Baby Lakers Showing the Franchise There's More Than 1 Way to Build a Team

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterNovember 22, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Brandon Ingram #14 and Tarik Black #28 of the Los Angeles Lakers go for the rebound against the San Antonio Spurs on November 18, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers' recipe for rebuilding was never supposed to include lemons.

The lordly Lakers' plan was to draw majestic free-agent talent to work alongside (or replace) Kobe Bryant, ensuring the parade of dominant individual Lakers superstars would just march on with new coronations.

Instead, these new-look Lakers have been a sweet little lemonade stand with not-yet-global-but-neighborhood appeal, a place where any of the numerous fresh-faced kids can sell to you as opposed to just one magnetic, almighty Kobe.

There is no superstar here.

No one in the organization disputes that the Lakers backed into their current situation, which has been strangely refreshing.

The zippy passing after so much isolation. The breakneck manner in which young legs are eager to attack the basket. The never-say-die spirit the Lakers showed yet again in getting fans on their feet with late rallies Friday against the San Antonio Spurs and Sunday vs. the Chicago Bulls.

Those two teams offer L.A. some unique lessons in what went wrong and what lies ahead.

The Spurs are still contenders because, on draft day 2011, they traded for what turned out to be a superstar bridge in Kawhi Leonard, back when the Lakers were in the midst of a screw-the-draft era. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was concentrating on win-now moves at the time while deferring in the draft to his then-assistant, Ronnie Lester, who told people his 2011 second-round gems Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock would be better than Leonard.

The Bulls, on the other hand, are showing how difficult it is to trudge up the hard road of rebuilding, starting that way over the summer before quickly taking the exit ramp when Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo were willing to sign and keep the Bulls relevant.

Despite their fight, the Lakers lost to both teams over the weekend and might soon be facing a rough reality in the standings.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20: Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls goes for the lay up during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 20, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If they fall Tuesday night against Russell Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder—and Jimmy Butler just reminded the Lakers how powerful a superstar can be by promising his coach he would go for 40 and then delivering—the Lakers might soon have to check their playoff dreams.

Two games against the Golden State Warriors follow, and then a revenge chance against a 9-4 Atlanta Hawks team the Lakers previously surprised. The Lakers could be on a six-game losing streak with a 7-11 record…and that's before heading out on a four-game road trip.

That would stink for fans who used to take Kobe-fueled victories for granted but now sweat out each triumph. But it would also be OK.

The young core of talent is legit. Everyone can see that now.

Assuming the Lakers don't fall back into the desperation-fueled trap of chasing stars and make a bad trade just to get a little better sooner—bear in mind executive vice president Jim Buss put his job on the line by promising contention by the end of this season—the Lakers will be good again.

Maybe even great.

Yes, perhaps the latter will require something such as a Paul George signing in 2018 or Klay Thompson signing in 2019, but the Lakers have learned the hard way that free agents want to join something that has already been built to win. Their progress to that end should be celebrated, even if this assemblage of talent was never Plan A, B or C.

Let's look at the key pieces to this puzzle:


Julius Randle, seventh pick, 2014 draft

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 13: Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 13, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

Kupchak, assistant general manager Glenn Carraro, director of scouting Jesse Buss and scouts Irving Thomas and Kevin Grevey were all sold on Randle's dominance at every level he played. And the work ethic the Lakers trusted is paying off this season.

It's clear in this leaner version of Randle why Bryant saw a Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph's body. The NBA repetitions he's received after losing his entire rookie season to injury are revealing Randle's previously hidden knack for passing. At 14.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, he is the first Laker to hold such averages since Odom in 2006-07—and the only current NBA player besides Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LeBron James and Westbrook.


Jordan Clarkson, 46th pick, 2014 draft

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20:  Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Rajon Rondo #9 of the Chicago Bulls vie for the loose ball during the NBA game at Staples Center on November 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The Bulls defeated the Laker
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

The Lakers bought this pick from the Washington Wizards, and there was a real, down-to-the-wire temptation to select Louisville guard Russ Smith, who went at the very next spot. Credit player personnel director Ryan West and Jesse Buss for vouching for Clarkson, who made his first start in January 2015 after Bryant tore his rotator cuff the previous night.

Smith is now playing in Turkey; Clarkson might be the NBA Sixth Man of the Year.


D'Angelo Russell, second pick, 2015 draft

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 23:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives past D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on December 23, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expres
Harry How/Getty Images

Before anyone else, West envisioned the Lakers taking Russell second overall.

Eventually, almost everyone in the Lakers' offices was on board despite the initial hype surrounding Jahlil Okafor. Whether Russell or Kristaps Porzingis winds up the better player, Russell has begun his second season with averages of 16.1 points, 4.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 41.3 percent field-goal shooting and 37.2 percent three-point shooting, which parallels what Westbrook did over his full second season: 16.1 points, 8.0 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 41.8 percent field-goal shooting and 22.1 percent three-point shooting.

But Russell is doing it in 26.8 minutes per game compared to Westbrook's 34.3…and at an age a year younger.


Larry Nance Jr., 27th pick, 2015 draft

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 13: Larry Nance Jr. #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes for the dunk during the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 13, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
David Sherman/Getty Images

Jesse Buss talked up Nance early on to the Lakers' staff, which was soon flat-out wowed by what Nance did in his individual predraft workout at the Lakers' facility.

Now Nance impresses with far more than off-the-charts athletic ability, because coach Luke Walton raves about "the way he sees the game" and how Nance shines when other players can manage to be mistake-free. Even though L.A. signed Timofey Mozgov over the summer to be their starting center, it's going to be difficult for the team not to go increasingly to their version of Golden State's Draymond Green-centered lineup: with Nance and Randle playing together.

Brandon Ingram, second pick, 2016 draft

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 12:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives against Solomon Hill #44 of the New Orleans Pelicans during a game at the Smoothie King Center on November 12, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

A born-for-basketball frame helped make this a no-brainer pick for the Lakers, who needed a multipurpose wing player and appreciated how rare those are to find.

Walton is cultivating Ingram's less-proven talents by asking him to concentrate on defense and tasking him with second-unit ball-handling. Ingram has already revealed a special quality for focusing harder when challenged or a key situation arises.

Case in point: Against Chicago in the third quarter, with Ingram's older teammates losing focus and arguing about breakdowns as confusion set in, the 19-year-old Ingram stayed calm, created a pull-up jumper and nailed it like it was no big deal to stem a Bulls push. 


Ivica Zubac, 32nd pick, 2016 draft

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15:  Ivica Zubac #40 of the Los Angeles Lakers is guarded by JaVale McGee #1 of the Golden State Warriors during their preseason game at T-Mobile Arena on October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Golden State won 112-107. NOTE TO USE
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Supported by European scout Antonio Maceiras and Thomas, Kupchak saw Zubac as a second coming of Marc Gasol, a player not naturally explosive but uniquely skilled and smooth for someone 7'1".

Zubac's sheer joy at being a Laker—he hoped he would drop far enough in the draft to be part of his favorite player's legacy after watching Bryant's final game at 4 a.m. Croatia time—is part of the resurgence in team pride after so many seasons of roster-fillers to save cap space for those star free agents.

As late as last summer, Kupchak was promoting the idea that the Lakers would get their new stars because two max free agents could team up and come together. The Lakers, however, never even got a meeting with Durant.

Now with a new young coach leading these new young players in teaching us all about togetherness, we can see a truth masked by all those years filled with superstars: Basketball is a team game at heart.

And the Lakers are understanding the game in a whole new way.


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