This season was supposed to be fun for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans. The previous two seasons saw the team suffer a steep decline from the norm, but generated excitement in the form of Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, drafted No. 7 and No. 2 overall, respectively. In addition, Los Angeles acquired the 46th overall pick in 2014 to get the steal of the draft in Jordan Clarkson.
In a span of one year, the Lakers went from a team with a bleak outlook for the foreseeable future to one that all of a sudden had a promising young foundation to build around. It goes to show how fast things can change in the NBA.
Unfortunately, a negative turnaround can take place just as quickly if teams aren’t careful. With Byron Scott at the helm, the Lakers have only taken steps back. Instead of showing the first signs of progress with a young core, the Lakers are 3-19, with their two lottery picks relegated to the bench while expecting to log about 20 minutes per game over the next five to 10 contests. To make matters worse, their first round pick is only top-three protected as a result of the Steve Nash trade back in 2012, meaning if it falls to fourth or worse, they will lose the rights to it.
Understandably, most fans saw this year’s draft pick as unattainable, given the odds of actually staying in the top three. It’s December 10th, and fans are already clinging to it, and I’m not sure anyone can blame them. Until Scott is let go, it is hard to focus on anything else.
The notion of retaining the pick is not completely outlandish, but it is going to require plenty of luck, more so than last year, since that pick was top-five protected. If the Lakers finish with the worst record in the NBA, they would have a 64.3 percent chance of staying in the top three. Entering the lottery with the second-worst record would give them 55.8 percent odds, while third would result in a 46.9 percent chance of keeping the pick. So ultimately, that leaves no margin for “error.”
Currently, Los Angeles has the second-worst record, just behind the Philadelphia 76ers (1-21), with a seemingly comfortable “lead” on the New Orleans Pelicans (5-16). The latter has Anthony Davis, though, so it would only be logical to expect them to win more games than the Lakers. Of course, the Lakers could always surprise us and start winning some games, but of their 21 games already in the books, 12 were against teams that would be in the lottery if the season ended today. Therefore, racking up wins seems unlikely, to say the least.
But just for fun, let’s say the Lakers are fortunate enough to keep their pick. What would their options be?
Simmons is far and away the best prospect in this upcoming draft class. If you have yet to see him play, let me sum it up for you real quick: He’s drawing comparisons to LeBron James.
He’s a 6-foot-10 forward that handles the ball and passes like a point guard. Simmons can get to the rim whenever he wants to because of his handle, speed and quickness with the basketball. When he gets there, he finishes at a high clip, usually by dunking right over any defender brave enough to get in his way. He’s a physical specimen and a freak athlete.
However, virtually all of his damage done as a scorer comes inside the paint. Part of that is simply because nobody can stay in front of him, but another reason is because he is an extremely poor jump shooter. He’s only attempted two three-point shots in seven games thus far, and he made one of them, but in his senior year of high school, he only connected on 29 percent of his 51 total tries.
Simmons is clearly the most talented prospect, but is far from an ideal fit with the Lakers. Whether you try playing him at small forward or play small ball and put him at center, pairing him with Julius Randle, who also needs to improve his jumper, would exceedingly limit floor spacing on offense. Additionally, he is a ball-dominant player, as Russell, Randle and Clarkson all have a tendency to be at times, though certainly not all to the same extent. That could potentially be too many ball-dominant guys to effectively coexist in a flowing, efficient offense. Russell and Simmons were teammates in high school, so they could probably figure things out rather quickly. The amount of talent amongst those four would be tantalizing, but I’m not sure how well their respective skill sets would complement one another.
Labissiere is a 6-foot-11 big man for the University of Kentucky, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. Personally, I really like Skal. He runs the floor like a gazelle, which would be perfect playing alongside the Lakers’ three young cornerstone pieces. For his size, he is an excellent athlete that possesses tremendous mobility. Plus, he has a silky smooth jump shot that has some people likening that aspect of his game to LaMarcus Aldridge. In just 22.3 minutes per game so far this season, he is averaging 12 points on 61 percent shooting.
Labissiere checks off a lot of the wants and needs of scouts from a physical standpoint. There is a ton of potential there. But with potential comes flaws that need to be ironed out, and Skal is no exception. Like the majority of 19-year-olds, he needs to improve his narrow, 225-pound frame. He is extremely effective when he catches the ball inside with good low-post position, but against NBA big men, establishing said position would be extremely difficult. It hurts him in the rebounding game as well, as he is only pulling down 3.9 boards per game for Kentucky thus far. But I don’t necessarily view that as a weakness. Improving strength is a “weakness” with just about every 19-year-old prospect. To me, that is something that will naturally come as he gets older and works out consistently in an NBA facility.
