LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have finally pulled up from the low period that dates back to the day Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in April 2013. Five years later, the franchise may be ready to take the necessary steps toward being a contender.
No, the 35-47 Lakers won't be in the playoffs this season, but the franchise finally has direction after Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka's first full season together in charge of basketball operations.
The most encouraging sign is the rapid development of this year's rookie class.
"Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball might be one of the best drafts, relative to position, of all time," one NBA agent said.
Kuzma was taken 27th overall in June. After averaging 16.1 points per game, he should finish the season on the NBA's All-Rookie Team with the likes of Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell.
Hart (30th) finished the season with 95 points over his final four games, capping off a strong season as a steady defender and rebounder. Ball (second) needs to improve as a shooter, but his ability to make plays and defend was well beyond his 20 years.
"Kuzma and Hart were two of the biggest steals in the draft," said video analyst Pete Zayas of Laker Film Room. "Lonzo Ball established himself as one of the best passers, defenders and rebounders at his position."
Second-year forward Brandon Ingram took a major step forward as a scorer and also filled in admirably at point guard when Ball was sidelined with a knee injury. "Ingram took a huge leap," a Western Conference executive said. "[They have] five young players who look like they could be part of a winning culture."
The fifth would be Julius Randle, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Lakers have difficult decisions ahead. Randle could be a casualty if the team lands two stars, namely LeBron James and Paul George, but they may still have room for Randle if they can find a trade for Luol Deng.
"They should be proud of where Randle ended up," said David Griffin, former general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers. "Ball will end up being a very good player in this league."
Amin Elhassan of ESPN agreed the Lakers' young players have shown "tangible growth," and that the franchise now has a clear direction.
Johnson and Pelinka engineered two significant trades, one after the draft last June that sent D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and Kuzma. At the trade deadline in February, the Lakers dealt Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cavs' 2018 first-rounder.
The moves put the Lakers in position to have enough spending power to pair James and George with the team's young core. If that fails, Los Angeles can shop in 2019 when players like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler project to be free agents.
"They created more cap flexibility for the summer and put themselves in a good position for two summers from now," Griffin said.
One executive warned that it's a lot easier to break down a team for cap space than it is to build it back up. The Lakers get an incomplete grade until they successfully utilize that spending power.
Even if the Lakers strike out in free agency and choose to bring back players like Randle, Lopez and Thomas, some in the organization are bullish on their chances.
"For the first time heading into next year, I think we have real expectations for us to be right there in the playoff hunt with or without max guys," said a person on the Lakers staff, who requested their name be kept off the record.
Coach Luke Walton also acquitted himself well in his second season with the Lakers. "Walton has been amazing. I'm a big fan of the job he did with the Lakers this season," the Western Conference executive said.
"The Lakers established an identity as a fast-paced team with surprising defensive capability, especially for such an inexperienced group," Zayas said. "Lopez was the only player to get significant minutes who was over the age of 25, and they won 35 games in an injury-riddled season. The future is bright."
Walton prioritized defense first, dating back to last season through training camp, to Wednesday's final win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Last year, the Lakers had the worst defensive rating in the NBA at 110.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. Through 2017-18, they finished 12th overall at 105.6.
"I really like Luke. He got the kids to buy into playing the right way in a situation that could have been very 'me-oriented,'" Griffin said. "They look like a group that seemed to genuinely care about each other."
On Thursday, Randle said he "loves it here" and that he would like to stay with the Lakers, although both sides have some negotiating to do in July for that to happen.
"We have more flexibility and a better young core than we did a year ago," the Lakers staff member said.
They'll try to add to that talent pool with the 25th (from Cleveland) and 47th (Denver Nuggets) picks in June. "They have a first-rounder in a range where they have executed well in the past and the obvious cap space," the Western Conference executive said.
Should the Lakers look like a championship contender, Lopez said Thursday he would consider taking a significant pay cut from the $22.6 million he earned for 2017-18.
The big decisions won't be made by the Lakers, but rather by free agents like James and George.
Now the hard part begins: getting the superstars.