The Lakers' Draft Predictament
This year’s draft couldn’t have worked out much better for the Los Angeles Lakers, who went from possibly giving up their pick to moving all the way up to No. 2 overall. Center is the biggest position of need on their roster and this is the rare year where the top two players on most draft boards - Karl Towns and Jahlil Okafor - are centers. Whoever they draft will have the chance to the next great center in franchise history, which includes names like George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol.
The biggest concern they have is how well their pick will fit with Julius Randle, the No. 7 pick in last year’s draft. It won’t be an issue if the Minnesota Timberwolves take Okafor at No. 1 and let Towns slide to No. 2, as the games of the two Kentucky big men fit together like hand in glove. Towns ability to step out and knock down jumpers would open up post-up opportunities and driving lanes for Randle while Randle’s inability to protect the rim as a PF wouldn’t be as big a concern with Towns playing behind him as a shot-blocking C.
If the Wolves take Towns, though, the Lakers could have a dilemma. Okafor and Randle aren’t all that similar as players but they share a lot of the same weaknesses - neither was known as a perimeter shooter in college and both had issues as interior defenders. They both want to play around the rim on offense and neither put up the type of NCAA rim protection numbers that makes you confident in their ability to anchor an NBA defense. The worst case scenario is they would end up getting in each other’s way on one end of the floor and leave the paint unprotected on the other.
To be sure, it’s easy to overstate the concerns. Both Okafor and Randle are extremely talented players who have seen double and triple teams their whole lives - they are surprisingly adept passers who know how to anticipate and manipulate the defense as well as fit balls into very tight spaces in the half-court. And while neither may ever end up being a knock down three-point shooter, all they would have to do to become a devastating high-low combo in the post is develop a reliable 15-20 foot jumper.
Playing two big-bodied post scorers can work in the modern NBA, as the Memphis Grizzlies have shown with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The key for the Lakers is how they would fill out the rest of their roster. They would need a point guard like Mike Conley who can control tempo and get the ball into Okafor and Randle - there’s a reason that Okafor insisted on playing with Tyus Jones in college. They would also need a pair of wings who could space the floor and defend at a high level, as you wouldn’t have to depend on the short-armed Randle and the slow-footed Okafor to clean up a lot of defensive mistakes.
The other thing work keeping in mind about Gasol and Randolph is they might not have worked nearly as well if they had started playing together in their early 20’s. Not only would they have had to share the ball and sacrifice their individual statistics, since there’s only so many post possessions a team is going to have over the course of the game, but two big men without great lateral quickness have to rely on proper positioning and seamless communication to cut off dribble penetration. Interior defense is one of the hardest things for young players to master and that goes double for two guys who have been able to coast on their offensive ability and superior talent their whole lives. It would not be unusual at all if Okafor (19) and Randle (20) don’t become above average NBA defenders until they are in their mid 20’s.
For that matter, the Grit N Grind Grizzlies have been to the Western Conference Finals only once in their five-year history together and they were swept out of that series. For as well as they have played in the playoffs, they have consistently fallen short to pace-and-space teams who pick-and-rolled them to death. Do the Lakers really want to spend two high lottery picks in an effort to build a team more suited for the 1990’s than the 2010’s? Byron Scott probably isn’t going to be coaching this team for too much longer.
If the Lakers decide they don’t like the potential fit between Randle and Okafor, they would still have plenty of options with their pick. One outside the box option would be to draft Willie Cauley-Stein at center and try to create a Blake Griffin - DeAndre Jordan dynamic with him and Randle. The other would be to ignore the center position entirely and take one of the top-rated perimeter players in the draft, whether it’s D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay or Justice Winslow. Put one of those guys with Randle and they could have one of the fastest young teams in the NBA and run the type of modern offense that’s going to appeal to potential free agents.
The flipside is they could just commit to Okafor as their franchise cornerstone and pencil in a guy who should average 20-25 points a game at a high percentage from the center position for the next two decades. If they believe that Okafor could be an MVP caliber player, they may not worry too much about the fit with anyone on their current roster, especially a guy who played a grand total of 14 minutes as a rookie. Randle didn’t shoot a lot of 3’s at Kentucky but he has the ball-handling and passing ability to play out on the perimeter and he has had plenty of time to work on his jumper.
The issue with that is you really don’t want to have your two lottery picks working at loggerheads against each other. The best teams draft guys who complement each other and make each other better and they benefit from a synergy effect where their young core is better than the sum of its parts. With the Lakers still owing several future picks as part of the aftermath of the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash trades, there’s no guarantee they get all that many more chances to surround Okafor with elite young talent.
That was the main reason why I was leery of the Lakers picking Randle in 2014, especially over a guy like Noah Vonleh. Neither Randle nor Vonleh did much of anything as rookies and it will take years for us to know for sure which one-and-done PF ends up being the better player. The issue isn’t which one has more all-around talent but which one’s game will be an easier for an NBA team to build around. Vonleh projects as a better shot-blocker and jump shooter than Randle, which means he could conceivably be paired with a lot more types of players upfront than his more hyped counterpart from Kentucky.
It does you no good to draft the guy with the most upside and put him in a situation where he won’t be able to maximize his skill-set. I would much rather have Vonleh and Okafor than Randle and Okafor and while you can never know who will be available in future drafts you have to leave yourself as many outs as possible in terms of who you can select. It’s dangerous to box yourself in early in the rebuilding process with a lottery pick who needs very specific types of players around him to succeed. No one wins a championship by themselves - building an elite team is all about finding the right combination of players.