Where are we? How did we get here? And where are going?
The fundamental questions of theology hang over this Lakers season, particularly as the losses mount. The team is in the midst of perhaps their most interesting rebuild, at least that most of us have experienced. Through a perfect storm of disasters, lottery luck, and drafting prowess, the team has gathered a deep and diverse collection of young players, who we now watch find their way through fascinating and usually frustrating games.
This season feels like the critical moment in the rebuild, when we mostly transition from asset gathering to asset evaluation and development. In other words, we likely either have the primary pieces of the next contending era already in place, or we are halfway (gulp) through a vicious cycle back to the beginning.
This year will tell us much about which direction we are heading, which makes the answers to the posed questions all the more important. Those answers will also, I believe, reveal something about whether the front office is capable of leading the team into the future, which is a question that Jeannie apparently isn’t going to let die.
Let’s start at the beginning.
How Did We Get Here?
Most Laker fans, and even NBA “experts” (whatever that means in the twitter age), agree that the Lakers are set up for a promising future. The team has hit, at least to some degree, on three straight lottery picks, and, perhaps more critically, uncovered impact players each year late in the draft. The result is a collection of numerous extremely young, talented players – Ingram, Russell, Randle, Clarkson, Nance, Zubac. The team also appears to have finally found an impact coach/staff that embraces all the advantages of modern NBA thinking.
So how did the team arrive here? Well, honestly, through much tribulation and sorrow. Let’s retrace the principal events:
In 2009 and 2010, the Lakers won the championship, bringing Kobe his 4th and 5th titles. The next season, after winning 57 games, the team was swept in the conference semis, and Phil Jackson resigned. The team mostly stumbled through their first season under Mike Brown, losing again in the conference semis.
But then fortunes appeared to turn in the summer of 2012, when events appeared to conspire in accordance with the Lakers longstanding destiny to get whatever they wanted. They were able to trade a quickly deteriorating Bynum plus picks for Dwight Howard, and then work out a sign and trade of additional picks for Steve Nash. Suddenly, the team entered the 2012-2013 season as the heavy favorite, leading even the great Lee Jenkins to do this:
Of course, Dwight struggled physically, professionally, gastrically, and in every other way, ultimately taking his talents to Houston; D’Antoni replaced Brown; Nash’s body immediately stopped working; and Kobe shredded his Achilles at the end of the season while trying to carry the dysfunctional team into the playoffs. And nothing has been the same since. Kobe suffered injury upon injury, Byron replaced D’Antoni, and the team won 27, 21, and 17 games from 2014 to 2016.
Since the ill-fated summer of Dwight and Nash, the front office has managed to progressively make things worse off the court, compounding those disastrous acquisitions with a series of unfortunate events.
In 2013, with Dwight leaving, the Lakers responded by signing Nick Young, Chris Kaman, and Wesley Johnson, and drafted Ryan Kelly. The team won 27 games the next year, largely through D’Antoni’s coaching magic. Pain.
In 2014, D’Antoni was forced out and replaced by Byron. The Lakers had saved towards their first significant cap room in years (approximately $28M), but chose to flail around unsuccessfully chasing Melo. After that predictably failed, the team quickly used up their cap room to sign Jordan Hill and Ed Davis, assume Jeremy Lin, and make a (winning?) waivers bid on Carlos Boozer. Due to the time spent chasing Melo, the team passed on Kent Bazemore, who had emerged as a young impact contributor on a cheap contract. The team also passed on Isaiah Thomas, who desperately wanted to sign with the team, ultimately signing with Phoenix for 4 years, $27M (perhaps the best non-Steph Curry contract in the league now). In the draft, the team took Randle at #7, and purchased the rights to Jordan Clarkson at #46. The team proceeded to win 21 games in Byron’s first year, a then-franchise low. Suffering.
In 2015, the team again had significant cap room (approximately $25M), and was fortunate to keep the #2 pick in the draft (which would have gone to Philly if later than #5 due to the Nash deal). Instead of learning from the prior summer, the team chased LaMarcus Aldridge, badly and publicly flubbing its pitch, and then used its cap room to acquire Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, and the Catalyst. Due to the time spent chasing Aldridge, the team lost Ed Davis, another young impact player, to a team-friendly contract with Portland. In the draft, they landed Russell at #2, and at Nance #27. The team proceeded to win a franchise worst 17 games. Tribulations and rock bottom.
