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Trying to guess what another human being will do is usually very foolish. We’re not in that person’s head, do not know what he or she values, what might motivate them to choose option A over option B. There are simply too many unknowns to try and guess what choice will be made in any given situation.

In saying that, when dealing with sports there are usually two things that matter most: money and winning. In today’s NBA, for the top stars, the latter is usually more important than the former as long as they are still getting paid somewhere near what their maximum salary is.

This brings me to LeBron James and, to a lesser extent, Carmelo Anthony. After Anthony informed the Knicks that he would opt out of the final year of his contract on Monday, LeBron told the Heat the same on Tuesday. Both will be free agents and instantly jump to the top of every team’s list as the most sought after targets on the open market.

If you are a Lakers fan, this probably excites you. After all, this is the moment the team has supposedly been building for over the last several years. It is why nearly every player’s salary came off the books this past summer; why the front office has preached “flexibility” as often as possible when it comes to explaining nearly every roster move they have made recently. The Lakers want to sign star players and rebuild as quickly as possible. Now, two of the biggest stars in the league (and two excellent players — LeBron’s case, the league’s best) are there for the poaching. Again, this is the Lakers’ moment.

There’s only one problem. Despite having money to spend, the Lakers still aren’t necessarily in a very good position to snag LeBron or Anthony, much less both.

Don’t get me wrong, there are ways to get there and these are the ways that the fans who believe this is possible will rattle off from now until some point in July when everyone’s minds are made up. In no specific order:

  • The Lakers have the ability to free up around $30 million in salary cap space to chase two star players. If LeBron and/or Melo take less than their max salary, they can sign with the Lakers and the team will still have room to chase another big time player (or, in the case of the LeBron AND Carmelo dream, both can sign for around $15 million each).
  • This is the Lakers. They have the franchise history, the Los Angeles market, the stars in the stands and banners in the rafters. Not to mention, they always treat their superstar players well and will always go the extra mile to accommodate them. This matters to players and when the front office pitches players, they will remind them off all the above.
  • The Lakers have not yet hired a head coach. To outsiders, this may seem like a deterrent, but this is just one more sweetner the team can offer any prospective free agent. We want your input on who the next coach should be.

I do not deny there is some merit in thinking this way. There is nothing outlandish in the bullets above and any actual pitch the Lakers make to one (or more) of the top free agents will include this logic.

However, what this line of thinking ignores are some of the basic realities about team building and what the Lakers would need to do in order to get to the point where some of the above statements are even true. For example:

  • In order for the Lakers to get upwards of $30 million in cap space, they would need to renounce every free agent on their roster while trading Steve Nash and the #7 pick while taking close to no salary back in return. The former is expected at this point and is only a formality. The latter, while doable, isn’t so simple. The Lakers would likely need to use the #7 pick as sweetner to take on Nash’s deal which makes the process easier, but also uses a very good team building asset in a poor manner. The idea in chasing star free agents is at least somewhat connected to how close a team is to winning. Getting zero return on a good asset makes you further away from a better foundation to help lure good players.
  • The history of the Lakers is one thing, but the present can be perceived as quite another. As I wrote when discussing Phil Jackson taking the Knicks’ job, there is a perception that Jim Buss is not good at his job. Whether this is true or not doesn’t mean as much as the idea having traction. I don’t think whatever views are held of Buss erase the Lakers storied past, but if players are concerned about ownership or the direction of the franchise, that will affect the pursuit of free agents.

I don’t say any of this to say that the Lakers should not try to sign the best free agents. Having LeBron hit the open market is exactly why they have a max salary slot open heading into the summer. They wanted to be able to sign any single player of their choosing at any salary he can command under this CBA. Now that this is actually possible logistically, you bet they will try to make their pitch. If they can convince guys to take less and try to sign more than one of these players, more power to them.

Just don’t expect the Lakers to come out victorious in this and have LeBron and/or Carmelo actually playing at Staples as part of the home team next year. Because much like looking in your side mirror while driving, as close as the Lakers may seem they are still quite a ways away from luring one of the top free agents. Yes, they can offer the money (at least to one of them), but offering the chance to win right away is much more complicated.

