Lakers Don’t Have To Draft The Next Franchise Cornerstone, But They Just Can’t Miss

LAKERSDRAFT

I am hardly an expert on Karl Anthony-Towns. Or Jahlil Okafor. Or D’Angelo Russell. Or Justise Winslow (despite his being among the best names in sports). Truth be told, I watch about a combined 90 minutes of college basketball every season. Why? Because generally speaking, my job requires me to be far more familiar with the NBA, NFL, college football, baseball, golf and even AMC’s programming slate than college basketball. There are only so many hours in a day, and in those moments when I’m not required to watch sports, I typically capitalize on the opportunity. Thus, college basketball, which ain’t much fun to watch anyway, falls to the wayside. And by comparison to my knowledge of the Chinese league that was Emmanuel Mudiay’s stomping ground, or wherever the hell Kristaps Porvzingas plays, I am the second coming of Jay Bilas. My familiarity with those guys is, generously put, bupkis.

But I am reading up on every projected top picks, and have noticed a general consensus: They’re all pegged to carve out quality NBA careers. Perhaps even the cornerstone of a championship team. Maybe future All-Stars. Or just garden-variety “quality pieces.” But none carry a ton of question marks or are being evaluated largely on “upside,” as opposed to what’s already known. And that’s what really matters for the Lakers select second overall come June 25.

Landing a transcendent player would obviously be wonderful. But what’s truly critical is the Lakers don’t whiff altogether.

Kobe Bryant with TrophiesWith five-time champion and future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant likely (in my mind, a lock) to retire after next season, the “torch passing” narratives, never in short supply to begin with, have been cranked up even more. (On a side note, for all the hand-wringing over whether guys want to play with Kobe, becoming the first post-Mamba star is the far more daunting — and perhaps less desirable — task.) For a while, the heir apparent was Andrew Bynum, who was then traded for a seemingly better bet in Dwight Howard. Names like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant have been bandied about as worthy successors to Bryant’s throne. For now, those stars remain elsewhere, which fixes that emphasis squarely on the shoulders of June’s pick. The NBA is a star-driven league and many truly great stars have worn a Laker uniform. It’s considered a right of passage. A foregone conclusion. Even a mandate. As a result, the worthiness of this year’s draft pick will be evaluated by many through a narrow “franchise face or bust” prism.

In reality, while the Lakers can’t afford to screw this decision up (more on that later), what truly matters is landing a guy who can play at a high level, rather than flat out carry a franchise.

— Have you seen the ‘Bleed Purple and Gold’ phone case? —

For example, take Chris Bosh. Two-time champion. Ten-time All-Star. Easily basketball’s best coder. But as Bosh’s time in Toronto revealed, he’s nonetheless incapable of being a championship-caliber team focal point. In the eyes of many a myopic fan or media member, those credentials would make Bosh underwhelming as a fourth overall pick (which he was in 2003), much less at two.

Those people are very wrong.

In reality, there are only a handful of players capable of being legitimate difference-makers on a deep playoff run. The list is very selective, and players on it can’t ever be dismissed. Bosh was absolutely indispensable while the Heat made four consecutive Finals appearances and won back-to-back titles. How many players could you have subbed in who would have matched (much less bested) Bosh’s skill set, defensive versatility and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good? The answer: Not many. Ditto Pau Gasol, whose eventual pair of rings arrived via a career path similar to Bosh’s. In the post-Jordan era, a star player’s worthiness is often measured by “alpha dog” credentials. And while few teams do in fact win championships without said “alpha dog,” that title more often than not secured by the strength of the pack. Neither Bosh nor Gasol are “alpha dogs,” but at the top of their games, they’re better than 90 percent of the league. You don’t win championships without those guys.

Jahlil OkaforAnd if the Lakers happen to draft Okafor as widely expected, and he happens to be more “Bosh” than “Duncan,” the team still comes out way ahead. Ditto Julius Randle, another lottery pick with a high ceiling and an NBA story still waiting to be told. (Even Jordan Clarkson, whose surprise rookie has raised high praise and hopes, falls along the fringes of this conversation.) Perhaps one will emerge as the unquestioned leader and first option for a championship-caliber team. But perhaps they’re both more high-end second options. Or even a third option who provides utility on both sides of the ball while stuffing a stat line. If that’s the case, beautiful. The Lakers will be sitting pretty. You can never have enough such players, whether as a means of luring a future “1a” free agent or as pieces to land one in a trade.

Some will inevitably focus on who Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak could have drafted instead. Unless there a clear, obvious choice was left on the board, this is a misguided waste of time. There’s a reason hindsight is 20/20, and quite often, it’s blurred by revisionist history. (Durant is the obvious choice ahead of Greg Oden now. But in 2007 that was hardly the consensus.) Should Russell emerge the better player than Okafor in five years, that’s hardly a disaster for the Lakers.

Here’s the disaster: Okafor is the next Stromile Swift. Or Derrick Williams. Or Hasheem Thabeet. Or Darko Milicic. Or some other big man who, at the end of the day, proved not very good at NBA basketball.

That’s the result potentially setting the Lakers back several years. That potentially sparks a panic move which in turn mucks things up even further. That could in fact leave Jim Buss seeking a new job in the near future.

Thankfully, uncontrollable variables like injury notwithstanding, that outcome feels pretty unlikely, given the options on the table.

Without question, the stakes are high for the Lakers. The last few seasons have witnessed a revolving door of coaches. A first round playoff sweep exit followed by consecutive seasons wrapped in mid-April. Wholly defensible mortgage-the-future-for-the-present trades that completely backfired. Outward tension between Jeanie and Jim Buss. Throw in Kobe’s impending exit, plus the front office’s unproven track record in a modern NBA with Dr. Buss no longer giving final word, and it’s hardly hyperbolic to proclaim this franchise at a crossroads. As such, there’s a lot riding on this draft pick.

But that’s not the same thing as “everything” riding on it, either. So long as the Lakers land a player that clearly moves this organization forward, fans everywhere can begin breathing easier.

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Lakers Pre-Draft Workout Day 1: Mitch Kupchak Interview


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