Make no mistake, the Los Angeles Lakers want to keep their 2016 draft pick. The selection becomes the property of the Philadelphia 76ers if it lands outside the top three in the draft lottery thanks to the ill-fated Steve Nash trade, which means that ping pong balls will ultimately determine Los Angeles’ fate.
After a disastrous season in which the team finished with the second-worst record in the league, to not have a top draft pick would essentially leave them with nothing to show for their franchise-worst 17-win year.
With only a 55.8% chance that the selection will fall where they need it to, the Lakers will nervously await the draft lottery results on May 17th.
Should the worst happen though, it won’t signal the coming of the apocalypse (unless you are an X-Men fan). In spite of what many will say, the sky is, in fact, not falling. It certainly would be preferable to keep the pick, but there are some definite advantages to sending it to Philadelphia this year.
First and foremost, losing the pick this time around guarantees that the Lakers will have their 2017 first round selection. Teams can’t trade away draft picks in consecutive years (Stepien rule), which means that the first-round pick owed to the Orlando Magic from the Dwight Howard trade can’t convey until two years after the one owed to the 76ers does.
The Lakers have spent the past two draft lotteries fretting over pick protections and the percentages that go with them. It’s nerve-wracking for the franchise’s fortunes to be tethered to such an unpredictable thing as the bounce of a ping pong ball, and makes it difficult for the front office to solidify plans moving forward.
Having the kind of certainty that a free-and-clear draft pick offers would be a welcome change.
On the other hand, keeping the selection in 2016 would mean that the 2017 pick would instantly be in jeopardy, with top-three protection once again providing a painfully small slice of hope.
Moreover, the 2016 NBA Draft is notoriously shallow, with only two players, Duke’s Brandon Ingram and LSU’s Ben Simmons, considered to be stars in the making. For the Lakers, who are now living in a post-Kobe world, landing a cornerstone that can be built around is of the utmost importance.
One star-level player could instantly change the Lakers’ fortunes and revert them back to being a major free agent destination. In this draft, however, it appears that a top pick is needed to find such a gem.
What this means is that, while handing over the fourth or fifth pick to Philadelphia this year would be painful, it likely wouldn’t equate to giving up a franchise-altering player. The same can’t be said for the 2017 draft, which already has experts salivating.
In other words, with the 2017 pick factored in, this isn’t a bad year to have a top-three protected selection. The team either gets a potential star (or a solid trade asset with the third pick), or they pass along a less-desirable pick and hope for better luck next year.
The catch, of course, is that while surrendering the 2016 pick does guarantee a 2017 selection, it would likely require another losing season in order for that pick to yield a star. Regardless of what happens with the 2016 pick, the Lakers will attempt to improve the team this summer, which shouldn’t be hard considering how far they fell in 2015-2016. As a result, it’s unlikely that the team’s odds of landing a top pick will be better next summer than they are right now.
Nothing is certain with the draft, though, and it’s entirely possible that a late lottery pick in 2017 could end up yielding a more valuable player than the fourth or fifth pick in the shallow 2016 class.
Then there is the matter of free agency. The Lakers will have a mountain of cap space to use this summer in their pursuit of free agents like Kevin Durant, Al Horford, and DeMar DeRozan. Should they keep their pick, they will have somewhere in the range of four to five million less to play with due to the rookie salary scale.
With the salary cap shooting up to over $90 million the amount that a top rookie makes appears to be almost inconsequential, but with the Lakers determined to sign multiple impact players in addition to role players around them it’s possible that every penny will be needed.
Of course, new head coach Luke Walton and the Lakers’ brass will first have to convince free agents to come to a rebuilding team, but even if they strike out on the heavy-hitters for umpteenth season in a row cap space can still be used in creative ways to improve the team or acquire assets.
No first round pick means less guaranteed money on the books, which equates to more being available to spend in free agency. That’s not a bad thing.
Yes, rookies do tend to offer tremendous value on their cost-controlled contracts, but we are looking for some positives here.
The bottom line is that fans of the Los Angeles Lakers should absolutely be praying to the basketball gods that they are handed a top pick in the draft lottery on May 17th. If things go their way, it will be a reason to celebrate.
If it doesn’t, well, at least there are a few silver linings to console us.