The draft is less than a week away. Remember that timing when the rumor mill starts to ramp up with trade scenarios that involve any team, including the Lakers. This is the time of the year where everything leaks — front offices, agents, family members — and there is always motive from some party to getting information out into the public.

With all that said, the LA Times is reporting that the Lakers may be more keen on a certain Pacific Division wing player than their number 7 pick in next Thursday’s draft and would be willing to make a clean swap of the two:

The Lakers have been in discussions to acquire Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson for the seventh pick in next week’s draft, The Times has learned.

The deal would be part of a larger three-way trade that sends Minnesota All-Star power forward Kevin Love to the Warriors. The Lakers are interested but the deal has been put on hold because of a difference in opinion within the Warriors’ organization whether or not to keep Thompson while trying to obtain Love.

First, let’s understand why the Lakers would want to make this deal. They want to win as quickly as possible and acquiring an established player, with experience and success in the league is a way to do that. Thompson fits the bill here. He averaged 18 points a game last season, shot over 40% from behind the arc, and is a versatile defender who Mark Jackson felt comfortable deploying on players ranging from point guard to small forward. In a vacuum, Thompson is the type of asset any team would want to have and is proven enough to be worth a pick in the range the Lakers are drafting.

Saying all that, I would not support this trade in the least bit should it happen.

One of the allures of Thompson, as it is with any young player, is that his production comes at a fixed, inexpensive cost. Thompson is still on his rookie deal and will make $3 million next season after making $2.3 million last season. His production at that salary is what helped allow the Warriors to be such a good team because they could pay him so little while splurging on players like David Lee, Andrew Bogut, and Andgre Iguodala. (As an aside, the same can be said about Steph Curry’s under market contract. After dealing with all those ankle injuries, Curry signed what is now a very team friendly deal well below his max level production.)

Thompson, though, won’t make so little for very long. Going into his 3rd season he’s eligible for an extension this summer. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer. The reality is Thompson is about to go from one of the best values in the league to one of the most average ones (or even a bad one) in the span of a season. With the strong possibility Thompson seeks a max or near max on his next contract, he could be making upwards of $12 million a season on his next contract.

In other words, the Lakers would be trading the 7th pick for the right to pay Klay Thompson and do so right at the time that Kobe’s contract would be coming off the books where they would, theoretically, want to make a major splash in free agency.

And this isn’t even getting into whether Thompson is even worth that money. I, personally, don’t think he is. As much as I love his shooting and think his size gives him defensive versatility, he actually reminds me a lot of the Blazers’ Wesley Matthews. I mean, look for yourself. Would you want to pay Matthews $10-12 million a season? I would not. Of course, Matthews is four years older and there’s an a development arc that, at Klay’s age, implies he will improve and continue to get better.

But Thompson’s weak areas — passing, rebounding — are areas that players typically have or they don’t. Can he make a more concerted effort to go the glass or try to see the floor better? Sure, but I don’t expect him to suddenly become a player who is grabbing five to six rebounds a game or a guy handing out four to five assists — numbers in both categories that would basically double his output from last season. This isn’t to knock Thompson. Right now he’s a shooter/scorer and a burgeoning defender — these traits have tremendous value. But he doesn’t do much else; he doesn’t initiate the offense, isn’t particularly adept at handling the ball, and doesn’t stuff the stat-sheet in a variety of ways.

Trading the 7th pick for the right to make the free agency decision on that player? Not something I’d be into at all.

With less than two weeks before the NBA draft, teams continue to bring prospects in for workouts and interviews to get one last look at these players before having to make a final decision on who to select. The Lakers are no different and, after hosting several big name prospects two weeks ago, are bringing in another well known prospect on Tuesday. From Eric Pincus of the LA Times:

The Lakers will work out Kentucky forward Julius Randle on Tuesday in El Segundo at the team’s practice facility.

Randle is a 6-foot-9, 19-year-old power forward who helped the Wildcats advance to the NCAA championship game, before falling to the Connecticut Huskies.

