LOS ANGELES — Staples Center rang out with an unfamiliar sound of a unified crowd cheering on the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.
"We want tacos," the fans screamed in unison.
Even guard Nick Young got in on the chant, cheering from the sideline, as the Lakers bench finished off the Indiana Pacers, 108-96.
The home crowd was happy, and the locker room was buzzing. But is winning really what's best for the Lakers? What if one or two midseason wins cost them not one but two first-round picks?
As currently constructed, Los Angeles has a long way to go before it's a contender. Take the taco giveaway—a long-standing tradition at games—for example. Fans are only rewarded when the team wins and holds its opponent under 100 points.
According to NBA.com, the Lakers have one of the worst defensive ratings in the league, so it's no surprise the franchise rarely holds teams below the taco threshold.
Friday represented just the fourth time it did so this season in 24 tries.
The Lakers have 11 victories at home and 16 on the season, just one short of last year's total. Head coach Luke Walton was happier about how they won than the win itself:
"If Lou Williams went for 57 and we ran nothing but high pick-and-rolls all night long and we outscored them 120-119, that type of win doesn't really mean that much to me," Walton said. "Because we got a win by playing our tails off on defense ... that means that we're playing the right way."
Williams did lead the Lakers...with 27 points, but the night wasn't about the team's 30-year-old scorer. It was all about L.A. holding Indiana below its season average of 105.5 points a night.
"[The Pacers] only scored eight points in our paint in the second half, which for us is a near miracle," Walton said. "This is the standard for how we compete."
With only 35 games left to play, the Lakers are at a crucial juncture—one that could determine the team's fortune for the next handful of years.
"It's important because it's good for the spirit," Walton said before later adding, "We don't have a superstar that's going to put us on his back and carry us to wins."
No, L.A. does not have a superstar, and NBA championships are rarely won without at least one elite player.
With every victory, the Lakers may be reducing the odds they'll land their next transcendent talent.
On Thursday, the NBA and the NBPA signed off on the league's new collective bargaining agreement, bringing labor peace for the foreseeable future. The new deal includes financial incentives to encourage the league's top stars to spend at least a decade with their teams.
"Guys are going to get paid a lot more money, and you have a better opportunity to keep your own free agents," Pacers president Larry Bird told Nate Taylor of the Indy Star on Friday. "It leads to smaller markets having an opportunity to do that if they're willing to pay the money. ...
"You have an opportunity to pay them a little bit more and give them an extra year and be able to keep them and sign them up earlier."
Helping smaller markets takes away an advantage the Lakers have in Los Angeles. For instance, Paul George can hit free agency in July 2018, but if the Pacers can pay him over $50 million more than the Lakers, he's likely to stay in Indiana.
Would the Memphis Grizzlies have traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers in 2008 if they didn't fear he would leave in free agency? Now Memphis is responsible for giving the largest contract in NBA history to guard Mike Conley, a stunning $152.6 million, five-year deal doled out this summer.
The financial landscape of the NBA has changed significantly from a decade ago. Finding future stars in the draft has become paramount.
While the Lakers are well-positioned to keep homegrown talents like Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram long-term—should they blossom into stars—what if the player L.A. needs to contend isn't yet on the roster? The 2017 NBA draft may be the solution.
But only if the Lakers have a pick.
DraftExpress.com ranks freshmen point guards Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (UCLA) and Dennis Smith (N.C. State) as the best of the class. Other potential standouts include freshmen forwards Josh Jackson (Kansas), Jayson Tatum (Duke) and Jonathan Isaac (Florida State) and Kentucky freshmen guards De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.
The ill-fated 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Phoenix Suns still dogs L.A. It cost the Lakers four draft picks, and they got a player who spent most of his tenure on the injured list before retiring.
None of the three players chosen with those traded picks (Nemanja Nedovic, Alex Oriakhi and Jonny O'Bryant) are in the NBA. But it's the fourth and final selection—now owned by the Philadelphia 76ers—that may significantly hurt the Lakers.
Additionally, L.A. owes the Orlando Magic a 2019 first-round pick for Dwight Howard, but that selection is tied to the Lakers' obligation to the Sixers (i.e., if the Lakers land a top-three selection in 2017, they'll also keep their 2019 first-rounder, owing instead a pair of second-rounders to the Magic).
The results of the 2017 draft lottery will determine if L.A. loses not one but two of its next three first-round picks. If the Lakers pick in the top three in the lottery, they will send their 2018 first-rounder to Philadelphia, unprotected. The tab for Nash will not go uncollected.
