It may go without saying at this point, but Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery is enormously important to the future of the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s not hyperbole to say that it could very well make or break the rebuild, making Los Angeles by far the team with the most at stake when the order is finally revealed.
The Lakers have just a 46.9% chance of keeping their top-three protected first-round pick, and if the ping-pong balls don’t bounce their way, the pick will head to the Philadelphia 76ers as the final jab from the doomed Steve Nash trade. Should they keep their 2017 pick, then their 2018 selection will go instead to Philadelphia unprotected.
However, there is more on the line than just one first rounder. If the Lakers manage to hang onto their pick this year, the 2019 first round pick they owe the Orlando Magic from the similarly-poisonous Dwight Howard trade instead morphs into the Lakers’ 2017 and 2018 second-round picks.
What it all adds up to is that if the Lakers keep their 2017 pick they will also have their 2019 first rounder but will lose their 2018 first and their 2017 and 2018 second rounders. If they lose their 2017 first they will also lose their 2019 first but will keep their 2018 first as well as their 2017 and 2018 second rounders.
Second-round picks do have value, so it’s not really a case of two first rounders v.s. one swap like so many have boiled it down to, but still, every GM in the league would gladly take two first rounders over one first and two seconds.
Everyone up to speed? Good.
So the Lakers really, really, want to keep their pick this year (despite how optimistic GM Chris Traeger/Rob Pelinka is). Draft picks are by no means a sure thing, but this stuff matters. Keeping the pick could be the difference between a successful rebuild and several more years of scratching and clawing to return to relevancy.
The NBA now gives big incentives for superstars to stay with the team that drafted them, so finding the next great Laker in the draft is just about a must, and those players are typically found near the top of the draft. While occasionally gems like Manu Ginobili, Draymond Green, or Isaiah Thomas are found in the second round, the vast majority of stars are selected early in the draft. Keeping the 2017 pick gives the Lakers a shot at a star not just this year but also in 2019, and given the unpredictable nature of draft picks, Los Angeles needs all the chances they can get.
Moreover, should the Lakers decide that the best path going forward is to make a trade, having a top pick this year plus another selection in 2019 gives them more assets to potentially move. While Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and several others are very intriguing talents, trading for a star now could put Los Angeles back on the map immediately, and given their four-year playoff drought, that has to hold some serious appeal.
Regardless of what the Lakers decide to do with the pick should they manage to keep it, perhaps the most important thing is that keeping it would allow them to maintain the momentum and positive vibes that they have built up since the All-Star break.
The team had been stuck in a rut with the uncertain future of Jim Buss hanging over their heads and poor play becoming commonplace. Head coach Luke Walton was a breath of fresh air, but he could only do so much to right a ship that couldn’t figure out which direction to go.
That changed in February when controlling owner Jeanie Buss opted to fire her brother Jim along with longtime GM Mitch Kupchak, replacing them with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. Johnson, whose vision for the future aligned with Jeanie’s, hit the ground running, negotiating a trade with the Houston Rockets that brought the 28th pick in the draft to Los Angeles in exchange for Lou Williams.
Then, with the focus squarely on developing the team’s young talent, the Lakers went on a run, winning games that no one expected them to. The downside is that they lowered their lottery odds, but it was great to see young, talented players experience success on the floor.
They entered the offseason on a high note ready to begin a new era with new leadership, and to lose a top pick because of the sins of the previous regime would be devastating. Johnson, Pelinka, and Walton have brought new direction to the franchise and would have the flexibility to move in a number of different ways with a roster full of young assets and a top-three pick in hand. Without the pick, they simply won’t have the firepower at their disposal to pull off something big, even if that move is simply to add another talented young player to their core.
The past four years haven’t been kind to Lakers fans, and now the team finds themselves with the odds (slightly) against them in the draft lottery. One way or another, on Tuesday the Lakers will finally know what assets they will have available to them, but it’s going to be a nervous evening for all involved.
For a team that has spent so much time losing its way in recent years, we can only hope that the basketball gods smile upon Los Angeles once more and that the 2017 draft pick provides a path back to the excellent play that used to be the hallmark of the franchise.