The Los Angeles Lakers breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday night when the NBA Draft Lottery revealed that they had retained their first-round draft pick. After a franchise-worst 17-win season, the Lakers will get the second overall pick, which certainly helps to ease the pain of a disappointing season.
Mitch Kupchak, the team’s stoic General Manager, represented the team at the draft lottery and almost showed emotion when the results were announced. Lakers fans around the world, naturally, were a bit more exuberant than the even-keeled Kupchak.
While Los Angeles was hoping to walk away with the first overall pick, they certainly can’t complain about drafting second in consecutive years. They went into the evening with a 44.2 percent chance of sending the pick to the Philadelphia 76ers and are walking away with one of the two most coveted picks in the draft.
It’s been said many times, but the 2016 draft class is widely considered to consist of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, and then everyone else. That doesn’t mean valuable players won’t or can’t be found elsewhere, but the consensus is that those two are the ones with true star potential.
And one of them will be making their way to sunny Los Angeles.
As Kupchak told Lakers reporter Mike Trudell after the draft, whether the team landed the first or second pick, “either way it’s great situation to be in.”
The Lakers will still do their due diligence leading up to the draft, and will work out players outside of the dynamic duo. However, most likely their decision will essentially be made for them, as they will simply take whichever of Ingram and Simmons the Philadelphia 76ers don’t select with their first overall pick.
Speaking of which, Philadelphia is going to be a difficult franchise to get a read on. They recently parted ways with GM Sam Hinkie, who was the architect behind their “get bad to get good” plan. In his place is Bryan Colangelo, whose dubious draft history includes selecting Andrea Bargnani with the first overall pick for the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
Most draft experts consider Simmons to be the top prospect in the draft, but his lack of an outside shot makes him a difficult fit as a power forward in the modern NBA. Conversely, Ingram’s combination of length, defense, and a solid shooting stroke makes him a natural small forward, one that would fit seamlessly on just about any team in the league.
Complicating things further, the 76ers are already loaded with power forwards and centers, including Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, and Nerlens Noel. It’s possible that they could trade one or more of them to make room for Simmons, but finding a satisfactory deal is often easier said than done.
If Hinkie were still in charge Philadelphia would likely take Simmons and work out the fit later. Colangelo, however, may find himself drawn to Ingram because of the team’s needs at small forward.
Regardless of which way they go, it’s unlikely that the Lakers will be able to truly have a read on things until the pick is formally announced.
Of course, that assumes that the Lakers are making a selection at all.
With the team mired in a lengthy rebuild and Kobe Bryant no longer around to drive ratings up, the organization will feel enormous pressure to put a winning team on the floor.
It’s not clear exactly who might be available via trade just yet, but given the Lakers situation, the temptation to flip the second overall pick for a young, win-now piece is going to be very high. Again, making a trade can be extremely complicated in the NBA, but all it takes is one team to meet the Lakers’ asking price for a deal to get done.
If they can land an established player, it will give Kupchak and new head coach Luke Walton that much more bait to dangle in front of free agents in July, when the Lakers will have just over $60 million in cap space to play with.
If they can land a major piece via trade and then another piece (or dare I say, two?) in free agency, we could quite possibly see the Lakers back in the playoffs as early as next season. That’s the kind of direction the team would love to go in, although they will be careful not to jump the gun.
As Kupchak told Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News, “We don’t think we can continue to lose at this pace. At some point, we have to make a dramatic jump or at least show dramatic improvement.”
That doesn’t mean the team will rush to find a trade, but they will certainly listen. They learned the hard way that sometimes cashing in all of the chips isn’t the best idea, and still owe two first round picks thanks to the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades.
That said, we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. The draft takes place on June 23rd, which means that the Lakers will have the next five weeks to determine which direction the team would like to go in. They will thoroughly investigate every draft-worthy player and listen intently to trade offers. That’s the beauty of landing a top-two pick in this draft; it gives the team options that they simply wouldn’t have had otherwise.
There is plenty of time to discuss and debate the merits of each possible course of action. For now, in the afterglow of the lottery, it’s important that we take a step back and, as Phil Jackson would say, live in the moment. The bottom line, whether the team ends up with Ingram, Simmons, or a trade, is that the draft lottery was a massive win for the Lakers.
And it sure does feel good to win again.
For an organization that has endured a lot over the past few years, there is plenty to be thankful for right now. The past month has been a whirlwind of emotion, but for the first time in years positive purple and gold vibes are radiating from Los Angeles.
Five weeks ago, Kobe had perhaps the greatest farewell game ever, putting up an incredible 60 points on an unforgettable night.
The Lakers then let embattled coach Byron Scott go and quickly came to terms with the highly sought-after Luke Walton to replace him, paving the way for a new, more exciting brand of offense.
The draft lottery brought even more good fortune, and the Lakers are now in an enviable position that will provide them with plenty of options to improve the team.
The Lakers have quickly made the transition from rock bottom to a team on the rise, setting up an exciting summer for supporters of the purple and gold.
We don’t know how it will all turn out, but we do know that, for this moment, the lights in Los Angeles are shining a little brighter.