Thus, the temptation may be to chase the eighth-place Denver Nuggets (17-24), who are only four games ahead in the Western Conference standings. Conversely, the Lakers are fifth in the lottery standings but just one game behind the 29th-place Miami Heat (13-30).
|5||Los Angeles Lakers||16-31||28.20%|
|9||New Orleans Pelicans||17-27||6.10%|
|10/11||Portland Trail Blazers||18-27||3.50%|
|12||New York Knicks||19-25||2.50%|
|Standings through January 20, 2017|
|Courtesy of NBA|
That's not to suggest Walton or the players should intentionally lose—they've done a good job of that without trying of late—but the focus should shift even further to the development of the team's young players like Ivica Zubac.
Taken with the 32nd pick in 2016, Zubac exploded for 11 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks Tuesday against the Nuggets during only his third run of extended minutes this season.
With the Feb. 23 trade deadline nearing, perhaps the Lakers should think less about improving the on-court product this season and more about their chances in the lottery. Wouldn't scorers like Williams or Nick Young interest playoff teams looking to boost their offenses?
The Lakers brought on Walton to build a winning culture, but the franchise may need to take one more step backward before leaping forward.
Ingram, the team's youngest player, shared some familiar wisdom after a strong performance against George on Friday.
"I think [winning is] important, but it's more important to us to get better each and every game," he said. "It's a long process, and every time we step on the court, we just want to compete and live with the results. It's part of the process."
That sounds like the mantra of Joel Embiid, who is helping the 76ers emerge as a competitive franchise after a more pronounced drought than L.A.
The Lakers need to trust their own process.
Lakers Insider Notebook
Russell Hurt Again
Just one minute, 12 seconds into Friday's game, Russell injured his knee. The second-year guard did not return, and he'll undergo an MRI on Saturday for what the Lakers are calling a "mild MCL sprain in his right knee."
"Just a little pain. [An] awkward position that I fell in caused a little pain, but I'm all right," Russell said. "It's just sore."
Russell also strained his right calf.
Earlier in the season, he sat out a dozen games with pain in his left knee. On Friday, veteran Jose Calderon took Russell's spot in the Lakers' rotation.
Meanwhile, Young left the game briefly after hyperextending his left knee in the second quarter but returned after halftime.
"It was just more a scare than anything. My adrenaline was going, and I just felt like I had to get back out there," Young said. "It's a little sore, but this win made it feel much better."
Al Jefferson Too Much for Zubac
After Zubac's breakout game against the Nuggets, the rookie center drew a difficult matchup against Pacers reserve center Al Jefferson.
The veteran scored 20 points during his 11 first-half minutes, primarily against Zubac.
"I knew they were going to post him up every possession because I'm a rookie and I don't have much experience and he's a really great post player," Zubac said. "I was just trying to somehow defend him, make him shoot over my hand, but it's really hard because he uses a lot of fakes."
Consequently, Walton went to Timofey Mozgov in the second half against Jefferson.
"I think it's good for young guys to get busted up a little bit. Al's been doing that to people for a long time," Walton said. "[Zubac] actually had a couple of good defensive possessions on him; Al just scored [anyway]. We figured Timo was our best matchup for him."
Jefferson didn't score in the second half against Mozgov; Zubac finished with four points in six-and-a-half minutes.
"Al's hard to guard, especially for guys who have never played against him before," Mozgov said.
Jefferson, 32, was named to the All-NBA third team in 2013-14.
"I watched a lot of his moves when I was younger," Zubac said. "I really like him, so I'm looking at his game and trying to see what can I add to mine.
"I think next time I'll be better against him."
Nance Readying for Return
On Friday, Larry Nance Jr. was cleared to practice Saturday after sitting out a month with a bone bruise in his left knee. The second-year forward was injured during a loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 20 and will play limited minutes Sunday when the Lakers visit the Dallas Mavericks.
Nance was a crucial part of the L.A. bench unit that played well early in the season before injuries forced Walton to adjust his rotation. Thomas Robinson filled in with Nance absent, though those minutes have recently gone to the reserve frontcourt of Zubac and Tarik Black.
Starting small forward Luol Deng has also filled in at the 4, but the veteran has missed the last two games with a wrist injury.
Minutes will be at a premium as Walton works to reintegrate Nance into the rotation, but the Lakers will benefit from his athleticism, defense and basketball intelligence.