On Tuesday night, the agonizing wait will be over, and the Los Angeles Lakers will finally learn if they have something to show for their abysmal 2015-16 season in the form of a top three selection in the upcoming 2016 NBA Draft. While the world won’t come to an end if the Lakers lose the pick, it will be a severe blow to their options and flexibility this summer as they try to resuscitate the franchise.
Much has been written about how the team has a 55.8% chance of keeping their top selection and a 44.2% chance of losing it. Such odds are close enough to create anxiety in even the most optimistic Lakers fan.
Moreover, no matter the statistical odds, history is not on the Lakers’ side. Last summer, fans rejoiced when the team finished with the fourth worst record but ended up with the second overall selection in the draft. But what about the team that finished with the second-worst record last year, the New York Knicks? They fell to fourth in the lottery. Should the Lakers experience a similar fate on Tuesday, they would lose the pick for this year.
How unlikely was the Knicks fall from second to fourth last year? As it turns out, if history was any indication, it was not surprising at all. In the past 20 years, the team with the second-worst record was awarded the first pick in the lottery only once, in 1996 when the Philadelphia 76ers moved up and selected Allen Iverson. Teams in the Lakers position retained the second choice only twice, the Knicks in 2006 and the Bulls in 2002. On five occasions, the team with the second-worst record fell to the number three position in the draft.
That means, in the last 20 years, the team that finished with the second-worst record fell out of the top three on 12 occasions or 60% of the time. Thus, history portends that the Lakers may be in trouble.
Of course, in the end, it is all about luck. The results of the lottery this year will be entirely random and will not be impacted at all by what happened historically. What that means is anything can happen, and there is no way for anyone to accurately predict the results. Fans should not be surprised if the Lakers keep the pick nor should fans be surprised if they lose it. This much is for sure: If the team falls below the third selection this summer, they will automatically keep their first-round choice in next year’s draft.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak has stated that his top priority is to improve the talent level of the players on the roster this fall. If the Lakers have a top draft pick after Tuesday, it affords them many options in striving to achieve that goal.
They can keep the choice and draft another talented player to join the core group the Lakers have now. Hopefully, it will be Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram, either of whom would be an exciting addition to a group consisting of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., and Anthony Brown.
If the Lakers keep the pick, it is one less position they have to fill in free agency or by trade. For example, if Ingram is the choice, he is a small forward, which is a hole the Lakers have to fill this summer. With Ingram in the fold, it might allow the team to focus on other needs in free agency such as the center position.
Kupchak has said the team will consider all options this summer and no one is safe if something better comes along. Thus, if they keep the choice, they could trade it for an established asset or they could package it with another young player to perhaps acquire a star like DeMarcus Cousins or Jimmy Butler. If they keep the choice and draft Simmons, it would create some redundancy with Randle and Nance since they all are natural power forwards. This might lead to a trade to fill a larger hole.
If the Lakers lose their top choice, however, it severely curtails their options. It would make a trade very difficult because they have fewer attractive assets with which to barter. That means it all comes down to free agency. While there has been much speculation about the team picking up free agent stars this summer with ample money to spend, that may prove to be very difficult.
Kevin Durant, for example, is going to the Western Conference Finals and his team is playing very well. If the Thunder had been eliminated earlier, it might have been different, but now it is hard to believe Durant will walk away with his team playing so well especially to go to the Lakers who are rebuilding from scratch. The same could be said for two other free agents who have been prominently linked to the Lakers, DeMar DeRozan and Hassan Whiteside, whose teams are making deep playoff runs and appear to be on the rise for the future.
The competitive advantages the Lakers once enjoyed in free agency no longer exist under the current CBA, which makes it much easier for teams to re-sign their current players by offering them more money than anyone else can pay. Several teams are in Texas and Florida where there is no state income tax, in contrast to California where state taxes are highest in the nation (and rising). Finally, with the impact of social media, a player can build his brand from anywhere while living in Manhattan Beach in the offseason.
One way or another, the Lakers and their fans will learn their fate in the lottery Tuesday night. To pass the time it is fun to talk about statistical odds and how things worked out in the past, but none of that has any bearing on what will happen this time. Last year the Lakers were lucky. The team desperately needs that same luck one more time on Tuesday. Much of what is possible this summer will be decided when the ping pong balls stop bouncing.