The 2016-17 NBA season is about to end for the Los Angeles Lakers, and for the fourth consecutive year, the team will miss the playoffs. It is not just a matter of missing the top eight spots in the Western Conference, but once again they will finish with the second or third worst record in the entire league.
Recognizing the dire circumstances facing her beloved Lakers, team president Jeanne Buss did not even wait until the end of the season to clean house in the front office.
Legendary Lakers’ owner Dr. Jerry Buss passed away on Feb. 18, 2013, and by all reports, he had ceded control of basketball operations to his son Jim at least a couple of years before that. Thus, for a number of years, Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak were responsible for making the decisions which shaped the product fans saw on the court.
Their strategy at the beginning was sound. They planned to acquire Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to lead the team into the future, and at least temporarily they would be joined by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. It could have worked, but when the Paul deal fell through, they pivoted and got Steve Nash to play point guard, which proved to be disastrous. Nash, 38 at the time, was injured very early and never recovered, and Howard bolted to the Houston Rockets after one season.
The Lakers got nothing in return for the loss of these players, nor did they get anything back when Gasol defected to play for the Chicago Bulls where he went on to prove he had plenty left to offer. The Lakers were left in shambles: No assets to use in a trade, and no hope to attract top free agents who were interested only in moving to a team where they could win right away.
In the face of this predicament, the front office panicked and extended Bryant’s contract for two more seasons at an enormous salary, before they knew if he would ever recover from his ruptured Achilles tendon. Sure enough, Bryant barely played the final three years of his career but his on and off presence, and his exorbitant salary forced the team to delay the start of the inevitable rebuilding process.
Then, last summer, when the team could finally begin to rebuild, Buss and Kupchak made another terrible blunder, spending the bulk of the team’s salary cap space for the next four years on, of all people, Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng.
In the early stage of the team’s decline, Buss and Kupchak believed that the mere opportunity to play for the once-storied Lakers franchise would lure a big-name free agent. However, they struck out time and time again with players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, and Hassan Whiteside, some of whom were unwilling to even take a meeting with the purple and gold.
Buss and Kupchak finally got the message that their only option was the draft. Thus, in the past three years, they chose three players with high draft picks (Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, and Brandon Ingram) and three solid players later in the draft (Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr. and Ivica Zubac).
The progress of these players, however, has been slower than the team hoped for. All six have shown skill and potential, and while they will get better, as of now, none has emerged as one of the best young players in the league. None has shown the kind of sure-fire superstar qualities exhibited by peers such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, or Devin Booker.
The mantra eventually adopted by Buss and Kupchak was patience. Players like DeMarcus Cousins are rarely available at the NBA trade deadline – or ever – but when he was available this year, the front office said no, stuck with the plan, and watched as Cousins was dealt to New Orleans for practically nothing. It may have been a coincidence, but they were fired a few days later.
Enter the new front office team of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. They did not draft or otherwise choose any of the players on the current roster, so they do not have an emotional attachment to anyone. By all reports, they have been studying each player over the last two months of the season to decide who to bring back in the fall.
They can’t be happy with what they’ve seen, with all the inconsistent performances and never-ending losses. Each player has done well here and there, including other young members of the squad like Tarik Black, David Nwaba, and Tyler Ennis. But no player, with the possible exception of Brandon Ingram, has been consistent since Johnson took over or shown the ability to play defense.
What this all means is that the front office has a difficult decision to make this summer and it is no exaggeration to suggest that it is high stakes poker with the foreseeable future of the franchise on the line. They will, of course, try to sign a big-name free agent, but for all the reasons they’ve encountered the past few years, that is unlikely to succeed.
Thus, there may be only options: Stay the course, remain patient, and give the young core another season or two before making any final judgments; or package some of them in a trade for an All-Star caliber player, if one is available. There are rumors that Paul George and Jimmy Butler, who have similar statistics and played for the Eastern Conference All-Star team earlier this year, may be on the trading block, but at what price?
It will take some combination of Russell, Randle, Ingram, and Clarkson to trade for anyone like Butler or George, both of whom primarily play the same position as Ingram. If the Lakers retain their top-three protected pick, the swap could also involve that selection. The price would be steep, but there is a sense that Johnson and Pelinka are not willing to sit back and let nature take its course.
There is no clear-cut, definitive answer to what the Lakers should do. There is strong disagreement among the fan base about Russell, Randle, and Clarkson — each has passionate supporters and critics – and it could be this way in the front office as well. Sometimes they look really good, and sometimes they look awful, and on defense, it is more often the latter.
With young stars-in-making Towns, Booker, Wiggins, Porzingis, Rudy Golbert, Nikola Jokic and certain others, it is their mental toughness and competitive edge as much as anything that allows them to soar. It is unclear if the Lakers’ young players have those qualities, or ever will.
Someone has to decide to stay the course or chart a new one, and that person is Magic Johnson, which should give fans more hope than if it were still Jim Buss in charge. Over the next few months, we’ll learn what Johnson decides and if this offseason can be a more productive one than the Lakers have enjoyed the past few years.