This last summer, with the salary cap dramatically rising due to the influx of TV money, the team was positioned with approximately $65M in cap room, the most it or any team has ever had. But, after years of embarrassing incompetence, the leading FAs would not even meet with the team, and it settled quickly on Mozgov and Deng at massive salaries to much league-wide mocking, and added Calderon, Tarik Black, and other filler. Walton replaced Scott, much to the fans’ universal relief. The team drafted Ingram #2 and Zubac at #32.
It’s important to really understand that over the course of the prior three off-seasons, the Lakers were armed with over $115M in cap room to make signings, trades, etc. Think about that. Think about how many owners/general managers/coaches would salivate to utilize those resources in the LA market.
And what does the team have to show for using those resources? Lou, Nick Young, a disastrous Mozgov contract, a worrying Deng contract, and nothing else. At this point, it’s not a stretch to assume the Lakers would have to PAY teams to take Mozgov or Deng in a trade. Perhaps a team would trade a late first for Lou (Lakers twitters’ favorite pastime), or perhaps not. Critically, the Lakers do not have a single meaningful long term asset/player as a result of spending $115M+ in salary cap money the last 3 summers.
Indeed, given the costs of moving Mozgov or Deng, the prior 3 FA summers resulted in a NET NEGATIVE asset return. Ie, if trying to trade the remaining players added through free agency, the Lakers would end up having to pay more in picks/assets than would be acquired. Whoops. Instead, that money was burned chasing wholly unrealistic megastars, and is now sitting in the investment accounts of Roy Hibbert, Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, and Mozgov. This is painful, but it is undisputedly true. And it demonstrates some combination of negligent, incompetent, and/or arrogant management of the team.
At the same time, however, all of that mass incompetence resulting in three years of horrific losing, and that losing led to lottery picks. And on this front, it is undisputedly true that the front office drafted brilliantly, and we must give them fair credit for this. Randle would likely go a few picks higher than #7 in the 2014 draft; Russell was a bold, brilliant, and unexpected decision; Ingram was the right call; and Nance, Clarkson, and Zubac will far outperform their draft slots. In 3 straight drafts, the team netted six real NBA players, and perhaps their eventual starting 5 for the future. This is drafting brilliance.
How do we evaluate these moves altogether? It boggles the mind that the same front office that so disastrously and completely botched the FA decisions could at the same time so consistently nail the draft. But running an NBA team is complicated business. And as discussed more fully below, where does that leave me in terms of trusting the front office to maximize this window? Torn, but concerned.
Where Are We?
Despite the free agent stumbles, the team appears to be in tremendous shape for the future, on the strength of the last three drafts and the hope that Luke can make the best of things. Where exactly does that leave us now? It is simply too early to tell, but a few thoughts.
There are real signs that the Lakers have gathered an enormously talented young core. Consider the following:
Russell (age 20)
The first obvious point with Russell is that he’s already producing in a meaningful way, even with the maddening (and recent) inconsistency. His current per 36 stats jump off the page: 19.7 PTS, 5.1 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 2.7 3PM.
In addition, he is near the top of the historic leaderboard in several areas for his age:
- #3 highest PER (15.4) for age 20 & under PG (Irving, Rose, Wall)
- #1 highest 3PM/g (2.0) and 3PM/per36 (2.7) for age 20 & under player
- #4 highest AST/per36 (6.1) and #5 AST% (27.5) for age 20 & under player
- #4 highest USG% (27.2) for age 20 & under player
- #4 highest REB% (7.8) for age 20 & under PG
Russell isn’t a great PG yet, but he’s clearly one of the best PGs for his age ever to play. He may be the single best under 22 PG in the league. And he is already showing the capacity to carry the primary load of an NBA offense for significant stretches, ranking in the top 30 in the league in USG%, ahead of ball dominant stars like Paul George, Durant, Butler, Conley, etc. And he’s able to do something with those possessions – to score from all three levels, make 3s at a historic rate for his age, be a force from the post, increasingly get into the lane and finish, and zip creative passes to finishers in efficient spots (a recent article found that his passes increased teammate shooting efficiency by 6%).
When looking forward, it’s important to remember that Russell won’t BEGIN his prime for 5 years, allowing for an enormous amount of time to grow. This is critical because his weaknesses are largely a matter of approach rather than talent – figuring out when to attack, when to dial it back, when to look for his shot first, how to read complex defenses, team defense, and so forth. The physical attributes plus skills are there, however, and the question is whether he will put in the work to maximize them. At worst, the Lakers should have a solid lead guard who can score 20+ from all over the court and engine the offense for years; at best, they have the next great PG who will take the mantle from Curry/Westbrook/Harden/Paul when they move on. Which side of that line he ends up on could determine how high the team ascends in this era.
