less fanfare. Big Roy Hibbert is a free agent coming off an utterly pedestrian year—it’s doubtful he’ll be brought back.

Metta World Peace’s playing days could also be over in L.A., although he’d be an interesting addition to the staff as a development coach. Peace was a mentor to younger teammates this season and he also played with Walton on three purple and gold squads.

As for Luke, expect a giant breath of fresh air with a much faster pace and a free-flowing offense that borrows heavily from his current gig with the Golden State Warriors. This will hold enormous appeal for a new generation of Laker ballers who’ve been aching to run free.

Walton will also make much better use of the team’s analytics department, something his predecessor didn’t put much stock in.

Simmons or Ingram: That Is the Question

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L.A. has a huge need at the wing. The draft could at least partially solve that dilemma.

Simmons is a 6’10” multipositional double-double machine who can create mismatch nightmares for opponents. But the lefty’s jump shot is iffy, and there have been questions about his competitive zeal and work ethic. As Jonathan Givony noted for The Vertical, the Aussie’s guarding abilities may lack a certain elemental quality:

Simmons’ porous defense is masked by his gaudy steal and block numbers. But when watching him closely, it’s clear that no opposing player or coach fears attacking him. As Simmons rarely makes the effort to close out on shooters, put a body on opposing big men, or offer much beyond gambling wildly swiping for steals, his lack of intensity is amplified.

On the other hand, Ingram’s stock has been soaring in recent weeks. The 18-year-old has always been impressive for his scoring, whether slashing to the rim or bombing away from outside at both a prolific and efficient rate. But he also has a tremendous upside on defense—a 6’9” small forward with a crazy 7’3” wingspan who can contest jump shots and also stay in front of his man.

That combination, along with an eagerness to learn, has convinced many that he’s poised to draft at No. 1.

Simmons and Ingram Key Stats

So all this leaves L.A. with Simmons, right? Not so fast, prognosticators.

Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding reports that L.A. may get its man after all:

The Philadelphia 76ers are leaning heavily toward taking Simmons on June 23, according to league sources, with the No. 1 overall pick they landed in the NBA draft lottery Tuesday night. That would set the Los Angeles Lakers up at No. 2 with Ingram, who already wowed them in his May 11 interview on opening day of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. Ingram’s drive to be great and dedication to winning, according to sources, resonated deeply with the Lakers’ front-office contingent.

If true, Ingram could be the frustratingly elusive wing answer the team has been searching for in recent seasons (Nick Young isn’t the solution and neither was the chameleon known as Wesley Johnson).

Would the Lakers trade the pick if they can't have Ingram? Possible, but not probable. 

It’s worth noting that L.A. also has the 32nd selection this year, allowing an opportunity for further developmental depth alongside soon-to-be-sophomores Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown.

Choices, Flexibility and Money

Kyle Terada/Associated Press

It’s easy to picture Walton coaching a starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell at the point, Jordan Clarkson at shooting guard, Ingram at the wing, Julius Randle at power forward and a free-agent center yet to be determined—Hassan Whiteside or Festus Ezeli, anyone?

Yes, there would be growing pains, but this would be as solid a foundation as just about any young squad in the league and would most certainly mesh nicely with a modern uptempo style.

But the Lakers front office may not be ready to fully entrust its future to players with relatively little experience. After all, there’s a ticking timeline bomb for Jim Buss to step down from his management position if the team isn’t making a deep playoff run next year. Such a shake-up could also jeopardize Mitch Kupchak’s job as general manager.

During a recent interview with Chris McGee of TWC SportsNet, Kupchak mentioned not having the horses to contend for a playoff position, adding, “The No. 1 challenge this offseason is to improve the talent level.”

That’s not just about a lottery pick, but also going after proven heavy hitters when free agency opens on July 1. The obvious top choice is Kevin Durant, but there’s no guarantee he’ll leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and even less that he’d join a rebuilding squad like the Lakers, even with a Walton-led reboot.

Harrison Barnes would be a terrific small forward addition, but his restricted status with the Warriors could complicate matters. Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford and Orlando wing Nicolas Batum will also be in the mix, as well as the above-mentioned Whiteside and Ezeli.

If money alone can’t improve the talent level, there’s always the art of trade. 

But despite the big-picture need to fill a roster with the best talent available, the importance of the Lakers’ No. 2 pick can’t be overemphasized. Because landing Ingram (or Simmons if Philly doesn’t cooperate) casts one more illuminating beam of light on the Lakers’ dark days.

L.A. isn’t out of the woods yet. But it’s certainly on the road to recovery.

Follow David Murphy on Twitter @davem234


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