Lakers preparing to be major players in the NBA draft
Sixteen NBA titles afford a team a certain amount of forgiveness. Even after the two worst back-to-back seasons in franchise history, the Lakers are not operating with diminished expectations.
“They’re the Lakers, man,” University of Kentucky star Willie Cauley Stein said at last week’s NBA draft combine in Chicago. “They’re going to get to the top somehow.”
It’s happened at each critical juncture in franchise history: be it trades for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pau Gasol or drafting Magic Johnson or acquiring the rights to Kobe Bryant on draft day.
But history doesn’t provide much of a blueprint for the Lakers current quagmire.
Perhaps no time in their 65-year history have the Lakers’ plans and ambitions hinged so dramatically on the draft as they do this year, on the heels of a 21-win season and the dawn of Bryant’s expected farewell tour.
The collective bargaining agreement gives free agents little incentive to leave their current teams, and with the salary cap to spike in another year with new television money, players may opt to put off the big payday and look for short-term deals.
The Lakers prospects of rebuilding through free agency, relative to past rebuilding efforts, are bleak.
While the organization will still chase top stars in July, for now they are launching a thorough effort at the draft, a plan that tentatively anticipates landing a top-five pick in the draft – contingent on Tuesday’s pivotal lottery – as well as Nos. 27 and 34.
With five weeks until the draft, most of the focus is on that lottery pick, which the Lakers will keep as long as it does not fall below No. 5 – in which case it would be conveyed to Philadelphia as a residual effect of the Steve Nash trade.
Whether the Lakers would use it on a defensive big man such as Cauley-Stein, a point guard such as D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State, or a wing such as Justice Winslow of Duke is a pertinent question. But it’s only part of the Lakers process at this point.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak said the Lakers’ three draft picks means team officials the Lakers need to be well-versed in the entire draft class. He said Thursday that the team could bring in up to 80 players to Los Angeles for draft workouts.
“Because players that could be taken at (No.) 34,” he said, “you’ve got to bring in players that might be taken 50 and players that might be taken in the 20s, just to make sure you’ve got all your bases covered.
“Once Tuesday comes and goes we’re hopeful that we end up with our pick. If we don’t we’ll move on, but if we do then that opens up the scheduling and possibilities.”
The Lakers’ collegiate scouting staff has historically been a behind-the-scenes group. Led by Jesse Buss, the youngest of six Buss children, the staff includes Bill Bertka and Ryan West, Jerry West’s son.
They struck gold last year finding Jordan Clarkson at No. 46, but for most of their time in the front office the draft has been secondary, at best, to offseason ambitions.
The Lakers have always scouted and prepared for the top players in the draft, despite their picks routinely coming late in the first round, a product of continued success. But the organization’s ability to find and evaluate talent has never been scrutinized in the way it will be in the next month.
“I’m not sure we’ve done anything different,” Kupchak said. “Our scouts recognize the importance of scouting players.”
The true advantage of having three draft picks is the flexibility they allow. The Lakers’ roster already boasts young core players Clarkson and Julius Randle, as well as Tarik Black and Ryan Kelly. Of those, only Kelly has played multiple years in the NBA.
“It may be a little much to add three more young players,” Kupchak conceded. “There are options that you’d have and we’ll just wait to see what happens.”
The Lakers met with top prospects such as Cauley-Stein, Russell and Winslow at the combine last week in Chicago. Kupchak and West, the team’s assistant director of scouting, conducted interviews, while Jim Buss and other members of the scouting staff evaluated drills from the bleachers.
They were in rebuilding limbo, waiting on Tuesday’s lottery. The Lakers have an 82.8 percent chance of retaining a top-five pick, which they would presumably use on a player who could step in and contribute immediately alongside Bryant, Clarkson and Randle.
But as Kupchak conservatively pointed out, they would have other options.
“We know having a pick in the lottery is an asset,” he said, “and with an asset like a pick you can use it to select a player, you could use it in combination with other picks to move up or down. You could trade it for an established player.
“We have a lot of financial flexibility this summer, so we don’t have to move players out to take a player back. We have a lot of options if we’re lucky enough to end up with the pick.”
Notice the GM’s use of words like “if” and “lucky enough.” While most assumed the reward for a 21-61 season would be a lottery pick, the Lakers were just good enough to leave a sliver of a chance, that 17.2 percent, that they will lose it.
“Once Tuesday comes and goes we’re hopeful that we end up with our pick,” Kupchak said. “If we don’t we’ll move on, but if we do then that opens up the scheduling (for draft workouts) and possibilities.”
Kupchak hopes those possibilities pave the way to the quick return to the top Cauley-Stein predicted. After 48 wins in two years, adding to the clutch of banners hanging in Staples Center seems further away than ever.
“I think our fans understand the last year or two,” Kupchak said. “I think they’re impatient. We’re impatient. Now that the two seasons are behind us, I think it’s exciting.”
I figured they wouldn't want to bring three rookies if they kept the lotto pick.
I have no problem combining 27 and 34 to move in the draft, trading one of the picks for a veteran, or trading one of the picks for a future pick.