Through 40 games at Kentucky, Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds. The left-handed freshman projects to be a top-10 pick in the NBA draft on June 26.

In several mock drafts, including those from ESPN’s Chad Ford and Draft Express, Randle is the player who ends up going to the Lakers with their 7th selection. So, the fact that the team is bringing him for a workout should not be a surprise. Randle is seen by several analysts as one of the more NBA ready prospects and considering the Lakers are hoping to have a quick turnaround next year, that fact may hold extra weight when it is the Lakers’ turn to make a selection.

Despite a recent report that Randle will need to have foot surgery to remove a screw that was part of an earlier surgery, Randle is still projected to go in the top 10 picks. The procedure is seen as relatively minor and though it will keep him out for most of the summer, he is expected to recover in time to be ready for the start of training camp.

All that said, while Randle was plenty productive at the University of Kentucky, he does have his detractors as a prospect. Due to physical measurements and athleticism that are only average for NBA power forwards, there are questions whether his bullying style will translate to a league where he will no longer be a man among boys physically. He is seen as a player who will need to make adjustments to his style, develop a more consistent jump shot, and learn how to finish around the rim against players who offer more height and length than he saw on a nightly basis while in college.

The flip side to that, however, is that Randle’s dimensions are almost exactly the same as David Lee — a player who matches up quite well with most NBA PF’s physically. Further, Randle’s motor and aggressiveness should help off-set some of his physical limitations. After all, going hard all the time is a skill too and Randle seems to have that in spades.

In any event, after getting up close looks at potential picks Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh, Aaron Gordon, and Doug McDermott the Lakers will now get to see how Randle performs. And while it will not be in a group setting where they can see how he measures up against his peers, they will still get to run him through some drills and get a better sense of who he is as a person. Whether all that adds up to him being the Lakers pick on June 26th remains to be seen, however.

Fast Break Thoughts

Darius Soriano —  June 11, 2014

Some quick hitting thoughts to get you through your humpday…

  • A very good summary of where the Lakers are at with their coaching search from the always excellent Dave McMenamin can be read here. One section from that piece that caught my eye:

Whether the Lakers really believe they are better off with a more experienced coach or they were merely saving face to avoid it looking like their former player spurned them for the same guy they had spurned in November 2012 (in Jackson) can be debated.

It is certainly better for the Lakers to make a blanket statement and say they aren’t interested in current college coaches or candidates with no head coaching experience in the league than to have the narrative be that a bunch of the guys they had initially targeted — Fisher, Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Southern Methodist’s Larry Brown, former Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Quin Snyder — all chose to be somewhere other than with the Lakers moving forward.

