The Los Angeles Lakers are anxiously awaiting Tuesday’s draft lottery, where they will learn whether or not they will have a first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Thanks to the ill-fated Steve Nash trade the team will have to send their 2016 pick to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside of the top three.
Due to the NBA’s lottery system, the Lakers will have just a 55.8 percent chance of keeping their pick in spite of the fact that they finished the season with the second-worst record in the league.
Recently we took a look at some of the positives if the Lakers lose their pick this season (there are some, I swear). Now, with the draft lottery nearly upon us, it’s time to imagine the possibilities should the Lakers indeed keep their pick.
The team will be looking to do one of two things with the selection: Select a player they hope can be a building block for the future or trade it for an already-established player.
The Case For Drafting A Rookie
Just about every draft expert agrees that the 2016 NBA Draft has two players at the top who can potentially become superstars: LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram.
There is a perceived drop off after the top two, with the rest of the lottery selection largely being seen as high-level role players. Projections are never completely accurate (Jordan Clarkson fell to the 46th pick in 2014, after all), but in this draft, it appears that the first and second pick hold more value than the third.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Lakers, as they have a 38.7 percent chance of getting a top two pick, compared to only a 17 percent chance of landing third. In other words, if the Lakers do keep their pick, it’s more than twice as likely to be number one or two than three.
If the Lakers end up with the first overall pick and decide not to trade it, then they will have a very difficult decision to make. Both Simmons and Ingram are thought to have superstar potential, but they are vastly different players.
Simmons essentially plays as a point-forward, with ball handling and passing skills that are impressive for his size (6’10”, 240 pounds). He loves to get out on the break and run, which would certainly be appealing to a Lakers team that wants to play an exciting brand of basketball. The Australian Simmons was also high school teammates with Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, and with both players possessing impressive court vision Los Angeles would surely be treated to jaw-dropping passes on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, Simmons is a difficult fit with the young Lakers. His jumper is very shaky, which means he won’t help with spacing the floor, at least not right away. He is somewhat ambidextrous, but it manifests in a strange way: he finishes almost all of his shots around the rim with his right hand but shoots jumpers and free throws with his left. Eventually, he may be able to develop into a player that can be devastating with both hands, but it’s going to take some work.
He also occasionally looks disinterested on defense and didn’t dominate the college game the way he was expected to. A glance at his stats shows how impactful he can be (19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals), but playing him alongside Julius Randle, who has similar strengths and weaknesses, is problematic. Additionally, Simmons, Russell, Clarkson, and Randle are all at their best with the ball in their hands, which would be a challenge for young coach Luke Walton.
The bottom line is that Simmons, while immensely talented, could be an awkward addition.
Ingram, on the other hand, is about as perfect of a fit as one can imagine. The Lakers have a massive hole at small forward, and the ideal candidate would be able to defend at a high level, hit the outside shot, and attack close-out defenders off the dribble.
Ingram checks all of those boxes. At 6’9” with an impressive 7’3” wingspan, he can cut off passing lanes and shoot over defenders. Ingram also hit 41 percent of his threes at Duke and grabbed 6.8 rebounds.
While he isn’t a lock-down defender yet, Ingram’s length should allow him to be a positive force both on and off the ball. The fact that he doesn’t need the ball in his hands is an added benefit, and should allow him to slide right into Kobe Bryant’s vacated small forward spot seamlessly.
Ingram also has the advantage of being more than a year younger than Simmons, which certainly has to be taken into account when considering how much a player can continue to grow.
Here’s the catch though: most draft experts believe that Simmons has the higher ceiling, and the better chance of becoming a superstar. Should they end up being blessed with the first pick, the Lakers would have to decide between the better fit in Ingram or the player with more potential in Simmons. It’s a good problem to have, but also one that will require a lot of guts to make.
Of course, if the Lakers get the second pick then the decision is made for them; they simply take whichever of the two the top team passes on. They want the top pick so they can control their own destiny, but the second pick certainly takes a lot of the pressure off.
Should Los Angeles land the third pick things get a bit dicey, as there are a number of players that have their plusses and minuses but none of them have the glow of a sure-fire star. Players like Kentucky’s Jamal Murray, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Providence’s Kris Dunn, and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Dragan Bender (among others) would all be in the mix.
If they keep the pick and decide to use it on a rookie, the Lakers could add another core player to their young trio of Russell, Randle, and Jordan Clarkson. However, they may not want to wait that long…
The Case For Trading The Pick
With Kobe Bryant retiring there is serious pressure on the team to speed up their rebuild, leading many to speculate that the team will aggressively shop their draft pick around the league.
The goal would be to find a win-now player who is still young enough to grow with the team’s young core. Names that have hit the rumor mill thus far include Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins, although it may cost more than a draft pick to land one of them, even if it’s the number one selection.
Trading the pick could immediately jump-start the rebuild by giving them a marquee talent, which would make them more attractive to free agents like Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside, and DeMar DeRozan this summer.
In the modern NBA, superstar players want to play alongside other stars, and with the cap space the Lakers will have available (north of $60 million) they could potentially change the look of their roster in a few short weeks.
For example, if the Lakers trade their draft pick for say Jimmy Butler and then entice Horford and DeRozan to play alongside him, that would instantly give them the firepower to be back in the Western Conference playoff mix, which is an attractive scenario for a team that historically would rather reload than rebuild.
Of course, it takes two to tango, and should the Lakers keep their pick it’s always possible that opposing teams either aren’t willing to trade or ask too much for their players. Even if the team heads into the draft with the goal of trading the pick, that doesn’t mean that a deal will materialize.
It will be up to General Manager Mitch Kupchak, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Jim Buss, and the rest of the Lakers front office staff to weigh the options carefully and decide which one gives them the best outlook moving forward.
Regardless of which path the Lakers take, whether they draft a rookie or trade for an established player, none of it is possible without first getting a little love from the basketball Gods during Tuesday’s draft lottery.
Let’s all hope that the ping pong balls fall the way the Lakers need them to.