The Lakers have some big decisions to make regarding their future. What should they do?
Stay the Course.
In 1996, the Los Angeles Lakers were transformed into instant contenders after winning one of the greatest free-agent prizes in NBA history: Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal. In just a few short years, the Lakers rode a star-studded cast to 3 straight championships. When Shaq was traded to Miami, the Lakers were forced to endure a rough patch of mediocrity; but the Lakers soon pulled off another super-star coup in the middle of the 2007 season, acquiring Pau Gasol in a trade with a miserable Grizzlies team for Kwame Brown and end-of-the-bench flotsam. They would win it all just one year later.
Historically, the Lakers relied on free-agency to gain a competitive advantage, and 16 Championship rings speak for themselves. To restore the Lakers to their rightful place as perennial rulers of the NBA landscape, the only option is to land a big star, right?
Here’s why: the year before Shaq arrived, the team was actually 53-29. The second go-around, they were the seventh seed in the Western Conference before trading for Gasol and then going on to greater things. The point is: yes, adding a star player (especially a star big-man) can expedite the championship process; but you first need a competitive team. The Lakers haven’t been competitive since the 2012-13 season, and it’s hard to argue that they’re just “one piece away” from contention after losing a franchise high 65 games. Pulling off a blockbuster with the second overall pick in the 2016 draft bundled alongside Julius Randle is not going to mean much when D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. are all still in the process of developing their NBA identities.
The short-term benefits of such trades are far outweighed by the tantalizing potential of Brandon Ingram. The former Blue Devil is quite the prospect: he’s long, he attacks the basket with ferocity, he has a soft touch, he’s got a good attitude, and – get this – he actually plays defense. Ingram would be the top pick in a lot of drafts, and he could very well end up being a better fit for the Lakers than Ben Simmons.
Trading Randle is just not the Lakers way. If you watched the Lakers closely in the past year, you know that most of his struggles last year came from a lack of polish. The raw talent is there: the man is a beast down low, has amazing coordination for a player his size, and goes at defenses like Charles Barkley on fast-breaks. Once he develops his court-vision and improves his mid-range jump-shot, he’s likely to be a regular in future All-Star games.
There’s just no way you give up the exciting potential of their young players for a guy like DeMarcus Cousins. If Cousins really wants to play in L.A., he can sign with the Lakers once he’s a free-agent in a couple of years. By that time, Russell will be a full-fledged passing prodigy, Clarkson will be an off-ball beast, Randle a high-post assist ace, Nance will develop as a rugged rebounder, and Ingram will have evolved into one of the two-way titans of the game.
And please don’t mention trading for Paul George or Jimmy Butler: the Lakers aren’t prying either of them from their respective teams without giving up two or three of their young prospects, and that’s (thankfully) just not how Mitch Kupchak operates.
Now, that doesn’t mean I’d oppose signing a Hassan Whiteside, or trading Clarkson for a guy like Jahlil Okafor. I’m all for adding pieces who fit with the team’s youth movement; but there’s really no need to rush the rebuild and give up assets when Lakers fans may not have to remain patient for all that much longer anyway.
Believe it or not, the team will see a lot of improvement even without making a big move. The Luke Walton and Brian Shaw coaching tandem will get these young guys moving the ball and communicating on defense. They might not make the playoffs next year, but ask any T-Wolves fan and they’ll tell you that watching the growth of a team with a bright future is beautiful and rewarding in its own way. The Thunder are dominating with homegrown talent that fans have watched develop over the years, and that only makes their playoff success that much sweeter for the longtime Oklahoma City faithful.
So for now, just sit back and relax, Lakers fans. Enjoy the show – and know that this team will change for the better much faster than you realize.
I remember when Phil Jackson did the things he does best: meditate, wear organic cotton clothing, and steer the Lakers to winning-after-winning-after-winning seasons. Phil Jackson meant three straight championships for Lakerland: The man is like a cross between John Wooden and the Most Interesting Man in the World. He’s so gutsy he dared to call Steph Curry overrated. I never imagined back in those glory days that “back-to-back-to-back” would become a phrase that gives me nightmares and drives me to wear adult diapers to bed every night: three straight years of setting franchise lows for winning percentage.
Last season was to Lakers’ seasons what farts are to springtime breezes: “Showtime” became “Growtime” as the purple-and-gold completed a three-year skid-mark bed-crapping streak.
Enough is enough. Lakers fans are not Clippers fans; our idea of a rebuild is a remodeled Malibu mansion, not the remodeled 1985 Yugo.
“But they’ve acquired young talent every year,” you whine.
“Give them time,” you plead.
Shame on you, I say — what has made the Lakers great is that their fans were never forced to embrace reasonable expectations. Like prima donna movie stars, we ask for our bowls of M&M’s, (purple and gold only) and trash our hotel rooms when we find one of them are chipped.
Over the years, Many a-team has thrown their developing players’ talent in the recycling bin, allowing them waste away on loser teams. Do you really think Jahlil Okafor is going to learn to play ‘the right way’ on the 76ers? Look at Dion Waiters’ transformation this year on the Thunder, versus his stagnation during the years he spent playing on the sorry Cleveland teams that almost ruined him. Talent isn’t enough: you need a winning culture to maximize potential. Without an injection of super-star worthy of the Hollywood team, by the time the current roster develops, the damage to our young talent will be far too severe to reverse.
“So what do they do? Who could they possibly ‘inject’ that will launch them back into title contention?”
There are so many options. If you think DeMarcus Cousins will carry his attitude problems to L.A., you really just don’t get it. The Lakers’ culture will cure those problems like my Fennel-Chamomile Cocktail™ cures gripe.
If you can’t catch the Boogie fever, then there’s Los Angeles native Paul George, a man who carried his team to a near upset of the second-seed Raptors in the first round this year – and let’s not forget Jimmy Butler, whose stellar play skyrocketed 2 years ago after a summer of intense dedication and ‘sweat equity’ liquidation. Just imagine Jimmy grabbing a smoothie by Venice Beach in warm and healthy L.A., instead of plucking ice out of his eyebrows in windy Chicago, where, by the way, his relationship with the management is even more frigid.
There’s no time like the present to be looking to swap assets. Any of those three players could carry a franchise, and all of them are in less than ideal circumstances. It’s time to pounce.
“Would we have to give up either D’Angelo Russell or Julius Randle plus the third overall pick for one of those guys?”
Probably. But so the hell what?
You start putting a real team together, and free agents will flock to the City of the Angels once again. There’s more to gain than there is to lose in the process. Can you remember another time the Lakers had a hard time filling up their cap space? It’s just not right.
That will change once we land a star.
Need I remind you of one Ron Artest, hero of a classic Game 7 Finals win? Players who want to be in L.A (not Dwight Howard) appreciate the opportunity and, dare I say, the honor, to make the most of it.