Five wins, twenty four losses. With over a quarter of the NBA season gone, the Los Angeles Lakers are on pace to win a whopping seventeen games, which is four less than last year’s franchise-worst team. While most expected the Lakers to struggle this season, few could have predicted that they would be this bad.
They feature a deadly combination of a terrible offense AND defense, which creates a perfect storm that allows opponents to toss around terms like “career-high” and “franchise-best”. Most of the optimism that radiated from Los Angeles to start the year is long gone, and fans have hunkered down for another long winter.
However, despair isn’t necessarily warranted, especially during the holiday season. It may not be pleasant, but the Lakers mountain of losses have had the positive effect of illuminating the correct path going forward. With the team clearly out of playoff contention, Lakers management won’t be tempted by win-now moves at the trade deadline, and can instead focus on finding pieces that fit for the future.
It also has to be mentioned that the Lakers first-round draft pick next summer falls into the clutches of the Philadelphia Sixers unless it is in the top-three. At their current spot of 29th in the league, LA has only a 55 percent chance on hanging on to their precious pick, and the odds get worse should they move up in the standings. If they manage to drop to the worst record in the league, they would jump to a 65 percent chance at retaining it, but Philadelphia has a death-grip on that spot thanks to their Herculean tanking efforts.
The odds of keeping the draft pick are certainly nerve-wracking, but with the team settling comfortably into the second-worst record in the league and dreams of the playoffs long gone, they will have to roll the dice and hope that their luck in the lottery holds out. A prolonged winning streak would be detrimental to their cause, and as such veteran players will likely see their roles reduced.
This means that at some point, the Lakers youngsters are going to be turned loose. If the precedent that was set last season is followed then we will see Coach Byron Scott shuffle lineups every fifteen games or so, just to see if he stumbles across a particularly potent combination. It won’t be pretty, but it’s time to focus on the future.
Fortunately, the Lakers do have legitimate young talent to develop, with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson joined by projected role players like Larry Nance Jr., Anthony Brown, and Tarik Black (assuming Black gets off the bench). Scott has taken quite a bit of criticism for his handling of the Lakers youth this season, but soon the team’s record will dictate they be thrust into a larger role, just as it did last January when Clarkson stepped into a starting role.
Scott recently met with Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak regarding the team’s plans going forward, and then inserted rookie Anthony Brown into the starting lineup for a matchup with Kevin Durant and the Thunder last weekend. Brown struggled to deal with Durant and the Lakers lost by 40, but it still showed a willingness to throw the young kids into the fire, wins be damned. It’s that kind of thinking that is bound to take hold as the season slips away.
Of course, Scott does have to balance developing the youth with providing a stage for Kobe Bryant’s swan song. It can sometimes be a difficult balancing act, but the knowledge that Kobe provides to the youngsters can be incredibly beneficial, even if his presence on the court often doesn’t allow the kids to take off the training wheels.
“Knowing you’re not going to get into the playoffs and knowing that Kobe is not going to be here a year from now, it makes you want to focus as a manager on the young players. But the reality is, although Kobe isn’t going to be here next year, he will be with us for the rest of the year. This is his 20th season. He’s just had a ridiculous career. The fans on the road, our fans around the world, want to see him play.”
With a “Kobe and the kids” strategy moving forward and the draft pick surprisingly in play, at the trade deadline expect to see the expendable veterans — Lou Williams, Nick Young, Roy Hibbert, and Brandon Bass — shopped heavily. LA should be looking to receive some combination of young players, cap space, or draft picks in return, although the value of each of those players can be tricky to determine.
The Lakers have proven year after year that they won’t pull the trigger on a deal unless their asking price is met (they held on to Pau Gasol in 2014 because no one would cough up a first-rounder), but there are a number of teams that could use the services of LA’s vets, which may give GM Mitch Kupchak a chance to get a deal done.
Of course, the negative consequence of racking up losses, trading the vets, and letting the young players grow is that the Lakers will likely once again struggle to land a major free agent next summer. Most everyone will have cap space thanks to the juicy new TV deal kicking in, and with the demand for talent far outweighing supply free agents will pass over the Lakers in favor of teams that are ready to win now. Losing isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the NBA, but it does leave a stench that most free agents find repulsive as long as there are other options available.
Furthermore, Kobe Bryant won’t receive the storybook ending that he deserves, but with the team’s record going Hindenburg already that outcome appears to be unavoidable. Bryant will have to make do with a farewell tour that is light on wins and heavy on nostalgia; but the $25 million he is making this season should allow him to cope just fine.
At the end of the day, the eternity spanning the last game of the regular season (April 4th) to the draft lottery (May 17th) will feature plenty of prayers to the Basketball Gods, but should the Lakers land a top-three pick, the future will look extremely bright and hope will return to Lakers Nation. Should they lose the pick…well, safe to say that would be very, very bad. Like Indiana Jones 4 bad.
That’s the risk the Lakers would be taking, but at 5-24 their options are limited, and doing what they can to hang on to the second-worst record in the league at least gives them a 55 percent chance of landing a top three player, and 19.9 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick. Landing someone like consensus top pick Ben Simmons would go a long ways towards clearing the cloudy skies over the STAPLES Center.