Ingram (age 19)
Ingram’s current status is very different from Russell’s. His overall statistics are a mess. He is the second youngest player in the league, younger than a significant number of the players who will be drafted in six months. And yet he’s having sustained impactful stretches on the court and flashing the ability to do things that very, very few players can do and things players of his age probably shouldn’t be able to yet.
While his season statistics are poor by any metric, Ingram has really turned the corner of late. Over the last 8 games, he has averaged 12.4 PTS, 4.1 REB, 2.8 AST, and 1.4 3PM, on 49/48/65% shooting. This is a small sample size, of course, but it shows that he’s starting to string solid games together, which is encouraging given his age. For instance, how many teenagers have averaged 12 PTS, 4 REB, 2 AST, and 1 3PM over a season? None… Luke clearly trusts him to play heavy and critical minutes, and to play a central role on both sides of the ball.
What really grabs me about Ingram is how broad his skill set is for a player of his length. Ingram has a 7’3” wingspan and 9’1.5” standing reach (higher than ANY non-traditional big in the entire league other than perhaps Giannis, who we don’t have measurements for). His reach, for example, is higher than for Durant, Bosh, or Towns. Now consider how Ingram’s skill set projects with a few years of development. It would be surprising, for example, if he did not average 17+ points, 4+ assists, 1.5+ threes, and 1+ blocks in his prime. How many players 6’9” or taller have reached these metrics together at any point in their careers? Just Durant and Cousins.
Taken a step further, and focusing on three core areas, how many players with somewhat comparable length have been able to (1) make plays off the dribble (for themselves and others), (2) shoot from 3, and (3) defend at a high level? It’s a very, very short list – Giannis (being generous on the shooting), Durant, George, perhaps Batum, and Odom? It is just incredibly rare to be that tall and able to handle the ball, shoot, and defend on the perimeter. The league now places a premium on versatility – being able to defend multiple positions on defense, and being able to shoot plus create on offense. Ingram is cut right out of this mold, and appears capable of eventually defending 3-4 positions (including at the rim), making 3s at a high percentage, and creating offense for others. This kind of player is usually a superstar.
Ingram is going to be able to do these things in time, he seems driven to work and understands the game at an intuitive level, and that’s why I value him more highly than any other member of the Lakers young core.
Randle (age 22)
Randle is one of my favorite players to watch, and someone that I really have no idea how to evaluate or project as his profile is so unique. Even with the recent struggles, he’s having an amazing season for a 22 year old second year player, averaging 13.2 PTS, 8.6 REB, 3.9 AST, with a much improved 48.4 FG%.
He’s already one of the most effective rebounders in the league – one of only three players to put up 10+ rebounds per game in his first season since 2000 (KAT, Griffin). His best offensive quality is his ability to handle the ball on the perimeter, drawing interior bigs out to clear the lane for cutters, with an eye for setting up 3 point shooters in transition. He averages more assists for made threes than anyone on the team (2.2), and is averaging 5.0 AST/g over the last 15 games, better than any traditional big except for Green, Cousins, and Jokic. After a disastrous year shooting from the perimeter last year, he’s shown significant improvement from midrange this year, making 50% from 10-19 feet. Yet, he only shoots 53% at the rim (below league average). On defense, he has the physical tools to be effective in covering ground, particularly to stick with guards on the perimeter, but he’s largely a mess, without a fundamental understanding or approach to defensive spacing and team principles.
What will Randle become? What is a 6’9” PF that can handle the ball like a guard, set up 3 point shooters, rebound with anyone, but who struggles to finish inside or defend anyone? I have no idea. But it will be fascinating to watch him work through his weaknesses, and he’s already shown significant improvement from last season to this one. If he can turn into a positive defender—which is a real question and not going to just automatically happen with time—he can certainly become an all star big. If not, he may perpetually disappoint. We’ll see.
Beyond those three, the Lakers have also landed three impact rotation players late in the draft with Nance, Clarkson, and Zubac. All three have shown flashes of the ability to play at a high level.
