The playoffs are showing each and every fan of the Lakers just how far away the team is from the level needed to play high stakes games in May and June. Look at the remaining five teams (bye, Chicago) and the same formula exists: superstar player (or players) in or approaching their prime, very good (if not elite) coaching, and role players who can perform steadily and/or reach a level where they turn a game in their team’s favor.
Look at the Lakers’ roster and there is no indication they have any of these things right now. While the playoffs offer fantastic entertainment (did you watch the drama of the Clippers’ collapse in game six vs. the Rockets?), they also offer a reminder the Lakers aren’t just at the bottom of the mountain, they are still in the supplies shop roaming the aisles looking for the right equipment to start their journey.
There are glimmers, however. Julius Randle may have missed his entire rookie season with a broken leg, but his season long commitment to his rehab — including weight loss which should help his already established quickness and athleticism — combined with an intriguing skill set is a nice piece to work with. As is Jordan Clarkson, a player who developed very nicely over the course of the season by showing a combination of athleticism, ball skills, and an ability to apply off-court teachings to on-court action. We do not yet know what these players will become, but their ceilings are high enough that envisioning them as contributors to a winning team isn’t far fetched.
The next piece of the puzzle, of course, is what occurs in the upcoming draft. Should the Lakers be able to keep their own pick, the ability to nab another player who has a combination of talent, pedigree, and potential to be able to provide similar impact to Clarkson and Randle is there. The Rockets’ pick (owed from the Jeremy Lin deal) and the Lakers own 2nd rounder offer less potential for immediate impact, but do provide additional avenues to improve the talent base.
Each one of those picks represents a potential step in the right direction. Just as every free agent signee is and every move to add or subtract from the coaching, training, and scouting staffs are. Mitch Kupchak has said many of the right things about not mortgaging the team’s future in the pursuit of quick gains, but that must also play out in strategy employed when managing the entire restoration of an on-court product which has been the worst, results-wise, the organization has ever seen.
The Lakers, even while a vocal sect of their fanbase festers with impatience, must understand they cannot skip steps. There is no such thing as a three-run homer when no one is on base. In order to be great once again, they must first merely be good. Good enough to develop winning habits, good enough to attract better talent, good enough so “making the leap” is realistic and not an endeavor destined to fail.
All of this will require several small — and some big — things going well. A foundation of success must be built and cultivated. And while we are in a time where, after two awful seasons, the desire is to be great again soon, simply being good may not just have to be enough, it may be necessary.