Every year as the 2017 NBA Draft approaches, rumors spread like wildfire, most of which are leaked by teams trying to gain a strategic advantage over other teams by misleading them about who they really want to select.
For most of this millennium, the Lakers were immune from this phenomenon because they were competing for championships and either didn’t have a high draft choice or had a draft choice at all. They didn’t care because they were always able to add veterans in free agency or by trading for them.
In the last four years, however, things were very different. The team was historically bad and needed to rebuild, but they could not trade or sign key free agents because the most recent collective bargaining agreements made it increasing difficult to operate as before. That leaves only the draft, which is why, for the fourth year in a row, the purple and gold are in the center of all the drama.
Three summers ago, the Lakers drafted Julius Randle with the No. 7 pick and acquired the 46th selection from the Washington Wizards which turned out to be Jordan Clarkson. It was the highest pick the Lakers exercised since they drafted James Worthy a lifetime ago, and since social media did not exist in the 80s, the drama surrounding the draft was largely new to Lakers fans.
Two summers ago, the tension increased as the Lakers finished with the fourth-worst record but had the good fortune of securing the number two pick in the lottery. The strong presumption was that the Lakers, in desperate need of a big presence in the middle, would select either Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor, who had just won a national title with Duke.
Instead, they shocked everyone on draft day be picking Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell instead, even though Jordan Clarkson had just finished his rookie year as a First Team All-Rookie selection. General manager Mitch Kupchak explained that Russell’s court vision and passing skills were reminiscent of those possessed by Magic Johnson (which may have been a slight exaggeration).
Last year, the team again had the second pick in the draft. It was presumed all along that they would select whoever was still available between Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. That is precisely what happened. The drama last year was more about all the big-name free agents who were rumored to be clamoring to come to the Lakers, including DeMar DeRozan and Hassan Whiteside.
The reality turned out to be very different: No major free agent even met with the Lakers. Other players who were rumored to be joining the team in the past few years included Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, Paul George, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Instead, the Lakers settled for Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. It was enough to drive even the most well-adjusted Lakers fan insane.
Nothing could have prepared Lakers fans for what has unfolded this year, however. For one thing, it was as though the team had already signed Paul George, who could not even take a trip to Disneyland or visit with Jimmy Kimmel on late night television without being dogged by the rumors.
No matter what has been speculated, unless the Lakers trade for George this summer, which looks unlikely at the moment, he could be dealt to a contender, re-sign with that team a year from now, and never end up wearing the purple and gold.
Then there was Magic Johnson’s public pronouncement that no one on last year’s roster is safe this summer, which he later amended to exempt Brandon Ingram. When the president of basketball operations makes such a bold statement, what reason would there be unless he was seriously working on potential trades?
Thus, according to the rumor mill, D’Angelo Russell was being discussed in trade packages. Teams around the league were reportedly mulling whether make a deal for Russell. Obviously, no deal has come to fruition nor may a trade ultimately happen to send the 21-year-old elsewhere.
After people had grown tired of discussing Russell, the focus turned to Clarkson. First, there were rumors that the Lakers were willing to field offers for him. A day later, not only were they accepting offers, they were actively seeking to trade him and were initiating contact with other teams.
Then, there are the Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, and Josh Jackson rumors. One day the Lakers were locked on Ball, and everything else was for show. This gave way to stories that the team was not high on Ball and that he would have to really impress the Lakers brass his workout or the front office would go in a different direction.
After his recent workout and meeting with Magic Johnson, Luke Walton, and Rob Pelinka, the media crush around Ball was, according to most experienced observers, the largest anyone had seen surrounding the Lakers since Kobe Bryant won his last title. It would have made the late Jerry Buss smile since he always knew that basketball is first and foremost a form of entertainment.
After his workout, Ball was even treated to lunch by Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and her brothers. How often does that happen before a player is even drafted?
Two days later, as though they knew it was a mistake to appear too giddy over Ball, the dialogue changed. Now the Lakers weren’t exactly blown away by Ball, and the front office is seriously divided over the question of who to draft. The rumors even started again that the Lakers had not ruled out trading the No. 2 pick.
The latest rumor is that Markelle Fultz, the presumptive No. 1 selection, is going to work out for the Sacramento Kings who have the fifth pick in the upcoming draft. Does that mean a trade with Boston is imminent, and might the Kings select Ball with the first choice to team him with Buddy Hield, who is already a shooter at the guard position for that team?
The Lakers added fuel to the fire by announcing that they, too, are going to try to schedule a workout with Fultz. The consensus was he’d only work out for the Boston Celtics.
Despite the smokescreen the Lakers themselves are creating, here is the truth of the matter: The Lakers want to draft Lonzo Ball, and all the rest is a diversion. They want Ball to lead their team, run the show, and make everyone around him better. Recent comments from front office personnel for the 76ers and Suns, who pick third and fourth, about their concerns over the influence of LaVar Ball, is their humorous strategy to convince the Lakers to pass on Ball, since the 76ers and Suns seemingly want him badly, too.
The only thing that can stop the Lakers from drafting Ball is if the Celtics or another team may end up drafting No. 1 due to a trade picks him instead. This is a bigger risk than most people realize, but Magic Johnson knows it to be true which is why he is doing everything possible to downplay the Lakers interest in Ball. Fultz is not Karl-Anthony Towns or Ben Simmons. He may go first, but it is not a sure thing.
The Lakers’ mission between today and June 22 is to convince everyone that Ball is not that good and they are far from certain about drafting him. The reality is that everything fans see and hear is a mere chess move to ensure that Ball will be available to select with the number two pick.
The ride is not over. As draft day on June 22 approaches, the rumors are sure to get even crazier. All Lakers fans can do is strap on a seat belt and hold their breath for another ten days. There could be wild twists and turns ahead.