For the purple and gold, bright spots in the last few seasons have been scarce. Hell, even with the superstar team in 2013 the expectations far exceeded the team’s results. But lets just chalk that one up to Dwight Howard.
In the summer of 2012, the Lakers made an array of blockbuster moves in order to continue contending in the rigid Western Conference. Trading for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to pair alongside Kobe, Pau, and Metta was supposed to be the completion of a championship winning core. When the deals were made, it seemed like the team was well on its way to another NBA Finals appearance so the circumstances and possible downsides were far overlooked. In retrospect, the red flags were certainly there but the front office went full boom-or-bust. We all know how that ended.
In 2013, after his season ending Achilles injury Kobe Bryant and the Lakers reached a deal on a two-year contract extension worth $48.5 million. The response to that announcement wasn’t great, and rightfully so. Giving an aging star that much money without any knowledge of how things would play out was a questionable call to say the least. Since then, the team has hit home runs on almost all of their decisions.
Fast forward to the present. Within just three short years, the Lakers front office has been spot on in nearly every possible way and set the future of the team up beautifully. They have put together arguably the most young talent of any team in the league (with another top 2 pick on the way), have the most cap space available going into free agency, oh and they hired their top head coaching choice in Luke Walton.
In the past two seasons, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers or any team for that matter being able to do a better job of drafting. This is one of a few primary reasons for the front office to have your trust going forward. While the careers of the Lakers young players are far from anything certain at this point, they have shown even under an incompetent head coach that they have what it takes to produce in this league. Before the 2014-2015 season the Lakers best prospect was maybe Ryan Kelly or Kendall Marshall. So, yeah.
With just the 7th pick in the following NBA Draft, the Lakers were able to add two high impact players in Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, who was a draft night pick they bought from the Washington Wizards. Randle, despite missing all but 14 minutes of his rookie season is leading his draft class in rebounding totals. Buying the 46th pick and selecting Jordan Clarkson paid off for the team as Clarkson ranked 2nd in scoring for his draft class, only to Andrew Wiggins.
Last year’s draft the team had slightly more ammunition to work with. They stunned many experts when they drafted D’Angelo Russell over the highly touted big man Jahlil Okafor. To this point it seems they’ve made the right choice (unless you’re a Sixers fan on Twitter). Russell broke the franchise’s rookie record for three point shots made and was one of two teenagers in NBA history to average 16/4/4 per 36 min, the other being LeBron James.
Another example of brilliant drafting by the front office was grabbing Larry Nance, Jr. late in the first round with the 27th overall pick. This pick was thought of as quite a reach as many draft experts didn’t have Nance, Jr. going in their top 40, let alone in the first round. As we all know, Larry dealt with some missed games due to injury but was a pleasant surprise all throughout last season and has the opportunity to be a standout from his class and a good contributor for the team for years to come.
So with a little ping pong ball luck, a superb scouting department, and the right calls the Lakers now have a core to build around for the post-Kobe era.
Since Phil Jackson left, the team has been in search of stability from the head coaching position. Until now they have yet to come close to finding it.
The team has went through Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, and Byron Scott over the course of four seasons with the team tying/setting a franchise low win total each of the last three (once under D’Antoni, twice under Scott). You could say since 2013 that none of the rosters that have been fielded were even adequately talented for today’s NBA but regardless of that, the coaching did not help. This past season was one of the hardest to watch not just because the team didn’t win much, but because of the way the team was coached and how the rotations were handled.
Last season’s largest focus should have been the development of the young players and getting them in-game experience to build upon. This was not the case, with both Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell benched multiple times over the course of the year. It was clear to most that the front office needed to head in a different direction coaching wise.
Enter Luke Walton.
Once it was announced that Scott would not be retained, there were an assortment of names being tossed around for the team’s head coaching vacancy. The front runner for the job was Golden State Warriors lead assistant coach/interim head coach and former Lakers player Luke Walton. During their historical two year run, the Warriors have revolutionized the way basketball is being played. Their coaching staff has implemented its own style of play with emphasis on ball movement, efficient three point shooting, and defensive versatility.
While filling in for Steve Kerr, Walton was able to lead the Warriors to a 39-4 record and a record setting 24-0 start to the season. In those 43 games there were multiple reports of the defending champs gaining respect and trust in Walton. Both of these traits would be largely welcomed after dealing with Byron Scott for two seasons. The Lakers’ job was only available for about a week as the team was able to pry Walton away after just one interview and lock him up for the next five seasons.
This shows the front office was able to target their first option for the job, act swiftly as Walton was sure to have many suitors, and seal the deal. Another takeaway from the head coaching change is that it seems Mitch & Co. are bringing the team toward today’s NBA with this hire and the change in playing style we will see. Walton offers a young coach that the building blocks of the franchise can relate to and hopefully grow with.
While the Lakers now have pieces to build upon, there are still gaping holes throughout the roster. This summer is the first in many that the team will be able to afford multiple max contract free agents. As it stands right now Los Angeles will have the most cap space of any team in the league with just over $62 million possibly to spend.
Now this figure will change slightly assuming Jordan Clarkson re-signs with the team. With Clarkson’s unique free agency situation, it’s unlikely he will play for another team next season but the team may benefit from him signing an offer sheet with another team. As a restricted free agent, if he signs an offer sheet with another team the Lakers will be given the opportunity to match that offer to retain his services and other teams can only offer just under $6 million the first two seasons of any deal.
With this being the first year of post-Kobe basketball for Los Angeles, it also means the team will be without his massive $25 million contract that he signed in 2013. At the time of the deal, the front office had quite a few questions to answer for this sort of move. Signing an aging superstar with not much left in the tank after a serious season ending injury usually isn’t the recipe for success. You can speculate as to what the team was thinking during this deal. Maybe they wanted to repay Bryant for all he had given throughout his career, maybe they knew they wouldn’t be very competitive anyway; no one really knows.
The last few summers the team has been taking huge swings at all the marquee free agents and they’re going to continue to do the same this summer. With at least two max contracts available to give out the Lakers will be able to use the “pick another free agent you’d want to play with” card which may work out in their favor. Unfortunately, the team has swung and missed on every one of the big name targets but truthfully there can be some good to come of that. They obviously had very little to offer in those meetings and still don’t have a lot to offer but there is far less uncertainty now than there was before.
The front office was humiliated when a report broke out that a “lack of basketball talk” was a reason Lamarcus Aldridge was turned off to their pitch. With these failures, Mitch, Jim, and whoever is in these meetings should have learned something in regards to what players want to know about potentially joining the purple and gold.
The main reason the front office should be trusted with the upcoming free agency period is all the preparation and recent experiences they’ve had. It comes back to drafting well, attractive coaching changes, and retaining their cap flexibility. While they may not land a big name free agent this off season they certainly have more stability, hopefully a better pitching approach, and a more clear layout of the future to give players.
There is really no right way to go about a rebuild, as there are many different approaches that could work to various extents, but there are several ways to ruin a rebuild and go right back to bottom-dweller status. So far the Lakers have managed to turn little assets into a young core made up of not only players but coaches as well and they’re on the right track for a rebuild. This alone should warrant more trust for the front office now that they have a definitive direction going forward.
With the pressure of having to deal with a fan base that has been spoiled with championship teams for decades, understandably giving them no real sense for patience, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have done an excellent job of setting up the future of the franchise. I mean, #InMitchWeTrust is a thing after all.
All statistics provided by Basketball Reference.
Salary Cap projections provided by RealGM.