The future of the Lakers’ 2014 draft class is in question

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs
Jan 12, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers power forward Julius Randle (30) celebrates a basket and a foul with guard Jordan Clarkson (6) during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

2014 was officially the first year of the Lakers’ rebuild, a long, arduous process that still doesn’t have an end in sight. It was the first time a future without Kobe Bryant was in consideration. And it was the first time in a long time that the Lakers had young talent with high potential.

The 2014-15 season started with drafting Julius Randle, a raw big man from Kentucky with questions about his health and his size, with the seventh overall pick. Later that night, they bought the Washington Wizards’ second-round pick, using it to select Jordan Clarkson, a four-year guard out of Missouri.

Randle’s career began with those same questions entering the draft as the big man broke his leg just minutes in his NBA debut. Clarkson did not receive consistent playing time until late in the season when he showed signs of promise as a combo guard that could handle the ball, make plays, and score from a variety of locations.

Both players have had questions surround them throughout their careers. From Randle’s right hand to Clarkson’s defense and so much more, the pair’s flaws have followed them as the Lakers continued to add to their core with shinier, newer players in D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball.

Randle and Clarkson’s flaws and contract statuses have turned them into numbers – obstacles standing between the Lakers and their pipe dream of two superstar free agents joining Ball and Ingram in Los Angeles. They have been placed on the trade block, their futures in LA all but disappearing in a hurry.

But in what has been an undoubtedly tough season for the 2014 draftees, both have had moments of sheer brilliance, acting with professionalism to help an upstart Lakers team overachieve en route to 19 wins through January.

Clarkson has improved after his growth stagnated last season. Now in a comfortable role as a sixth man, Clarkson has become a valuable piece of the puzzle through his volume scoring (14.7 points per game on a career-best .537 true shooting percentage) and playmaking (an almost career-best 23.4 percent assist rate, mirroring that of his rookie season) as the lead guard off the bench.

Clarkson has only started two of the team’s 46 games despite missed time from Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope opening up plenty of opportunities, but Clarkson’s role has been crucial in leading one of the NBA’s best bench units.

Randle’s progression has not been as smooth but it’s been an even larger jump. Despite coming into camp in the best physical shape of his career, Randle lost his starting job and was visibly affected by the demotion.

But after a slow start to the season, Randle has emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Arguably the team’s best player through half the season, Randle has improved in nearly all facets of his game: his offense is more efficient (career-best .600 true shooting percentage), he’s finishing at the rim almost automatically (career-best .746 shooting percentage in the restricted area) and is a monster defensively (career-best 2.2 percent block rate).

In fact, only eight players match Randle’s combination of block rate, assist percentage, and rebounding rate this season.

Since Randle has been re-inserted into the starting lineup, the Lakers are 8-9 despite missing the likes of Ball, Caldwell-Pope, and Ingram for many of those games. Randle’s unique skill set, even with its flaws, opens up a world of possibilities on both ends of the floor for the Lakers, especially when paired with a big man like Brook Lopez who can space the floor and deter shots at the rim, defensively. Even alongside Kyle Kuzma, Randle’s impact as a small-ball five has been tremendous. In fact, the Lakers have outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions in the 96 minutes featuring a lineup of Randle, Kuzma, Ingram, Caldwell-Pope, and Ball, a pseudo “death lineup” that has been a consistent weapon when all five players are healthy and available.

NBA: New York Knicks at Los Angeles Lakers
Jan 21, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson (6), forward Julius Randle (30) and forward Larry Nance Jr. (7) look on from the bench in the fourth quarter of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

While Clarkson and Randle’s jumps have had a hugely positive effect on the season as the team sits at 11th in the Western Conference, it has also put the organization and its new front office in a precarious position.

Keep Clarkson and Randle past the trade deadline and into next season and the Lakers effectively lose all chances of signing two stars as was promised and perhaps lose the opportunity to even bring one to Los Angeles. Trade the two 2014 draftees and run the risk of striking out anyway with half of the young core as collateral for a risk that may not lead to true fruition even if the stars come.

It’s a difficult trade season to navigate for anyone without even considering the lack of experience and the high expectations the men in charge have placed on themselves to start.

It’s clear that both Randle and Clarkson have trade value but it’s not clear just how much. Clarkson is still a chucker off the bench in his role with some ability to make plays for teammates as someone who can lead the second unit. Given his contract status and the relative propensity of those type of players across the league, it’s hard to see the Lakers getting high value for a player who is currently crucial to their success.

Randle is a much more unique entity in the NBA given his skill set, making him an interesting trade target for several teams. But his contract status as an upcoming free agent hoping to be paid big money should make teams hesitant to give up much to attain him. Additionally, given the Lakers’ public claims of searching for cap space, smart teams know that by giving Randle an offer sheet early in free agency, they would put a lot of pressure on the Lakers to decide on whether or not to match and keep Randle.

Both Clarkson and Randle have reportedly been in trade discussions with rumors that first-round picks would be available for them. But with the insistence on not taking back long-term salary, finding a suitable trade becomes much more difficult.

As the season started, both Clarkson and Randle were assumed to be cap casualties by the beginning of the 2018-19 season. Now, months into the year, their value to the Lakers has shown to be even larger than previously determined and, at least with Randle, it appears as though Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka may be rethinking their prior strategy.

Paul George LeBron James
Jan 20, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13) defends Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a risk either way for the Lakers. Should they pin their hopes on LeBron James and Paul George leaving better situations to be in Sunny Southern California or hope that this young core is good enough to develop into something special sometime in the future?

Neither option is perfect, neither one guarantees a championship or even a playoff appearance anytime soon. But history shows that only the latter is sustainable for long-term success.

Only time will tell where the Lakers’ hopes will lie.

(All stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and accurate as of February 2nd, 2018)

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