  • Whether it really is spin or not, no one can know for sure. But the longer the Lakers go without a head coach — which is something that doesn’t much concern me, but clearly does others — the longer they will look as though they do not have a plan.
  • On the flip-side of that, however, is the report from Sam Amick that the Lakers’ slow search is related to their hope that they can lure LeBron James in free agency with part of the lure being input on the next coach.
  • Do I find it interesting that a report says the Lakers would, potentially, give a free agent target input on a coaching hire while adamantly saying publicly that they would not give Kobe Bryant input (or, at least that they would not “consult” him)? Yes, yes I do.
  • Whatever the reasons, though, the Lakers haven’t hired a coach yet. Maybe that will come before the draft. Or maybe by the time free agency is in full swing. Who knows, really? They are taking their time and that’s their choice.
  • They are interviewing Byron Scott for a second time, though. If you were wondering, my thoughts on Scott have not really changed. If you like Scott because he’s a former Laker and is buddies with Kobe, that’s totally fine. To me, those just aren’t very good reasons to hire a coach. The things I am looking for in a head coach are a combination of motivational ability and strategic savvy. These traits are what that produce wins. And wins are what gain support (both internal and external) and produce an environment where people seem genuinely happy to play.
  • Want excellent insight on the prospects who worked out for the Lakers last week? ESPN’s Kevin Pelton sat down with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com and has plenty for you.
  • Speaking of the draft, the latest mock drafts from Chad Ford and Draft Express both have the Lakers drafting Julius Randle. The major difference, however, is that in Ford’s mock he has Marcus Smart on the board when the Lakers select Randle. If both Randle and Smart are on the board at the same time, that choice will be quite difficult for the Lakers. Especially since, based off the long-view of free agency targets in the coming off-seasons, the targets would likely be players who can play a lot of PF (specifically Love, but even LeBron and Durant play a lot of PF in “small” lineups and if they ever shake free in free agency the Lakers will target them hard).
  • This is from before the Finals, but it is a guide to who Lakers’ fans should root for in the Finals considering the history of the Spurs’ rivalry and the fact that LeBron is often seen as a chief competitor to Kobe Bryant.
  • Speaking of the Finals, it is definitely basketball played at the highest level and with plenty of stars showing why they are some of the best in the game. But, as with most series, it is the role players who often turn the tide of a single game or even the entire series. In game 3 it was Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green who were huge for the Spurs. And, over the  course of the series, Boris Diaw has been a major factor who is consistently making good things happen for San Antonio. Diaw has been so good, in fact, that it led me to make this comparison on twitter:
  • Anyone who knows me knows how big of a compliment that is.
  • Lastly, good luck to Derek Fisher in New York as the new head coach. I will always have a soft spot for Fisher — he was a fantastic competitor and a key leader for the Lakers over his two tenures with the team. I could go on and on about the big shots he hit and how much his contributions meant to the teams he competed on, but instead I’ll just say that Fisher is a guy who you want in your foxhole with you when it’s time to go out there and get a needed win. The man has character, resolve, and competitive spirit in spades.

While the Finals are set to resume on Sunday, the Lakers are like every other team not named Heat or Spurs and in full on draft preparation. This past week they held their first large workout which included several players projected to be lottery picks as well as some other prospects who could be available late in the first and into the second round.

For a full list of the guys who attended the workout can be found here, the guys who Lakers’ fans should keep a close eye on are:

  • Marcus Smart, PG
  • Aaron Gordon, F
  • Noah Vonleh, PF
  • Gary Harris, SG
  • Zach LaVine, G
  • Doug McDermott, F
  • Tyler Ennis, PG

Smart, Gordon, and Vonleh are projected to go in the top 7 picks in most mock drafts. Smart and Vonleh are also players who have been projected to go to the Lakers in multiple mocks since the draft order was determined (with initial rumors stating that Vonleh is a guy the Lakers are particularly interested in). McDermott, Ennis, Harris, and Lavine are all slated to go anywhere from picks 8 to 20.

And while it’s nice to speculate, this initial group really offers zero hints towards what the Lakers’ draft plans may be. If anything, this group offers a nice composite for the Lakers to simply gauge how the prospects measure up to each other and whether or not any of the middle-tiered prospects (like Ennis, McDermott, and LaVine) may be worth a gamble at 7 or if a potential trade down would net the Lakers a comparable talent and an additional asset on draft day.

That latter point is something that will gain steam as the Lakers get closer to the draft. Because while I’m fully on board with the Lakers sticking at #7 and drafting the best available player, they would be wise to explore all their options and get the most out of this draft as they can. This would be true even if the team’s pick next summer wasn’t slated to go to the Suns if it fell outside the top 5 picks. Even though this draft is thought to go 8 deep with a talent drop-off after that, there always seems to be a prospect who is picked at the tail end of the lottery or into the teens who ends up being a very good player (Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are recent examples of this). In other words, the Lakers could potentially slide down in the draft even further and net themselves a player who develops nicely while netting an additional player or pick that ends up contributing to more wins.

Whether that will be their strategy or not isn’t known, but I wouldn’t put it past them. Especially as they workout players who would be reaches at 7, but would be solid picks in the 10 to 20 range. And including these players in workouts with prospects considered to be better at this point in order to watch them compete and get a better gauge in how they compare only aids in that process.

Much like their coaching search, the Lakers look like they will also cast a wide net when evaluating prospects for the draft. And just like that other search, the more information they can get to make the best decision, the better.