Championship or bust.
This is the mindset year after year for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fan base. Even when the team enters a season like this one — the worst in franchise history — with a roster bereft of talent, the majority of fans hold out a glimmer of hope and an undeniable faith in either the players overachieving, or the front office making a move to propel the team into contention.
The 2012-2013 season was no exception for such optimism.
A vibrant buzz surrounded the city of Los Angeles after general manager Mitch Kupchak led the charge of acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to pair with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. In order to pull off the blockbuster deals, the Lakers had to unload an abundance of draft picks, although it seemed irrelevant at the time since the Lakers were expected to be championship contenders for the foreseeable future.
It’s how they had generally always done business. Throughout their illustrious history, the Lakers have been a franchise that’s rarely ever not been in “win now” mode. If they were able to make a deal that assuredly would put them in a position to contend for a championship, the front office would look to pull the trigger, even if it meant sacrificing future assets, then crossing that bridge when they arrived at it.
Unfortunately, going about business in such a way finally caught up to them. Howard left to join James Harden and the Houston Rockets after just one season, and Nash fractured his leg in just his second game donning a purple and gold uniform and couldn’t get his body to cooperate after, eventually resulting in his retirement from the game of basketball.
The Lakers sacrificed two first round picks for Nash — one of which has been conveyed with the other probably being sent either this year or next — and likely their 2017 first round selection for Howard, plus a few second round picks thrown in.
After the summer of 2012 brought championship aspirations and renewed exhilaration to the fan base, the storied franchise finds itself in a hole. A hole it can climb out of.
Despite a shoddy draft pick situation, the Lakers still possess enough tools to rebuild a team with a bright future, starting this summer.
As part of the Nash trade, this year’s first round pick is top-five protected for Los Angeles, meaning they will only retain the selection if it stays in that range. If it falls to sixth or seventh (the farthest it can fall), the pick then belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired the rights from the Phoenix Suns just before the trade deadline back in February. Since the Lakers finished with the fourth-worst regular season record in the league, they will have an 82.8 percent chance of staying in the top-five on the night of the NBA Draft Lottery. The odds are favorable, but there will be plenty of justifiably nervous viewers on May 19.
The fourth spot gives the team an 11.9 percent chance of landing the number one overall pick and a 37.8 percent chance of moving into the top-three. Unfortunately, the team entering the lottery in sole possession of the fourth position has never won the lottery since the current odds were implemented in 2005. However, during that span, teams with those same odds — with no ties with the third or fifth-placed teams — have fallen lower than fifth just once. If that happens again this year, the Lakers will lose their first-rounder but will have no restrictions on their pick next year.
If the Lakers are fortuitous enough to retain their first round pick this year, even it falls to fifth, it’ll net them another young piece to add to the foundation they’ve begun to build with potential starters Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, plus possible future rotation players in Tarik Black, Jabari Brown and Ryan Kelly. If said draft pick fulfills his potential, it would also give the team another talented player at a discounted price over at least the next few years, giving them additional salary cap flexibility.
Although they could end up losing the rights to their own first round pick, the Lakers are guaranteed to have the 27th and 34th overall picks in the NBA Draft on June 25. The 27th pick is a result of Kupchak being able to acquire a first round pick last summer, along with Jeremy Lin from Houston in the latter’s attempt to clear cap space, while the 34th pick is the Lakers’ own second-rounder.
If all goes well on the night of the lottery, the roster would presumably have eight young players earning a total of roughly $13 million next season, on top of Bryant’s $25 million, giving them an ample amount of money to spend this offseason. Of course, there are variables to how much money the team will be able to spend in July when the free agency period begins, such as the team option on Jordan Hill’s contract, Robert Sacre’s non-guaranteed deal and Nick Young, who is scheduled to be on the books next year, but has been reportedly placed on the trading block.