He’s shown plenty of flashes on defense, using his length and athleticism to block 2.1 shots per game. Now it just has to become a consistent facet of his game. Offensively, I’ve noticed his footwork is very sloppy at times, especially on the low block. That is definitely something he needs to improve if he wants to be an effective low-post scorer at the next level.
It might take Labissiere a few years to really get settled in to the NBA. Teams might have to be patient with him, but remember who his coach is now. John Calipari’s track record in developing NBA talent over the past decade is unparalleled. After a full college season with Calipari, Labissiere might have progressed faster than many might anticipate. Certainly worth keeping an eye on as the year progresses.
If the Lakers end up with the third pick, this is the wildcard right now. They have a desperate need at the three, and Ingram has the potential to fill it, and then some. The Duke wing is a legitimate 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. Physically, he looks a lot like Kevin Durant. He is an extremely long, tall and wiry small forward. And when I say wiry, I mean he is about as thin as a wire. Ingram weighs in at about 200 pounds, and that might be a generous listing. The big knock on Durant was his strength and frame, but I think he has effectively proven that how much weight you can bench press has no bearing on your ability to put the ball in the basket.
Ingram has poured in 13.7 points per game on 45.4 percent shooting (34.3 from three, 59 percent from the free throw line) in 26.9 minutes. He’s had three different games of at least 20 points scored, but has struggled against higher competition. Against Kentucky, Virginia Commonwealth and Georgetown, he scored four, eight, and five points, respectively. It will be interesting to observe him when conference play starts.
Regardless, he is another guy with a ton of upside. If he continues to develop and take steps forward, Ingram could be a special player that fills what is probably the Lakers’ most glaring need in a big way.
If you want to find the best wing in this draft class, look no further than Ingram or this guy. Brown is a 6-foot-7, 225 pound small forward at California and he is an absolute bull. Him and Randle would be a bruising combination that would punish (literally) a lot of opposing defenses for standing in their way.
Brown has an uncanny ability to get to the basket, and it isn’t simply because of his strength. His ball handling is phenomenal, which gives him the ability to be creative on his way to the basket. There are times where that part of his skill set reminds me a bit of James Harden. What does not correlate with Harden’s game, however, is Brown’s poor three-point shooting. He has attempted 25 threes so far this season and made only 6 (24 percent). That obviously needs to improve.
Defensively, I’m really intrigued by Brown, since the importance of having an adequate wing defender is paramount. His strength, combined with his length (7-foot wingspan) and lateral quickness gives him the physical tools to be an elite defender, and he’s already shown that on numerous occasions.
Overall, Brown has the feel of a “safe” pick, if you believe in such a thing. If he can improve his perimeter shooting, watch out.
Trade the pick
This scenario obviously would depend which of the top three picks the Lakers would have. If they get the top pick, would they consider auctioning off Simmons to the highest bidder? Although I think he’s going to be a stud, you might be able to get a hell of a haul by trading him. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend trading Simmons, because I think he is just that good, but if a team is willing to unload a bunch of assets for him, you have to consider it.
Now, if he goes No. 1 overall and Los Angeles is sitting at two or three, I would seriously look to trade the pick, which would have to come after they officially make the selection because of the Stepien rule, which prevents a team from not selecting in the first round in consecutive years. Granted, this is all dependent on what type of return you could get for it, and who knows exactly who is available, but if the Lakers could use that pick to flip it for a talented player already established in the NBA (And no, I’m not going to throw out any names), that may help speed up the rebuilding process without sacrificing Russell, Randle or Clarkson.
Another important note is that when July rolls around and the salary cap undergoes a massive increase, the Lakers will have a ton of cap space. How much they have in particular will depend on what the final cap number is set at for next season. With Kobe Bryant’s $25 million salary coming off the books, the Lakers will likely be able to afford two max contracts (again, depending on the final salary cap amount). That could also allow them to trade the pick and absorb the contract of an established player, like they did with Roy Hibbert last summer when they shipped out a second rounder. Obviously, for a top-three pick, a more talented player would be demanded, but nevertheless, it is a possible resource for Los Angeles.
Whether any of this matters or not will come down to how the ping pong balls bounce in May of next year. Can the Lakers avoid disaster again and be rewarded for another dreadful season? Only time will tell, but if they are fortunate enough to retain the pick, there are plenty of enticing options at their disposal.
*All unreferenced statistics were pulled from DraftExpress and Sports-Reference.