Clarkson has the physical tools and skill set to score at a high level, particularly against the opponent’s bench guards. He can get to the rim against anyone and is making progress from 3. He does not seem to have a great feel for the floor game, or defensive principles, and that may limit his ultimate role. We all love Nance, who is probably already the team’s best defensive player and someone who understands the nuances of the game at a veteran level. He won’t be a star, but he should be an extremely valuable third big, or spot starter, who can help win playoff games some day. Zubac is my favorite of the three and has the potential to be a solid starting center some day, which would be amazing value for the #32 pick. As we saw against Denver, he has great floor instincts, soft hands/touch, and can rebound and defend the rim. There are likely going to be issues with defending the perimeter, but he can play, and I’m extremely excited to see what he becomes after a few years of development.
Together, these six players provide one of the deeper stables of young players in the league. Credit to Mitch, Jim, and the scouts for hitting on nearly every draft pick. Other than Nance, all of these players need several years to reach their potential, but the team very well may have a couple of all stars, most of the starting five for the future, and six solid rotation players.
Where Are We Going?
Where is this all leading? Given the ages of our core players, we really have no idea at this point, but a few thoughts.
First, if the Lakers commit to the young core and let them become whatever they will become—which is clearly the best course forward—then this team is SEVERAL YEARS away from doing anything serious. History has demonstrated without any real exceptions that veterans win championships. The 2015 Warriors were the youngest team to ever win a title, with Curry 26, Klay and Green 24, and Barnes 22. But even then, they were surrounded by key seasoned veterans – Bogut at 30, Livingston at 29, and finals MVP Iguodala at 31. And, of course, we need to remember how far the Lakers’ core is from even being 24 or 26… Ingram is 19, Russell is 20, and Randle is 22. They are still maturing physically, have miles to go in learning the game, need to develop and maximize their skill sets, and figure out how to blend together in a way that brings out the best in each other. This is not going to happen this year, or next year, or probably the year after. Lakers fans need to be patient and let this simmer. And the front office needs to do the same, which I do not have perfect confidence in given the always tense Buss sibling dynamic.
Second, while it will take a long time for this team to contend (unless a superstar or two decide to join the party), we can still take great joy in the ride if we maintain perspective. There is a tendency to want immediate returns; to blow up and advocate quick fix trades when the team hits rough patches; to second guess the coach’s rotations or decisions; etc, etc. This is part of being a fan.
But if we are patient, we can find real sports joy in watching this team grow together. I have not seen many teams gather so many interesting, unique, uber-talented young players. Seeing a special young player find his way and break out is among the most satisfying things to participate in as a fan, and it is something we have not experienced frequently as Lakers fans given the nature of contending year after year. But some of my most enjoyable memories from the post-Showtime era is watching players like Eddie Jones, Van Exel, and Bynum grow from raw rookies to all stars. And, of course, the greatest experience I’ve had as a fan is seeing Kobe do this on a mind blowing level. It will be a blast to watch each of the young core find themselves and break out.
Third, even if these players all reach their potential, there is no guarantee that the Lakers become a perennially contending team. The league has been flooded with dynamic young stars the last few years, and several other rebuilding teams are situated with budding superstars and deep young cores.
Minnesota has KAT, Wiggins, Lavine, and Dunn. Milwaukee has Giannis, Jabari, and Middleton. Philly has Embiid, Simmons, and possibly two lottery picks coming. Denver has Jokic, Murray, Mudiay, and Harris. Boston gets the next two Brooklyn picks to add to a deep collection of real young players. Phoenix has Booker, Bender, and Chriss. The Jazz are already a playoff team, but their core players are all under 26. And other current powers have stars that aren’t going away anytime soon – GS (Curry and Durant are 28, Green and Klay are 26), OKC (Westbrook is 28, Adams is 23, and Oladipo is 24), Houston (Harden is 27), SAS (Kawhi is 25). Not to mention single-star teams that could figure it out – Cousins, Davis, etc.
In other words, competition is going to be stiff for years, contending is not easy, and it’s no sure thing that the Lakers break through as a title level team even if Russell and Ingram become blue chip stars. But even if this is the case, I am certain that this group, under Walton’s influence, will be worth watching, studying, and caring about. Which is all we can ask as fans.
The final question is whether the front office is up to the task. As already discussed, they should get credit for collecting this young core. I doubt that any other general manager would have come away with the strength of assets the Lakers did from the draft the last three years. But, at the same time, they’ve shown a consistent inability to develop assets from free agency or trades. If the team is going to emerge from the pack at some point, it is critical that every avenue to improve the team be maximized, and I do not have perfect confidence that the current front office are prepared to make that happen. I imagine that Jeannie is smart enough to see all of this, and her moves over the next year will be fascinating.
However it plays out, it won’t be boring.