Despite their rich history, the Los Angeles Lakers are one of this summer’s biggest question marks. The organization is fully committed to rebuilding their once-great team, but how they will go about that, and how much patience they will have, has yet to be seen.
They have the second overall pick in the NBA Draft, and while most seem to believe that the Lakers will select UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, nothing is official and rumors continue to swirl that they may go with Josh Jackson from Kansas or De’Aaron Fox from Kentucky.
That said, Ball seems to make the most sense, as he projects to fit well next to D’Angelo Russell in the Lakers backcourt (on offense, anyway), and the way he passes the ball would, in theory, unlock open looks for a team that needs all the high-percentage opportunities it can get. Simply put, he plays the game the right way, and that has value.
For the time being, though, the Lakers aren’t showing their cards, which is exactly what they should be doing. NBA teams want to do what they can to keep the opposition in the dark about their future plans, lest they lose critical leverage. Building a professional sports franchise while competing against other teams is a little like poker, and if your competition gets a hint at what you might be doing, they can really make it hurt.
As a result, NBA teams like to play things close to the vest in general, and the offseason winds up filled with more smokescreens and misdirection than a magic show.
Still, over time, teams develop reputations for behaving in a certain manner. In general, the Celtics drive a hard bargain for their assets, even at the expense of a deal getting done. The Sacramento Kings struggle to convince people that they are a respectable front office because…well, because they are the Sacramento Kings.
The Lakers, meanwhile, had a reputation for taking a relatively cautious approach. They shot for the stars and when they came up short they rolled over cap space to the next year, that is until Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss realized they needed to win now and overvalued Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng.
Ironically, it was breaking from the script and pushing to spend that put the most damning marks on Kupchak and Buss’ reports cards, and they were ultimately dismissed in February.
With Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in place as the president of basketball operations and the general manager, respectively, the once-predictable Lakers have become a puzzle that would furrow even Edward Nygma’s brow. Pelinka said several times that they have a plan in place, but both he and Johnson are so new to the front office world that getting a read on what that plan might be is difficult.
The first clue we will get will come at the draft, as who they select should somewhat reveal their future plans. Drafting Ball or Fox could mean one or more of the Lakers guards will be traded, and would almost certainly eliminate them from pursuing guards via trade or free agency. Likewise, Jackson could cross swingmen off of their list of players to pursue.
Of course, they could always make a trade as well. Opposing teams will try to take advantage of their lack of experience on the trade market, which tends to heat up before the draft.
The second overall pick will be in high demand, but finding a young star in the draft is currently the best way to build an NBA team, and given the Lakers rebuilding status, it would be difficult to envision them trading the pick. Again, though, no track record to refer to. Anything can happen.
As for the 28th pick, there are a number of ways for the Lakers to go. It’s an ideal spot to jump on a player that has slipped, or that pick could be added into a trade.
The Lakers also have a number of young players on their roster that will be sought after by other teams. Up until this point, they have rebuffed any offers with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, or Larry Nance Jr. in them, but since Johnson and Pelinka didn’t have a hand in selecting those players they may be more willing to part with them than the previous regime was.
It’s always possible that discussions for a particular player that were shut down during Buss and Kupchak’s regime will be rekindled this summer.
Again, one question mark after another and nearly infinite paths available to them.
The one thing that does seem likely is that Johnson and Pelinka will look to make a splash in some way this summer. After all, when a massive change takes place the new guard is often eager to put their own stamp on things, and this offseason will provide plenty of opportunity for that.
Rumors have already sprung up regarding the availability of Clarkson, and only Ingram has been mentioned as an “untouchable”. Johnson and Pelinka may like their young core, but if a move makes sense, they could very well pull the trigger.
The little bit of history that we do have to pull from indicates that Johnson isn’t afraid to make moves, as he acted swiftly to trade Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets after only being on the job for a few days.
The bottom line here is that whatever the Lakers do, they have to get it right. The summer offers endless possibilities and it’s going to be critical that the new front office avoids the costly mistakes of the previous regime and sniff out the opposing teams looking to take advantage.
If you squint, the Lakers have the makings of something with their young core, but molding that barely-formed lump of clay into a successful team is going to take time, skill, and a whole lot of luck. Johnson and Pelinka have a lot to work with, but the margin of error is exceedingly slim. The NBA can be an unforgiving place, and with their 2018 first round pick bound for Philadelphia, this summer needs to be a productive one, even if no one is sure exactly what that looks like just yet.
At the draft, we should get a slightly clearer picture of what the new front office is up to, but until then, the Lakers are one of the biggest wild cards of the summer, and only Johnson and Pelinka truly know how they will attempt to bring this team back from the bottom.