Welcome to a new series for FB&G for the 2016 off-season. This series will focus on team building and various paths the Lakers have open to them for the upcoming off-season. We will try to cover a variety of scenarios the Lakers could feasibly take and what moves might be involved with that specific approach. Our first installment will focuses on taking a slow and steady approach.
It’s funny how the perception of a team’s potential trajectory can be impacted in such a short amount of time. A month ago, on April 23rd, Byron Scott was still the Lakers’ head coach, Luke Walton was probably stressing out about Steph Curry’s knee injury and thinking about the Dubs losing game 3 to the Rockets, and the Lakers (and their fans) were still sweating about whether the team would keep their top-3 protected lottery pick.
Of course, a month later, things are entirely different and the general perception around the team is that they are a team on a major upswing. They now have a charismatic and young new head coach, they have the 2nd pick in June’s draft and the ability to draft one of two players considered to be in the upper tier of prospects, and still have all that cap space staring at them in the face waiting to be spent on July 1st.
It’s good to be a Lakers fan right now.
It’s best to remember, though, that this process is still starting. While the team is coming off multiple down years and have changed course, patience is still needed.
The Lakers have the ability to reshape their roster and build, essentially, an entirely new team from almost scratch. They only have 6 players under contract heading into July. If you add Jordan Clarkson (who is expected to return, but we will get to that), it would be 7 players. This means they can add up to 8 new players (and maybe more) to the team and several of those will be key members of a revamped rotation.
One way to build up that roster is through an approach which is not only mindful, but driven by the organic development of the team’s young players. A blueprint for such a plan would include:
1). Drafting either Ben Simmons or Brandon Igram and slotting him into a role where he plays 25-30 minutes a night. This wouldn’t mean the newly drafted player would have to be a starter, but he would be put into the rotation and given the rope to succeed and fail while being given encouragement from the coaching staff to develop and grow his game. Be conscientious about using this asset on a player who can be a key part of the team’s future and then invest in him with minutes, an established and consistent role, and the type of support which nurtures his growth.
2). Give the rest of the young players the bulk of the minutes at their respective positions while forming lineups which maximize their time on the floor. What might this look like? Starting D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson in the backcourt. Starting Julius Randle at PF. Playing Nance and/or Randle at Center for stretches to see how that pairing works while attempting to build chemistry between them as a duo. Find minutes for Anthony Brown at either SG or SF so he can get floor time while seeing if he can actually be an NBA level 3-and-D wing. In other words, do a lot of the things Byron Scott seemed hesitant to fully commit to until the final quarter of the season.
3). Save for a couple of exceptions, don’t go big game hunting in FA. Instead chase quality veterans who can play starter level minutes, but who would also be okay with reduced roles while maintaining leadership voices in the locker-room. If you can sign Kevin Durant, you do it. Maybe you even gamble on Hasan Whiteside who plays a position of need and would not be taking minutes from an incumbent. But unless either are willing to sign on, you do not spend wildly on players who might block the development path of players you are already invested in and need minutes to show what they can truly become. Sure, a guy like Harrison Barnes (who is also young) or DeMar DeRozan might be enticing to upgrade the talent base while offering established strengths which the team could really use. But those players might also take away key minutes from Clarkson, Russell, or, potentially, a Brandon Ingram in the process.
4). Back off on public discussions of a “timeline” to compete deep into the playoffs while showing a commitment to the coach and players in place as long term fixtures. Ease off on leaks about trading the young players (or the #2 overall pick). Commit as much as possible to a rhetoric which encourages growth and development of the young pieces on hand, giving the sense that the team is invested in them as the future of the team. While this doesn’t have to resemble a Philly level “trust the process” campaign, the young guys need to be given the rope and be provided an atmosphere which promotes them as the future of the team, not just placeholders until the next great player comes to replace them. You want them to be the next great players, so act like it.
While this sort of “plan” wouldn’t need to be followed exactly, the Lakers could easily plot this type of course and sell it to fans as what is best for the team. Yes, it might be an acknowledgement that winning is not the ultimate priority for the next season (or more), but it would also signal a long term plan which would hope to maximize results over the course of what would hopefully be long careers of several young players.
This type of approach would need buy-in from everyone within the organization and, in turn, would need to be somewhat sold to a fanbase which is hoping for a winner to root for sooner or later. Still, though, if the Lakers trust in their talent evaluation and remain patient in how they use their cap space by not splurging all in one summer, they can still flex their spending power to add to their core in coming summers.
Delaying the FA push might also mean their current youngsters are better equipped to be part of a contending team and come at a time when the crop of free agents has more high profile targets worth the type of max money the exploding cap has made available.
It’s hard to know if the Lakers front office would really take this approach. If they do, it certainly feels as though it would be a fall-back option should their chase of marquee free agents fail. Still, though, there’s an argument to be made that this path could yield the best long term results even though it’s likely to be the hardest to swallow in the short term.