So… What If The Lakers Lose Their Top-Five Pick?

NBA Draft lottery

We — media and fans alike — have spent the last few weeks chopping up the merits of Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Jahlil Okafor vs. Emanuel Mudiay vs. D’Angelo Russell vs. any of the dudes they could take with the fifth pick.

(Personally, I’m partial to Justise Winslow. He’s an uber-hard working wing capable of defending multiple positions, and while his ceiling might not be as high as some of the other candidates, Winslow’s floor feels as high as anyone in the Top 10. Floor matters. The Lakers can afford for this pick not to become a perennial All-Star. They can’t afford Stromile Swift. Like it was with Julius Randle, it’s tough envisioning a world in which Winslow isn’t a solid NBA player. Plus, Justise Winslow is about as awesome a name as you’ll find in any sport, anywhere. I spent most of 1987 watching a Don Johnson cop drama called Justise Winslow.)

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If the power of positive thinking means anything, the Lakers will be fine Tuesday evening. But there is the possibility — about 17 percent — two teams jump the lottery line, gifting Philadelphia another first rounder with which they can add a coveted prospect to their basketball menagerie.

To some, 17 percent doesn’t sound like much. Not even one-in-five! But think of it this way: If I offered you the chance to play a game in which everyone wins $250,000 except 17 percent of the contestants who lose an arm instead, you’d skip it. Why? Because 17 percent is entirely too significant statistically to risk losing an arm. Or should be, at least.

Losing the pick wouldn’t shake L.A. quite as much as, say, the plot of San Andreas,  but it won’t be good, and the ramifications will be serious. Should the next great Laker instead suits up for the Ballin’ Ben’s, it would…

  • Represent a monumental blow psychologically to Lakers fans, and I believe the organization as well. The Lakers were a train wreck last season, generally tolerated largely because of that pot of prospect gold available at the end of the rainbow…
  • …Potentially set back the rebuilding process more broadly, because the lottery pick is one of the things the Lakers hope to use in attracting high end talent to Los Angeles. Everything takes longer now…
  • … Screw them in next year’s Draft, because while the Lakers would be guaranteed a pick — Stepian Rule! — there’s a good chance they won’t be as bad as last season. Not good, mind you, but definitely not as bad. The Lakers would then require a Certified Lottery Miracle to have a crack at top-5 talent…
  • …Increase the pressure on the front office to compensate for the lost talent this summer.

It’s the last one that worries me most, because it has the potential for the greatest long term damage.

A top five pick by definition adds a badly needed element of anticipation and excitement to next season, without necessarily increasing expectations to unrealistic levels. Fans seek potential and promise, and will invest in seeing the pick improve over the course of the year without expecting him to instantly turn things around. That’s not how the world works, save the rare LeBron type. Should the Lakers show up to training camp with Lottery Guy, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, plus the 27th and 34th picks, they’ll be capable of generating some buzz around town, and a sense there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Add in some other modest improvement — bringing back Ed Davis to create an even stronger young core, or prying an upside-type like Khris Middleton away from the Bucks, for example — and it gets even better.

That scenario doesn’t require any risky or big ticket item to make people happy.

But if Lottery Guy goes away, the “What else you got?” questions grow louder. The pressure to “do something!” increases. Could that impact the front office’s thinking? Jim Buss is on a clock, after all. Would losing the pick make the lure of guys like Rajon Rondo, a bad idea at any price, stronger?

Getting screwed by math will hurt. It’ll feel like a Randle broken leg, except in May. It likely means the suffering endured by fans over the last two seasons won’t come with as sweet a reward.

All of that would suck, but still shouldn’t change a smart, well-thought rebuilding path. The Lakers would still be wise to take a view of things looking well past next season’s record, trading wins in 2015-16 for a higher ceiling in the seasons following. Not “tanking,” but keeping a long-range view. Because unless the big ticket guys (Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, etc.) are coming next year — and I don’t think they are — the chances of the Lakers improving from 21 wins to something that matters are slim. The Lakers should be consumed with asset gathering. Finding as many good young pieces as they can,  building an appealing core that might be appealing to Kevin Durant types, provide the ammunition to make a franchise-altering trade, or (and this is a novel idea!) grow organically into a good team.

Being competitive next year in absolute terms is a secondary consideration.

There’s the question of “relevance,” as well. It’s commonly said the Lakers can’t afford another year like the last two, because fans will revolt, the stars will empty out of the lower bowl, and it’ll be generally embarrassing for all involved. It’s completely untrue — the Lakers are the rare franchise capable of even ignoring fan concerns in the short term if it means a payoff a couple years later. A lottery pick conveniently bakes in a sense of relevance for next year. If it disappears, the Lakers must avoid the temptation to recreate it for cosmetic purposes.

(They have a built-in shield against irrelevance next season anyway, thanks to all the attention going towards Kobe in (presumably) his final season. Use it.)

Ideally for the Lakers, by Tuesday night none of this matters, and everyone can start lobbying on behalf of their guy to be the top five pick. But if disaster strikes, the front office instantly has some challenges in its hands. Not the least of which is refusing to fight the natural disappointment and impatience of the fan base with transactions that have more short term benefit than long. Great opportunities to build the team and energize the fan base might still come along and the Lakers could certainly take advantage, just as they would if they keep the pick. But maybe they don’t.

The best play might turn out to be doing nothing, or stick to little stuff with smaller benefits. If it comes to that, fans should hope the front office has the stones to disappoint those demanding action for action’s sake.


Lakers Nation NBA Draft Podcast: Top 5 Prospects

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