Assuming the Lakers decline the $9 million team option on Hill’s contract and renounce their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions to maximize their cap space, the team could have an excess of around $23 million to spend in free agency, depending on the final salary cap number set in place for the 2015-2016 season. The popular opinion seems to be that it will ultimately end up around the $67 million mark. Regardless, the Lakers should find themselves in a position to have enough cap space to offer a max contract to whomever they choose.
Of course, it’s always important not to just open up the checkbook just because you have the necessary funds to do so. Just because they have the space to spend, doesn’t mean they need to use it on just anyone. The front office was in almost an identical situation a year ago, with enough room to offer a max deal or try to convince two or three young, promising options to join the purple and gold. One of those young options that many fans wanted was Lance Stephenson, who signed with the Charlotte Hornets for $27 million over three seasons, with a team option after year two. After a nightmare season, what was once thought of as an acquisition that could launch Charlotte into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference turned out to look like one of, if not the worst, moves of the 2014 offseason.
It was such a train wreck that the Hornets were reportedly looking to find a new destination for him just two months into the season. Granted, had Stephenson ended up in a different situation, the results may have varied, but it goes to show how careful front offices need to be when it comes to who they designate large salaries to.
Instead of spending long term money on a player like Stephenson, the Lakers elected to preserve their cap flexibility for this year’s free agent class, which is deeper than last year’s. This is also the last offseason before the salary cap takes an estimated jump to somewhere between $80-90 million, meaning it’ll be difficult to overpay a player this year, since the monetary value in their contracts will look substantially less impactful when the salary cap spikes.
However, overpaying can still be accomplished in certain ways, such as giving Rajon Rondo a hefty contract after his market value has plummeted because of his short-lived tenure with the Dallas Mavericks. But on the other hand, this is the summer that a plethora of players can be had at a bargain price, whether it’s quality role players or talent deserving of a max contract.
Now, not all max contracts possess the same value. It’s all dependent on years of experience in the league. If a player has been in the league for six years or less, they can earn up to 25 percent of the total salary cap number that’s in place at the time they sign their contract. Players with seven to nine years of experience can earn 30 percent of the cap, while the number for guys with at least 10 years of NBA experience is 35 percent.
This type of structure could be added incentive for the Lakers to go after some young, restricted free agents such as Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton or Tobias Harris. And yes, I’m already scratching Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler off that list. I’d be utterly shocked if any offer for those two players isn’t matched by their respective teams. However, there are some young unrestricted options as well, such as Greg Monroe and potentially Brook Lopez. Either way, the Lakers should take a serious look at the younger free agents with the plan of building their future in mind. They’ll pursue the premier available players like Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love, but it may be difficult to pry them away from the playoff teams they are currently on.
Part of the future includes not only cap space this July, but a considerable amount next year as well. This is due to the cap increase, along with Bryant’s $25 million salary coming off the books at the end of next season. If the Lakers are fortunate enough to retain their top-five pick this year, along with a marquee free agent or at least a few notable ones, they could become quite an appealing destination for a 2016 free agent class that may include Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Anthony Davis (restricted), Mike Conley and DeMar DeRozan, among several others.
It may seem far-fetched for an organization that just finished 21-61 to land some of these marquee names, but the reality is they’ll at least have a crack at making their pitch to these players, hoping at least one is willing to accept a preeminent role of helping to lead the next generation of this decorated franchise.
Are the Lakers going to be championship contenders in the immediate future? Barring some more Kupchak sorcery like we saw in 2008 when he acquired Gasol, probably not. But with the massive amount of salary cap space at their disposal in the next two summers, combined with the possibility of having three draft picks in the first 34 selections of this year’s draft to add to the current young talent on the roster, Los Angeles has the tools necessary to build a strong, youthful foundation.
A significant portion of a potential accelerated rebuild is contingent on keeping this year’s top-five protected pick. If the Lakers avoid further misfortune from the 2012 trades that went south, May 19 could be a turning point, and a return to prominence may come sooner, rather than later.[divide]
Lakers Nation 2015 NBA Draft Podcast