At this point, most everyone has heard about the infamous guarantee that Jim Buss made in April of 2014 to step down from his position as Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations should the Los Angeles Lakers not return to contender status within three to four years.
The declaration was made in order to placate vociferous Lakers fans by showing how determined Buss is in his quest to return the purple and gold to their former glory, as well as to ensure them that someone will be held accountable for the team’s performance. With Jim being characterized publicly as the silver-spoon toting fortunate son who enjoyed all the nepotism that money could buy, making it clear that his job is dependent upon performance just like an average Joe made some sense.
Fans live and die with the Lakers, and they needed assurances that everything possible would be done to bring their beloved team back from the brink.
However, his statement also adds pressure to a young team trying to find their way. Making it in the NBA isn’t easy, but making it on a team where the expectation is a fast turnaround and stardom is a must is a whole different ballgame. Playing in Los Angeles has its perks, but a low-pressure environment isn’t one of them.
Additionally, Buss’ deadline will likely damage the Lakers leverage in trade discussions as his hour glass begins to run short on sand. NBA teams, like sharks, can smell blood in the water from a mile away and will try to exploit it.
Rather than back off from his comments though, Buss got even more specific last summer. In an interview with Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times back in August, he added a new short-term qualifier for success: the identification and acquisition of a core group of players by the end of this season that can lead the team into the post-Kobe era.
“I don’t mind that I said that, and I live by it. If we’re not back contending in two years from now, then really I haven’t done a good job. To me, the barometer of success at the end of next year … is if we have eight core players that are going to be Lakers for the next five years.”
Having the goal of obtaining eight players who can be the backbone of the team for the next five years is certainly commendable, but it’s easier said than done, especially with a roster full of unproven talent.
Now, with the 2015-2016 season nearly halfway gone and the clock ticking, just how many long-term pieces have Buss and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak been able to acquire? It’s a tricky question, and the answer will vary depending on who you ask, but let’s take a peek at the possibilities.
Heading into the season, it was thought that perhaps Roy Hibbert, then just 28 years old, could conceivably be the Lakers rim protector for years to come. He was a two-time All-Star and there was hope that his departure from Pawnee would rejuvenate the master of verticality.
Unfortunately, his play this season hasn’t blown anyone away and as such, he likely won’t be high on the Lakers list of free agents to chase next summer. Furthermore, Hibbert’s lumbering stride doesn’t scream longevity, and it’s difficult to see him as someone that will be performing at a high level well into his 30’s. Statistically, it would appear his decline has already started, so scratch him off the list.
Brandon Bass is a solid big man and high-character player, but he will be 31 shortly after the conclusion of the season and is likely to look for a spot with a contending team. The same can be said for Marcelo Huertas, whose NBA dreams haven’t panned out and could return overseas. Neither can be considered to be one of the eight players Buss is looking for.
Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly, on the other hand, are both young players, but have seen sporadic playing time at best. Kelly has lit up the D-League and certainly has some usefulness as an NBA player, and Sacre is a big body, but are they part of the future core? Probably not.
Surprisingly, Tarik Black has found himself in the dog house this season. He played well last year, and most assumed that he would be developed into the Lakers reserve big man of the future, but those plans appear to be on hold — at best — so scratch him off the list for now as well.
Nick Young’s swag has gone missing more often than not, and with his inconsistency and age (30), he likely isn’t a long-term piece. There were rumors over the summer that the Lakers wanted to deal him, but couldn’t find a taker for the three years remaining on his deal.
Metta World Peace has been a great mentor, but is likely on his last stop in the NBA. Meanwhile, youngster Anthony Brown has shown solid defensive chops, but on the offensive end, he becomes a ghost. While he may be a player to develop for the future, Brown certainly can’t be counted on to be part of the core just yet.
In short order, the number of players who could potentially be long-term Lakers has dwindled and only D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Lou Williams are left standing.
Russell, Randle, and Clarkson are locks to be part of the eight player core that Buss was talking about back in August. Randle and Russell are the highest draft picks the Lakers have had since 1982, while Clarkson has proven to be a steal with the 46th pick. Even with Clarkson’s impending free agency, his restricted status means that he will likely be in purple and gold for years to come.
Similarly, Larry Nance Jr. has far exceeded expectations. Head coach Byron Scott even suggested that if the draft were to be held today, Nance would be a lottery selection. Despite the fact that he was something of a surprise pick at 27, his play thus far warrants his inclusion.
Lou Williams, on the other hand, is a bit of a tricky call. He is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and is on a solid contract. However, given his age (29) and the fact that he is more of a win-now player, it’s not clear whether he is someone that the club intends to keep long-term or if they will look to get value for him by dealing him to a contender.
For now, let’s assume he is indeed one of the elite eight, which leaves the Lakers three players short of the core that Buss envisioned. While needing just three more pieces doesn’t sound too bad, keep in mind that out of the five potential long-term players that Los Angeles has accumulated, there isn’t much positional diversity (Clarkson, Russell, and Williams are all essentially combo guards and Nance and Randle are power forwards). There are some interesting pieces in place right now, but they won’t fit together without finding the right players to compliment them and allow them to blossom. Specifically, a rim protecting, mobile big and a 3-and-D wing would be ideal, but demand for both far exceeds supply in the NBA marketplace, and there will be plenty of buyers next summer thanks to the cap increase.
Still, it could be worse. The fact that Los Angeles has acquired four or five players that they can begin to build their future around is certainly a good thing. However, if they are hoping to meet Buss’ lofty goal of a core of eight players who can be Lakers for the next five years, they will have to be aggressive at the trade deadline and in free agency — as well as pray for a little luck in the lottery.
Should Tarik Black rise from adversity or Anthony Brown show growth as the season goes on, Buss’ outlook will be brighter, but neither of those things can be considered likely. Realistically, it may take a lottery win and the addition of Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram for the Lakers to hit Buss’ short-term goal.
Even if the Lakers do succeed in finding eight solid pieces to build their foundation on by summer, making the leap to contender within two seasons won’t be easy. Say what you will about Jim Buss, but he certainly hasn’t given himself an easy task as he the rest of the Lakers front office attempt to rebuild.
The clock is ticking, and right now whether or not he makes it is anyone’s guess.